By Karin Hamilton
The Episcopal Church in Connecticut’s (ECCT) Property Manager Dave Desmarais retired January 5, 2018. Dave served more than three decades first as a property consultant, and later employee, for ECCT.
At a “retirement” noontime pizza party Jan. 3 at The Commons in Meriden, Bishop Diocesan Ian T. Douglas offered his thanks to Dave not just for Dave’s considerable project management and construction skills, but for approaching his work as his ministry.
“You’ve been such an incredible gift for the church,” said Bishop Douglas. “Your faithfulness and your effectiveness are equal parts of your ministry,” he continued. “It’s not just your skills at property management that sets you apart; it’s also your love of Jesus.”
One way his ministry was notable was in the care he gave to all the property, whether a roof, nave, font, stained glass window, box of records, jumble of choir robes, drawer of altar linens – or cremains of former parishioners. That last one happened more than once.
Dave's work as Property Manager included doing property assessments at active parishes – perhaps because the parish was requesting a loan for a repair or an enhancement to a building, or was seeking an encumbrance or alienation of the property. Dave also worked on property directly owned by the Missionary Society, which includes closed churches.
When a parish closes, the property reverts back to the Missionary Society (unless other arrangements are made in advance in accordance to canons and protocols). Dave helped prepare the property to be listed on the real estate market, or for its new owner. Things got more complicated when the church that closed had a memorial garden – a sacred resting place for the cremated remains (cremains) of former parishioners.
In a recent interview, Dave recalled an assignment at a closed church whose memorial garden had the cremains scattered in a designated plot (as it’s supposed to be done). Dave arranged to get a sampling of all of the soil in that plot to completely fill a cement vault, then had all the names inscribed on the vault’s cover. Next, he arranged to have the vault buried in a plot in a nearby cemetery. He also arranged for a headstone, also inscribed with all the names.
Another time, Dave was asked to help move an outdoor columbarium, as the new owner didn’t want to maintain it. The columbarium had compartments for box-shaped urns holding cremains. Dave worked closely with a priest whose church had a historic connection to the church that had closed. They arranged to buy a plot in a cemetery close to the connected church, and kept the sealed urns in a closet while Dave spent 18 months trying to track down every family to let them know what was happening. Not everyone was pleased about the church closing and the move, but they were grateful for the respect and concern. A reinterment ceremony for those cremains began with a worship service in the connected church, followed by a procession across the street to the cemetery, and another time of prayer. Dave helped place the urns into the vault. A headstone listed all the names. Following the ceremony the connected church hosted a reception, which Dave attended. Families came from all over the state, and one man even came up from Florida, for the event.
More recently Dave helped find a new home for the Rock of Angels memorial to the children and adults who were killed at Sandy Hook. It had been on a hill at St. John’s Church property in Sandy Hook, overlooking the school. The church voted to close and the several-ton granite memorial needed to move, as neither the town nor other town organizations nor the potential buyers of the church building wanted the ongoing responsibility for its care. Through his ECCT connections Dave had learned about, and later worked with, Shepard Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center in Bristol. They offered to serve as a new home for the memorial. Dave oversaw its move out of Sandy Hook and installation on land at the Center in Bristol.
Yet another project that will be forever associated with Dave is the move in 2014 of bishops and ECCT staff from Diocesan House on Asylum Ave in Hartford to The Commons on Pratt Street in Meriden. The three-story mansion in the West End of Hartford had been the official ECCT headquarters since it had been donated by its owner in 1952. The desire to leave the mansion as well as the need for a more central location in Connecticut; universal accessibility; ample and free parking; open, flexible, and collaborative meeting and work space; and up-to date plumbing and wiring helped drive the decision to move. Dave recalled that they filled at least eight 30-yard dumpsters preparing to move out of Hartford. He also recalls spending hours toiling with Bishop Douglas in Meriden to get the position of the new desks at The Commons just right.
Decades of service
ECCT Archivist Meg Smith traced Dave’s official diocesan work back to a report he submitted in 1981. It was a written assessment he’d made of each of the buildings on the Camp Washington property. At that time he was employed as the Deputy Fire Chief of West Hartford, even though he’d graduated from Central Connecticut State College with a degree in earth science, thinking he’d be a geologist, and had then completed a stint in the Navy. He was married to his high school sweetheart, Diane; they had three children; and both were active and involved in their home parish of St. John’s, Bristol.
