Florence Congregational Church seeks financial help to stay afloat

  • Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn, the pastor of Florence Congregational Church, and Church Moderator Wayne Peereboom stand outside the historic church, built in the 1860s. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn, the pastor of Florence Congregational Church, and Wayne Peereboom, church moderator, say the historic church needs financial help to stay afloat. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rev. Blackburn stands in the Florence Congregational Church sanctuary. The FCC has been looking for a buyer that will enable the church and other community groups to stay in the building, a move that the pandemic has complicated. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/2/2020 2:53:54 PM

Florence in the mid 19th century was a decidedly progressive place, a small and relatively new section of Northampton where abolitionist sentiment ran deep, formerly enslaved people had found homes and jobs, and a core group of people believed in equality in the races and sexes — unusual thinking at that time in America. 

In the late 1850s, a group of citizens in town decided Florence could use its own church, too, and leading the movement were industrialist and abolitionist John Payson Williston and fellow abolitionist Moses Breck, an agent of the Underground Railroad. The Florence Congregational Church (FCC) held its first service in Oct. 1861 in a local school building and then built a permanent home on Pine Street, its members drawn from several denominations.

But today, the white-painted church, just across the street from the statue celebrating famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth, is in trouble.

With its congregation both aging and shrinking in number, the FCC has run into financial problems in recent years, members say, that likely can only be solved by the sale of the building. But the COVID-19 pandemic has already brought one potential deal to an end while also limiting other opportunities for a sale — and in the meantime, the church has begun a fundraising campaign to help meet its basic needs over the next several months.

The financial struggles have been compounded by the isolation congregation members have had to deal with due to the pandemic, says FCC Moderator Wayne Peereboom.

“This is a tough time for all of us,” said Peereboom, who says services have been conducted via Zoom by the Rev. Averill Elizabeth Blackburn over the last several months, ever since COVID-19 forced the the church to shut its doors in March. “I feel especially bad for people who live alone and can’t see [fellow parishioners] at services ... Church is supposed to be about community.”

Though he did not provide specific financial details, Peereboom said the church has been increasingly relying on its basic endowment to pay its bills, as donations have dropped with the decline in membership; he says there are about 100 church members, approximately half of whom are active. The FCC sanctuary, by contrast, can comfortably sit over 200 people, he and Blackburn say. 

“Our building is basically too big for us today,” he said. “And it’s over 150 years old. It’s in very good shape overall, but there’s a lot of upkeep involved.”

But there’s another factor that complicates a potential sale. The church, which covers 8,700 square feet and has multiple rooms, spaces and a large kitchen, is also home to two other organizations: Beit Ahavah, a reform Jewish community that’s been on site for about 20 years, and the Cloverdale Cooperative Preschool. The FCC makes space available as well for meetings by community groups such as Al-Anon (space can also be rented for private functions).

Peereboom and Blackburn say the church wants to limit the sale of the building to a buyer or organization that would observe that kind of community commitment, including providing FCC members a continued place to worship. Last year, Peereboom says, another religious organization — he won’t identify it — offered to buy the building, but the deal failed because it would have forced the FCC and other groups to leave.

A flare of hope

Last summer, however, another possible deal cropped up. Priscilla M. Ross, founder and director of the Florence Community Band and the FCC’s former musical director, learned of the church’s financial struggles. In a recent phone call, Ross said she began talking to others in town about the possibility of forming a nonprofit organization to buy the church, preserve all the groups there, and open the space for artistic performances, cultural events and more study of Florence history.

“I really wanted to create something that would be in the spirit of the town’s history and the church’s history,” said Ross. “I talked to other people and groups, to the church members and the people with Beit Ahavah and the Cloverdale school … We had multiple meetings to discuss different ideas, and the thought was ‘We’re all looking to do the same thing, let’s find a way.’” (Her husband, Robert Ross, former president of the Florence Civic and Business Association, was also involved.)

Last fall and into winter, said Ross, a board of directors began forming, and plans for a capital campaign and articles of incorporation were drawn up; her group also hired a lawyer. Further details for a purchase and sale agreement were in the works, she noted, when the pandemic hit.

Ross, who is executive director of the Cooley Dickinson VNA & Hospice, says she was engrossed for weeks in helping plan and implement procedures for protecting the safety of her staff and patients. When she emerged from that in late spring/early summer, she said, she no longer had the energy to head the nonprofit project, which now faced the added burden of raising money in the middle of a serious economic slowdown.

“I felt to so bad,” Ross said. “So I asked [church members] what else they might need.”

Ross has since drafted a letter — which has been sent to FCC members and others — outlining some of this recent history and asking for help in raising $50,000. That’s what’s needed to help the church make it into next year and hopefully find a suitable buyer, Peereboom says, and ideally prevent “a panic sale,” as Ross puts it.

“We’re not going to close our doors tomorrow,” said Peereboom, adding that the FCC’s board of directors is meeting soon to discuss the possibility of resuming in-person services. “But we need help.”

He notes that the uncertainty comes at a time when the church has recently acted on its progressive traditions: Blackburn, who began working at the FCC late last fall, is its first female pastor.

“I was thrilled to come here,” said Blackburn, who lives in northwest Connecticut and had hoped pre-pandemic to move to the Valley. “I grew up with a full knowledge of the history of Florence, and it’s exciting to be part of that now.”

That said, she added, having to conduct services via Zoom “is a definite challenge. I’m used to seeing faces and making eye contact with people when I’m preaching, and now I’m sitting at home in front of a camera and a computer.”

At least it helps, Peereboom said, that Blackburn is web savvy; she also maintains the FCC website, which includes a blog, “mini-sermons” and other items.

Blackburn, like Peereboom, is hopeful the fundraising campaign can help keep the church going and that an eventual sale of the building can be made that will preserve the FCC and the other community groups using it. “We want this to remain a community resource and a historical landmark,” said Peereboom.

More information on the Florence Congregational Church can be found at fccnorthampton.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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