‘It’s a God thing’: Once shuttered and condemned, Shutesbury Community Church shines anew after years of upgrades 

  • Mark Ellis, pastor at Shutesbury Community Church, talks about the recent renovations and addition of a lift making the church handicapped accessible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Ellis, pastor at Shutesbury Community Church, talks about the recent renovations and addition of a lift making the church handicapped accessible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pastor Mark Ellis and Musical Director Veronica Richter at Shutesbury Community Church, talking about the recent renovations and addition of a lift making the church handicapped accessible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Veronica Richter, musical director at Shutesbury Community Church, pushes the button for the new lift making the church handicapped accessible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Shutesbury Community Church has undergone recent renovations and an added a lift to make the church handicapped accessible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Shutesbury Community Church STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/30/2023 2:18:05 PM

SHUTESBURY — A member of the Shutesbury Community Church for 30 years, Chris Footit is relieved to be back participating in and attending services, something he can do after a three-stop lift recently was installed at the 1827 meetinghouse on the town green.

“Only recently, as my disability has increased and my mobility has decreased, have I not been able to climb the steep stairs safely,” Footit said. “I was not able to attend throughout last summer into the autumn.”

With the building fully handicapped accessible for the first time, all members of the congregation and visitors are ensured they can more easily get to the second floor’s classic 19th century-styled sanctuary.

Pastor Mark E. Ellis said each Sunday, with services at 9:30 a.m., three or four people depend on the lift, a fact of life in his ministry. “It’s an aging congregation, no question,” Ellis said.

The lift is to be dedicated during a ribbon-cutting and dedication service on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the 6 Town Common Road church. Tours of the building will run from 2 to 4 p.m., and refreshments will be served. 

During the service, in the second-floor sanctuary, John Hicks Mackenzie, an Orange resident and pastor of Mission Grace Church of Lancaster, will speak. Mackenzie, paralyzed at 17 in 2006 when injured in an automobile accident, has preached at the church a number of times, but always in the first floor hall.

Besides the lift installation, parishioners are celebrating the painting work that was done throughout the interior, including the walls, floors and ceilings, and the exterior. That was completed through the inmate worker program offered by the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. Aside from the steeple and peaks, every aspect of the building has gotten a fresh coat of paint.

Saturday’s event marks the latest in a comeback story for a church that was shuttered for a few years in the early 2000s, after dwindling to just two parishioners, and had its building condemned after the church closed for a time in 2006. Now, with about 30 members, the church is serving people from Shutesbury, as well as South Hadley, Westminster, Ware, New Salem and Athol, where Ellis lives.

“It’s a God thing,” Ellis said. “People come here because he leads them to where they need to be.”

The three-stop exterior lift was installed by 101 Mobility of Marlboro at a cost of about $70,000. The congregation had originally looked at an interior lift for $34,000 more.

Veronica Richter, clerk and worship arts director, said the idea of improving accessibility came more than 10 years ago. “The effort to get a lift in has been a little more than a decade in the making,” Richter said.

The church. the only one in Shutesbury, is affiliated with the American Baptists. It is also closely tied to the history of the town, where four member churches nearly 200 years ago planned to be joined with the town in creating the worship space, though the town backed out when the state Legislature adopted separation of church and state legislation. In 1911, it became the federated church of Shutesbury and merged with a Congregational denomination. The church remained in its home when the other church building was struck by lightning and burned down. Ellis said that remnants of that church, including papers singed in the fire, continue to be held by his church.

On the first floor is the multi-purpose hall used for fellowship gatherings and Christian education programs and a nursery, but for several years also served as a sanctuary because of difficulties some parishioners and visitors had climbing the stairs. Items from the church’s history, including portraits of 19th century deacons, a top hat and cane worn in an 1854 wedding by the deacons’ son, and an early 20th century Estey organ manufactured in Brattleboro, Vermont, are on display throughout the building.

Richter recalls that a small community prayer group that met in members’ homes began an effort to reopen the church. “People started to meet and there got to be more people,” Richter said.

Those people then gathered volunteers to do repairs to the building and called Mark Lawrence of Chicopee, now pastor of Stony Brook Community Church in South Hadley, to serve as interim minister. In 2009, a summer-long effort by more than 100 volunteers, including members of With His Hands Ministry from South Hadley’s Second Baptist Church, successfully restored the building’s interior, first removing windows, Richter said. Worship services resumed on site that Nov. 1.

Despite its small size, major projects have been accomplished including in 2012 when the steeple and roof were reinforced, adding a new copper dome on the steeple, and repair and painting to the exterior of the building. A $70,000 capital fund drive in the community achieved that.

Four years later, under the leadership of interim Pastor Joe Green, now at Second Baptist Church in South Hadley, the church’s dilapidated 1884 parsonage on Leverett Road was restored, with help from many volunteers. Some of those were a mission crew of construction workers from several churches in North Carolina and an $18,000 donation from those churches. That gave the congregation the means to gut the house’s interior and prepare it for restoration. In 2020, though, with that project incomplete due to limited resources, the congregation sold the house and put the proceeds toward the cost of the new lift.

The congregation is now undertaking a new fundraising campaign to paint the church steeple and the peaks. The cost of the work has been estimated at $10,000. It is accepting donations to Shutesbury Community Church, P.O. Box 679, Shutesbury, 01072. Longer term, Ellis said he would like to make the bathrooms fully accessible.

Still, having the lift makes the weekly services more convenient and welcoming, and means more events can be held. For instance, Ellis said Police Chief Kristin Burgess is being invited to talk about scams, and anyone can participate in the event.

“We can comfortably now say that everyone can come,” Ellis said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
Sign up for our free email updates
Daily Hampshire Gazette Headlines
Daily Hampshire Gazette Contests & Promotions
Daily Hampshire Gazette Evening Top Reads
Daily Hampshire Gazette Breaking News
Daily Hampshire Gazette Obits
Daily Hampshire Gazette Sports
Daily Hampshire Gazette PM Updates
Daily Hampshire Gazette Weekly Top Stories
Valley Advocate Newsletter
Daily Hampshire Gazette Dining & Entertainment


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

23 Service Center Road
Northampton, MA 01060


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy