LITCHFIELD — For several houses of worship in the Litchfield Hills, it has become a struggle of faith to continue, and some have been forced to close and sell their church buildings, find a new church to attend, or search for a radical new approach.
The United Methodist Church of Litchfield was originally established in 1837 on Meadow Street and then moved to West Street, facing the Litchfield Green, in 1920. Their former building became St. Paul’s Masonic Lodge No. 11. When the dwindling congregation could no longer support their building, whose tower features Masonic symbols, they were welcomed by the Masonic Lodge to hold their services since the two entities shared a serendipitous connection of beliefs, symbols, and buildings.
Phil Birkett, past Master and Secretary of the Lodge for 10 years, said the group not only voted unanimously to accommodate the Methodists, but are currently updating two rooms for the use of both groups. The larger space will be used for social gatherings and meetings and the small and outdated kitchen has already received a $6,000 commercial size electric stove for its upgrade. Both areas have new flooring and cheerful freshly painted walls. Birkett noted “There are about 25 Methodists that are joining us and they are thrilled to ‘return home.’ They do not pay for the use of our Lodge and we are happy to have them here.” He added “In a nod to our history, we added a hollowed-out space in the new large closet and a time capsule of Masonic artifacts from the1800s and 1900s will be kept there.”
In 2011, next to the popular diner Blue Sky Foods on Main Street in the Pine Meadow section of New Hartford (now closed), members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church filled a small building with clothing and food that was meant to benefit those most in need. This early beginning of Hands of Grace received support from the church members and beyond, and quickly outgrew the 950-square-foot space. Their current location in an industrial building on Wickett Street in Pine Meadow offers 2,700-square-feet and director the Rev. Kevin Mongeau began his mission in earnest. There are a row of new coolers and refrigerators against one wall, many racks of donated clothing for men, women and children and, as in the original space, a private room where clients can be counseled and offered prayers.
Mongeau said “We have referrals from Susan B. Anthony — women who have left an abusive situation in the middle of the night, holding a child with one hand and a small bag of belongings in the other. We also have referrals from 19 different zip codes including from social services, doctors, and mental health organizations. We are grateful for the local support to fill our racks and coolers, especially from Food Rescue and Bantam Bread, who are not local.”
In addition to managing Hands of Grace, for the past four years Mongeau has been the pastor for a group of about 10 people, offering them a Saturday Lutheran service inside the Morris Congregational Church. The group cannot afford a full-time pastor, nor are there enough pastors to fill the need, he said.
Undeniably the most “radical new approach” can be attributed to the iconic and most photographed building on the Litchfield Green, whose roots are nearly 300 years old.
The original wooden meetinghouse now known as the First Congregational Church of Litchfield dates to 1723, providing public worship and a place for town meetings and community gatherings.
When the Congregational Church made the Rabbi Peter Oliveira, a Messianic Jew (and Christian) their 28th pastor, they also welcomed, and added to their outdoor billboard, his group Mishkahn Nachamu which had been renting space in the church for their Saturday afternoon celebrations. Rabbi Peter explained, “Mishkahn Nachamu means Tabernacle of Comfort. The congregation is so named because of the scripture Isaiah 40:1 that reads ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your G-d.’ It’s a place where all are welcome and comforted “
Rabbi Peter, as he prefers to be called, produces regular podcasts and has a Facebook page for Mishkahn Nachamu. He shared, “I focus on the connection of the Old Testament with the revelation of Jesus, both at the Sunday service and the Saturday celebration.” Congregational Church Deacon Al Messer said, “To become a living and continuing congregation, we realized we had to be a changing congregation.” He said the great majority of church members welcomed the change and only a small group noted that it was somewhat of a shock that would require getting used to.
Rabbi Peter’s journey to the Connecticut church was fraught with a near capsizing of his 45-foot, three-masted sailing ship that he and his family had lived in and journeyed to Haiti. He had a mission in Haiti to foster a very successful orphanage and to teach native Haitians how to grow corn to feed themselves. This brought to mind the message of scripture in the Old Testament about the misfortunes of the Israelites.
At a recent celebration, the Rabbi began by standing in front of the group with a traditional appeal to be mindful of the scripture “The first and greatest commandment is ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and the second is like it — ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The celebration then became a fluid, free-form event with dancing in the aisles, raising hands in prayer, a three-year-old boy happily zoomed by in ecstatic joy around the gathering, and a trio of musicians who had free rein in playing whatever musical selections they felt were appropriate.