Grace Church History

Grace Church at 225

by Lincoln Fenn, Grace Church Historian, written in 2013

The story of Grace Church begins in 1788 with the founding of a congregation by a small varied group of early settlers in Rutland’s East Parish. They built a meeting house sanctuary. To them, a religious core was as important as a civic one. They wanted trained ministers to teach and interpret the Bible. Two more church buildings followed at thirty-year intervals responding to the rise in membership and the rapid growth of the Rutland community. Our present sanctuary was built in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. It was one of the largest such structures in the state and it has served as a permanent home of the Rutland congregation.

Determined that the Word of God must be available to all, the East Parish Congregational Church was organized on October 5, 1788 with thirty-seven members. The original church edifice was a simple two-story pine building located near North Main and North Streets. The original church structure became too small and a second one was dedicated in 1821 at the corner of North Main Street and Aiken Place. The population shift dictated a church be built nearer Merchants Row to accommodate our many worshippers. The present church building was dedicated June 14, 1860.

1860s – 1950s

A second period was the time between the end of the Civil War and the end of the second World War. Rutland grew into a large manufacturing city built because of the railroad and marble industries. A huge immigration from Ireland, Canada, and Eastern Europe changed the social and religious composition of the area. Our Church became the dominant Protestant denomination. Family life was centered on the church. A very large Sunday School was organized accommodating, at one point, upwards of 575 children! The music ministry became very important as did mission work here and abroad.

In the summer of 1874, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions met at Grace Church where a young man from Japan stood to make an impassioned plea to raise the funds necessary for him to return to Japan to begin a school to train Christian missionaries. Joseph Hardy (Niijima) Nishima stood his ground until the grand sum of $5,000 dollars was raised to send Mr. Nishima back to Japan! The Doshisha University stands as one of the most significant universities in all of Japan today with close to 30,000 students in annual attendance.

Also during this time, Grace Church became the spiritual home to many of Vermont’s hierarchy – governors, statesmen, senators, representatives, business leaders, industry leaders and the like. The interior of the sanctuary was modified and modernized in the 1890’s with the organ and choir loft relocated but no new structural work was done. The role of women in church life was always important. Equal voting rights on church matters were granted and women became Deacons.

1960s – present

The third period in the story began in the 1960’s with the Reverend Donald Morgan. He arrived in a time of great turmoil to lead Grace Church into a new place of strength. He led with great passion and gave profound sermons. He was followed by the most influential 25-year ministry of the Reverend David Dean. David’s influence was wide and as tall as his stature as he assumed the role of Chaplain to the City. His influence is still felt around the community today.

David Dean was followed by Reverend Bob Curry and Reverend John Weatherhogg, our current minister. Especially important in recent years has been the contributions of our Associate Ministers, the Reverends Mark and Amy Pitton and our current Associate, the Reverend Tracy Fye Weatherhogg. The music ministries of Alan Walker, Kevin Davis, and Rip Jackson have created a remarkable legacy in the life of Grace Church.

In this modern era, the many committees have guided and directed church life, especially the Church Council, Jubilee Justice, and Mission and Service committees. A really large proportion of church members take an active role in running the church. Ministers direct and coordinate this work. This is no longer a “City Church,” as members come from all over the greater Rutland County region to worship here. The Church has endeavored to welcome all, especially in voting itself an “Open and Affirming” congregation in 2005, shortly after Reverend Weatherhogg arrived. It continues to take stands on many controversial national issues of great matters of justice for all as a way of proclaiming God’s love beyond our walls.

Sanctuary and Church Renovations (1890s)

In 1890, the Church Fathers, representing the opinion of many parishioners, felt the need to have the interior redesigned. The project would also mean a general redecorating throughout, including the Chapel, then located beyond the Sanctuary above the main floor. By April 1891, the substantial sum of $10,000 had been pledged and reconstruction was about to begin.

All during the summer and fall of 1891, the Sanctuary was in disarray. Every clear glass window was replaced with leaded stained glass windows designed by George Bennett of Manchester, Vermont. The gas chandelier was replaced by electric lights. Front and rear balconies were built, which provided a sloping loft in the front big enough to accommodate a thirty-six voice choir. Close calculations were required to match the existing décor of the side balconies to bring them into perfect alignment behind the new pulpit bench.

About mid-summer of 1891, the Chapel roof was being completely rebuilt, as the church parlor, the dining room, kitchen and rest rooms were being redecorated. A new heating system was installed to replace the wood burning space heaters. The one ninety foot high steeple, swaying dangerously in high winds, with anchors at the base loose and shifting, demanded immediate attention. Before bracing timbers could be passed up through the base of the steeple, the entire organ, which occupied the big room behind the present Memorial Window had to be dismantled pipe by pipe and moved out of the way, together with its bellows, wind chests, and beautiful organ case. The original builders of the organ, E.G. Hook of Worcester, MA, sent a qualified crew to Rutland by train to handle this major relocation of the organ.

During the steeple repair, many workmen were simultaneously finishing the front and rear balconies, wiring the church for electricity, installing radiators, plumbing and furnaces for the heating system, preparing the organ chamber behind the choir loft and installing the stained glass windows. When the dirt and dust had been cleaned from the Sanctuary, several thousand organ pipes were cleaned and tuned to perfect pitch.

As Christmas approached in 1891, final details were taken care of: the placement of the newly built Bible stand, the new pulpit, the flower stands, the pulpit benches, the Baptismal font and new carpets. The eight-month renovation of the Sanctuary and Chapel was completed in December of 1891 at a total cost of $13, 600, with only $2000 remaining debt.

Going Forward

Churches everywhere face an uncertain future. Grace is led by a talented staff, with a dynamic music ministry, strong mission goals and remains determined to maintain a sound physical structure. The church family has a large and faithful committed core of members. This remains our greatest strength.