Lacking funds, members, Pelham church closing; final service Sunday

Last modified: Wednesday, July 03, 2013

PELHAM — Dwindling membership and a lack of funds are prompting the 173-year-old United Church of Christ in Pelham to close its doors with a final service Sunday.

The service, which will feature talks by past ministers, begins at 10 a.m. followed by a luncheon in the church basement.

With just 36 active members — 10 to 15 attending weekly services — only $17,445 was raised through collections last year toward the $55,200 annual budget, according to the church’s annual report. By the end of the fiscal year, the church spent $55,791 — 1.07 percent over budget. The difference between collections and spending was drawn from church investments, church officials said. With the investment money running out, the church council, board of trustees and board of deacons decided to close the church at 142 Amherst Road.

The Rev. Virginia “Ginger” Bove, of Worcester, who served as the church’s pastor until February, will return to lead the final service. Bove left when it was apparent the church would close. Guest ministers from local churches have been leading the Sunday services since. The guest ministers also have been invited to speak at the final service.

Despite its difficulties, Bove, who was the minister for six years, describes the church as “spiritually healthy,” recalling how the members would offer each other rides to the church and visit sick members after services. And while they were closely knit, members have always been welcoming to newcomers, Bove said.

“It’s rare. I thought of it as a little jewel,” Bove said. “It was worth the drive every Sunday.”

The church — the only one in Pelham — was built by Methodists in 1840, according to a church history written by former pastor the Rev. James Smith of Amherst. The Federated Church of Pelham formed in 1936 when four local churches joined together, and in 1959 reorganized again as the United Church of Pelham, which belongs to the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC), the history states.

In the 1930s the church had a Bible school with about 75 students, and a choir with more than 25 members, said Alice Campbell, a longtime member of the church. Attendance would get so high that the pastor requested that the custodian ring a bell to signal when there were 100 people at Sunday services, she added. In the 1970s and ’80s, the church had an active women’s guild with 30 members.

But membership has been declining over the past two decades, church officials said. By January of this year, it was down to 36, with just two to five children attending the Sunday school.

Treasurer Margaret Carney, who joined the church around 1990, said she has noticed a decrease in the number of young people joining the church within the last few years. Carney, who lives in Amherst, said one of the problems might be the church’s location in a small town; residents may be choosing to attend church in one of the larger towns instead, she said. Church Council chairman Larry Kellogg of Hadley, who has also been the moderator of the church for about four years, noted that the church is less visible because it is not situated on a town common like in some other New England communities.

“We’re tucked away,” Kellogg said. “Maybe in the 1800s, it was a hopping little corner.”

Kellogg said the church building will be put up for sale following the final service. The hope is that it will be purchased by another congregation, he said.

Rev. Sherril Willis, guest minister and former Sunday school teacher at the church, said what is happening to the Pelham church seems to be the norm within the UCC. As the population ages, fewer people are attending, she said.

“They’re spiritual, but they’re not into formal religion anymore,” she said. Willis, who lives in South Deerfield and is a teacher at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst, will be among the speakers at the final service on June 30.

When she preached in the Pelham church, Willis said, she tried to prepare the members for a closing. She explained how joining a new church can be an opportunity for further unity within the UCC.

“We need to come together as one,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to think of who we are and want to be in the future. … We can go through the grieving process, but it doesn’t have to be a negative thing.”

To RSVP to the luncheon, contact Barbara Frost, financial secretary of the church, at 413-253-3792.


This story has been corrected from its original version to reflect that Alice Campbell is a longtime member of the church.


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