Interviewed by Caela Collins feat. The Rev. George Roberts, Rector of St. James, Farmington
What does it mean to be a church that has lasted 150 years and is continuing to last, through so many different changes throughout time? and What is unique to your parish that you feel has aided in being able to have such longevity?
- There is a real weight and I mean that in the very best sense. A weight to responsibility maybe is privilege to be living into the reality of what started in 1873 October of that year, and that the life of this community that has grown, expanded, ebbed, and flowed over 150 years, holding that responsibility in 2023. To me it is a real privilege and blessing.
- What has helped us endure for all those years is, and I think, is probably true for any church that’s been around for a really long time is our people themselves. They are incredibly spirit filled and dedicated people who have in various ways channeled the hope, the expectancy, the love of Jesus through the generations of this church. Through the extension of hospitality, primarily to be in the place where we stand still, are a vibrant community that is a real period of energy and growth.
Can you tell me about the history of St. James?
- We had at one time in this church, four generations of the founding family or one of them, of the parish, The Mason family. Henry Hall Mason and his father, Charles Mason, were the primary architects and builders of the initial church sanctuary, which is still our worship space. Charles was an immigrant from England, who came to the Farmington valley in the 1850s, I think, and he and his son have built this church from native stone and lumber mainly from this mountain. They hauled it with a horse and cart to this site, and did a lot of the work themselves with of course with other people.
- When I first arrived, Henry Mason’s grandson, another Henry, was an aging member of this parish, and his son, Henry, who we call “Skip,” is a member of our choir, an active member of our church, a member of the vestry. He came on this year, partly to help us usher in this 150th. Henry’s daughter, Anne Marie is a member of this parish, and his grandchildren were both baptized in this parish during my time here, and so there is still a living, active legacy of the father and son who built and helped begin this worshiping community 150 years ago, and started the construction of this church in 1898. And so, we’ve been in this physical space for 125 years this year.
How would you describe the Spiritual Atmosphere of St. James?
- There’s all this legacy and you can feel it, really, when you go into the worship space. There are these echoes of nurturing, and welcome and invitation and love, that really permeates the fibers of the pews and the walls of the church and the altar, which was installed in 1910 by Henry Mason, who built it, and it was dedicated in that year. So there are all these really wonderful reminders of a distant past, but it’s not so distant that we don’t still feel connected to it.
- What we are trying to do to honor that legacy of Eucharistic and congregational blessing is to continue that history and legacy of welcome. Everyone really who comes to me, and has decided to join St. James over the last 10 or 11 years, they just feel welcome here. They felt like this was home for them spiritually, and they were seeking, they were looking, and they found a home here because they felt that blessing of welcome here. It’s a really welcoming church physically and spiritually. That’s a legacy that was established long before I came here. It’s one that we want to continue to honor by the way that we conduct ourselves and the way that we open ourselves up to the people who come to us.
Can you just tell me a little bit about the welcoming energy of your church? Like if you had to put it into words, what aspects about your church, make it both physically and spiritually welcoming?
- Physically, it feels like a welcoming place, which I know is hard to describe. But I came here from serving as an associate at a large, brand new worship space in Columbia, South Carolina, and kind of pristine, stained glass filled church that was beautiful acoustically, and just a physically beautiful church. I quickly discovered that this very simple New England style Episcopal Church just had a physical warmth that you feel when you come into the worship space. All the dark wood, and the carved very simple, detail to the lectern, and the pulpit, and the altar, and all of it has a very kind of homey sort of feel to it, a personal feel. So is there is that welcome that you feel from the physical space when you come into it. I believe we’ve worked really hard over the years, and certainly, since I came here, to be a church of noticing, so we notice people and sayings; so when people come into our space, we kind of gravitate toward them. I’d like to think in the best possible sense not overwhelming them, but noticing that they’re they that they’re here.
Let’s dive deeper into a culture of “Noticing” Can you explore that in more detail?