Dave’s role as a regular consultant began after a fire ravaged St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford in 1992. Then-diocesan administrator Jack Spaeth, III and the bishop at the time – the late Rt. Rev. Arthur Walmsley – called Dave the next day to ask if he’d let them see the inside of the devastated building. Dave said ok and personally led an extended tour, though he made them both wear fire boots and protective coats.
After Dave retired from the West Hartford Fire Department in 2000, Jack began to call on him for assistance with property-related projects here and there. Back at his home parish, Dave served as clerk of the works when they decided to build a new sanctuary. In 2011 when the Rev. Audrey Scanlan (now bishop diocesan of Central Pennsylvania) started working for ECCT as Canon for Mission Collaboration & Congregational Life, the phone calls came more often, Dave recalled. Not long afterwards, Bishop Ian T. Douglas offered Dave a position on the ECCT staff and desk space at The Commons. Canon for Mission Finance & Operations Louis Fuertes has since then been Dave’s supervisor.
Don Dupont was hired in December 2017 to fill the Property Manager position. Dave worked with Don through the first week in January to help with the transition, teaching him about the job and the properties, and sharing ideas for distributing or donating an ever-changing inventory of church-related furnishings.
Episcopal ministry a family tradition
Dave may have approached his work as ministry because of the legacy of his family, which was steeped in the traditions and practice of The Episcopal Church. Dave’s parents, Camille (Cam) and Marjorie, were both deaf. They each lost their hearing to spinal meningitis just as they were entering their teen years. The two met at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
After two years they decided to get married and move to Marjorie’s hometown of Mobile, Alabama. They attended and were active in an Episcopal church for the deaf there. Dave recalls that when he was eight years old, his father sat the family down to explain that he was going to pursue his call to the ministry. They moved to the D.C. area so that Cam could attend Virginia Theological Seminary. At the same time, Marjorie earned a degree in library science. When their hope to return to Mobile didn’t work out, they turned to Connecticut, where Cam had graduated from the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.
Cam was ordained an Episcopal priest in Connecticut in 1966 by then-Bishop Henry Gray. Dave recalls that his father would make a circuit every Sunday to serve at deaf congregations: He’d start at St. James’, New London in their chapel, head to St. Luke’s, Darien for a 2 p.m. service, then finish at his home church of St. John’s, West Hartford, to lead a service that started at 7 p.m.
Dave had two sisters, one of whom was also ordained to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church -- the Rev. Marianne Stuart. In fact, in 2013 she started live-streaming the worship service from her church, St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf in Birmingham, Alabama, for deaf congregations without clergy fluent in sign language. Among those using the service was St. Paul’s Mission for the Deaf at St. John’s, West Hartford.
Plans for the future
Dave has modest plans for his future – and at 64, no plans for a third career. His beloved wife Diane died several years ago of cancer. He also lost a sister, Catherine, not long ago, also to cancer. His parents are now gone. These kinds of losses can change people’s perspectives, and Dave said it’s slowed him down to appreciate life more. Fortunately for Dave he was able to meet another woman, Judy, also widowed, also a faithful Episcopalian, and they have married.
Dave and Diane had three children, and now Dave has grandchildren in Connecticut and in North Carolina to visit as well. He sold his long-time home in Bristol to one son and bought another house, also in Connecticut, with Judy. He plans to join the board of Shepard Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center again. And he’s going to build a barn on his new property, following his passion for woodworking.
For some years Dave’s been part of Northford Timber Framers, a group of about 70 who builds barns by hand for free, over the course of several days. They build the old-fashioned way, without nails or iron. “Mortise and tenon and pegs,” said Dave, describing elements of the wood joints. The homeowner buys the materials, feeds and cares for the crew, and is responsible for providing the barn with a foundation, electricity, roofing shingles, and windows. Instead of paying for the builders’ labor the homeowner makes a significant donation that the Timber Framers then give away to one or more families or causes in need in the area. So far Dave’s helped build about 15 barns.
As Dave leaves his ECCT position in Don Dupont’s capable hands, he says what he’s liked best about the job has been the people. “I’ve loved meeting the people in the churches,” he said. “I like that opportunity to meet, to help them get through whatever it is they’re trying to get through, to accomplish something together.” And these days, he said, it’s important to know the church is not the building. “There may be wonderful memories there, but don’t lock yourself into the building,” he said.
Sage advice, coming from a property manager, considering all he must have seen over the years.
Godspeed, Dave. Thank you.