Committee, town officials stalled in efforts to save historic church

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Tue., Mar. 19, 2013
A committee is working to save the former Voluntown United Methodist Church from further deterioration. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
A committee is working to save the former Voluntown United Methodist Church from further deterioration. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

The vacant 19th-century church building on Main Street now has a committee of interested local residents working to preserve the structure, with the intent of eventually transforming it into a community center. The Voluntown Meetinghouse Society was established at a meeting late in February in an effort to forestall deterioration at the structure, which the town recently received from its private owner in lieu of back taxes.

While the seven-member group, headed by Chairman David Hobbes and Vice-Chair Angela Forrest, has ambitious plans, it is waiting for authorization from the Board of Selectmen to move forward. The selectmen, in turn, are for the moment stymied by some legal issues that First Selectman Ron Millovitsch declined to discuss. “I need something from the lawyers before we can do anything,” he said. “I don’t want people taking any donations yet and then finding out we can’t do [the restoration].”

VMS Treasurer Ty Cool, who also serves on the town’s Economic Development Commission, said that the group hopes to establish a non-profit  organization that would allow it to conduct fund-raising. This would be similar to the Friends of the Library, he said. “Until the town gives us the approval and the authority to do that, there’s really not much we can do,” he said.

Millovitsch said that the town is also waiting to hear the outcome of its application for a $500,000 Main Street improvement grant, much of which would be applied to the former church. “This grant would cover rebuilding and fixing it up,” he said. “We want to make sure everything’s done by the book.”

The structure dates to the 1840s, when it was built as a United Methodist Church. Its layout is unusual in that the church entrance is alongside the pulpit and altar, which some speculate was a ploy to discourage late arrivals. Church services were held in the building until the 1960s, and late in that decade it was sold to the Voluntown Historical Society for $1. The society, in turn, sold it to the Alan McNeely of the McNeely Organ Co. of Waterford, which used the building for storage of pipe organ parts.

Millovitsch said that the structure still houses a good number of organ components, despite a registered letter sent to McNeely late last year, giving him until Christmas to empty the place. He said that he is reluctant to allow anyone from the town to remove the organ parts because of liability issues. “That thing’s not really safe,” he said of the church. Fears of the steeple’s impending collapse led town officials to remove it from the roof before last fall’s destructive windstorms.

“It breaks my heart looking at it. The risk is so great that it’s not going to make it,” said Cool. “On the plus side, I just visualize the thing being fixed up as a monument to our town, a snapshot of town history. So much of that is gone.”

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