- This isn’t just me, it’s from the ushers to the people in the pews, noticing that someone is new, noticing that someone is seeking, and coming to that person and talking to them. The same is true for lemonade on the lawn in the summer or coffee hour during the program year. That not having people come in and just kind of be feeling disconnected and wandering around but really noticing that they’re here and connecting with them in what I believe is a warm and inviting way, channeling the Spirit of Christ’s Welcome to people as they come through our doors.
- When I had the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with them in person, they’ve all mentioned how welcome they feel here, how invited and blessed they feel here; not in some kind of a generic sense, but they really feel a real spiritual, Christ centered connection. Feeling really connected to that open welcome that I think Jesus intends for all of us to experience in our worship communities.
Outside of the immediate Episcopal community how do you/ or do you connect with your local community, the neighborhood that the parish resides in?
- Yes, we are in kind of a village, a primarily residential area and we’re surrounded by the boarding school, Miss Porter’s school, that is the girl school that’s right down the street from us, and has existed since before we did. We have a real what for us, and I think for them, too, is a really important connection. When COVID Initially came about, they asked us if we maybe had some space that they might be able to use, they were just trying to spread out, more social distancing, etc. So we invited them to use our parish hall during the week for classes. They were live streaming the class via video to the girls who were learning from home who had decided not to come back to campus, at least at that time.
- We’ve had lots of connective energy, like that we had this past year, for the whole year, we’ve had Porter’s, intern; they have an intern program for juniors and seniors, where they can do real work in the community and learn something. One of the girls in the fall and two of them in the spring, working on specific projects related to our 150th. There was a girl in the fall, who designed our logo for the 150th in conjunction with our 150th committee. Then we had two girls in the spring that worked with me and created a video that is now on our main page. Really wonderful, kind of professional looking video, where they interviewed members of the parish about what they loved about St. James.
- We’ve talked about doing like a Women’s Summit that would be hosted here, but essentially run by Porter’s that would do empowerment seminars for young women. And we always have a faculty member or two from Porter’s that are part of our community who’ve worked on those kinds of projects in the past.
- I am the chaplain for the fire department fire houses. We have some church members from the Fire and Rescue Service in Farmington. We have cooperatively done first aid treatment days, CPR classes, we’re going to do another one of those in the fall that we host here but are actually done by members of the first responder community in Farmington.
- The elementary school across the street, we’ve done some volunteering as story readers, etc. there and they have participated in our Thanksgiving basket collection that we do for the town of Farmington at Thanksgiving every year. Usually a kindergarten class will bring over one basket worth of stuff, and they’ll pull it over with a little wagon, and the whole class will come over and pull it over here.
- We’re also involved heavily involved in New Britain with the Friendship Service Center, which is a full service. Homeless and substance abuse Center that provides residential treatment, residential housing, job counseling and coaching and then segue into apartments.
In regards to community engagement you’ve mentioned embracing failure through trial and error: Do you have any advice for other parishes who have had a failure, and trying to reorganize or create something new?
- Yeah, I think that there has to be lay buy in, a group of people in your congregation, meeting with the leadership of any entity that you want to, in an area where you think you might want to exert some energy, and seeing what they need and asking them what they need, and how they envision a partnership working. So we got involved in the beginning in the area where they felt they had the greatest need, and as we got more involved, we realized there were other needs that they had as they were growing and expanding and we tried to be flexible and meet those needs, while at the same time continuing to come back to our community and saying, is this meeting our needs? And it’s okay to say okay, we believe this is part of our mission and ministry. And this is an area where we want to exert energy in. It’s also exploring what are the organizations that are doing this kind of work, and being willing if an organization no longer we feel is it is meeting that need that we have to exert energy. It’s being willing to pull back regroup, and say, Okay, do we need to explore other organizations and areas, that might be a better fit for this ministry?
- Communication is tremendously important; and when it’s absent or lacking, it makes it hard to do the things that we need to do. So, openness, communication, being true to your mission, and being willing to reevaluate, I think those are the primary things that has been successful for us just in this one particular instance. But I think in all of the other things we’re involved in as well.