HIGHGATE — Several community members hope to raise more than $120,000 in funds to renovate St. John’s Episcopal Church on Route 207 in order to preserve the Early American landmark and increase its utilization in the community.
The St. John’s Episcopal Church Commission, comprised of members from Holy Trinity Church in Swanton and history aficionados, mailed letters out to various organizations last week, inviting them to learn more about the church at an open house this Saturday.
The commission will be opening the doors of the Episcopal Church from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Everyone is invited to enjoy refreshments, listen to music and tour the Highgate landmark.
The public can also see where renovations are needed, including new paint on the ceiling, repairs to the front steps, an updated heating system and a whole new roof.
Joel Whitney, a local craftsman from Enosburg, built the church in 1829 for less than $4,000. The vestry, which is a room where clergy donned their liturgical clothes, was added on to the back of the building a few years later.
Father Rob Spainhour of Holy Trinity Church estimated that 90 percent of the church is original, including the first two rows of pews.
Back in the day, families used to reserve a pew by paying rent. Almost half the size of the other pews in the church, the originals used to have doors attached.
“People would huddle up and close the doors and try to stay warm,” Spainhour said. “Maybe bring a stone that was warm.”
“It would also keep the little ones in,” Mary Hubbard Wood, a member of the St. John’s Commission, said.
“Except that they could crawl under,” Spainhour said, laughing.
Also unique to the church is a pump organ built by Henry Erben of New York in 1836. “The organ traveled from New York City up the Hudson River through the canals, through Champlain,” Wood said.
The Organ Historical Society designated the organ as a landmark of American organ building because of its place as the oldest unaltered organ in Vermont still in its original home.
The organ at Grace Episcopal Church in Sheldon, which will celebrate its 200 anniversary at the end of August, is older. “It does not operate; ours does,” said Spainhour.
A few pipes need to be repaired, costing anywhere from $4,000 upwards, but the organ still plays.
“She plays beautifully,” Spainhour said, pressing on the keys as Wood pumped the bellows in the back in order to provide air to the instrument. This type of organ is a two-person job because without air, there would be no sound.
The chords echoed off the oval ceilings, filling up the entire room. “The acoustics in here are unbelievable,” Wood said.
“The organ is probably one of the most significant things in the state of Vermont,” Spainhour said.
The church also owns a font of Italian marble, communion silver, a lectern and pulpit courtesy of Heman Allen, the nephew of Ethan Allen. The sterling silver communion set currently sits on a shelf at the Highgate Historical Society for safekeeping.
The church was dedicated to St. John the Apostle in 1834. It was a community church until 1896 when the facility was handed over to Holy Trinity Church of Swanton.
Since then, Holy Trinity has used the church as a venue for family services during the summer months and harvest services in the fall. It has also been available to interested community members for art shows, concerts and weddings.
Spainhour said the commission is trying to increase “human flow through the building.”
He said some groups might be able to use it on a Saturday for a worship space.
“We also want to create it as an art center,” Wood said. “So concerts and art shows and community fair kinds of things to bring it back to the community so that the community can see how important it is.”
In order to increase its utilization, the commission said the church needs some immediate repairs, including the organ, the heating system, the ceiling and the few broken glass panels in the windows. All of those are estimated to cost around $10,000 combined.
According to an architectural study conducted by a South Burlington firm in 2012, the church has upwards of $120,000 worth of work to do on the outside. “So you can see why we’re appealing to the community to hit some of the really key things like the roof,” Spainhour said. “She doesn’t leak, but that can’t last forever.”
The commission could get the first $20,000 matched by the state via preservation grants, according to Spainhour.
The commission would also like to increase the St. John’s Vicar’s Fund endowment, which was started by Holy Trinity. It currently holds $11,000 due to fundraisers and donations.
“What we’re trying to do ultimately is make sure she can take care of herself in perpetuity,” Spainhour said. “So by creating an endowment that has investment, then it can produce income.”
For more information about the commission’s fundraising goals and the history of the church, attend the open house this Saturday or contact Fr. Rob Spainhour at 868-7185.