The small stone Episcopal church in the center of Sandy Hook will close this fall. The congregation, which so immediately opened its church doors to neighbors and strangers seeking solace in prayer after the school massacre in December 2012, made the difficult decision earlier this year. The final service at St. John’s, Sandy Hook, will be September 7, 2016.
Bishop Laura J. Ahrens accompanied the parish during its discernment. “I have been honored to share in ministry with the people at St. John's,” she said. “While I’m sad that St. John's will be closing her doors, I know that the discernment process has been prayerful and thoughtful and that this is the most faithful decision the congregation could make at this time. I truly believe God is calling them to share their compassionate hearts with other worshipping communities in the Newtown area.”
Bishop Ahrens will preside and preach at the closing service in September.
A gift of eight years
Eight years ago the Rev. Mark Moore was appointed to serve Sunday-only at St. John’s. The parish had appeared to the bishops and senior staff of that time to be on the verge of closing. Mark had recently retired as rector of a parish to work as a lawyer in a legal aid office and still wanted to stay involved in parish ministry.
He gladly took the appointment, he said, and was pleasantly surprised by what he found.
“In my 30 years in the church, I’ve always heard that you had to have a certain amount of people to be sustainable,” said Mark. “In terms of numbers, St. John’s shouldn’t be sustainable. But people were dedicated and loyal.”
The congregation met three times and developed a plan to expand the parish and become active in the community of Sandy Hook. Mark said that they presented it to diocesan leaders who were sufficiently impressed to revise their concerns, allowing the congregation time to enact the vestry’s plan.
Cheryl Mouthrop, treasurer, said the congregation worked hard on fulfilling the plans.
“We did soul searching, wrote mission statements, and tried different things,” she said.
The congregation was already well-known for its annual Pancake Supper and popular Christmas Eve service. They hosted 12-step groups, welcomed groups to use their kitchen, participated in Sandy Hook events, held bake sales, ran a popular “Donut Drive-Thru,” and started a newsletter. The local Faith Food Pantry operated out of the church, as well.
“Hundreds came every year to the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper,” said Mark. “The food pantry fed hundreds. At Christmas, we were packed.”
An extraordinary witness
In the midst of the efforts to revitalize the congregation, an atrocity took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School right down the hill – 20 children and six teachers gunned down in December 2012.
Without hesitation the parish opened the church building to anyone and everyone.
“I think God had sustained us [for this],” said Mark, “because we played such a role after the shootings.
St. John’s property abuts the elementary school and St. John’s is the only church with “Sandy Hook” in its address. People called from all over the country and around the world to say they were offering their prayers, said Mark. He even put his personal cell phone on the answering machine message so he could be reached as needed.
The massacre was Friday. Mark and the congregation decided to hold a memorial service on Saturday at noon. The road to Sandy Hook was filled with media vans from all over the world; reporters from the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, and other countries were asking for comments. Mark gave permission for television crews to be in church.
“I decided that this is a time that the media that should be present, to report and broadcast to world,” he said.
Hundreds of people from all over sent cards and gifts to St. John’s in the weeks that followed. Parishioners, as few as they were, mailed back thank you cards, with a handwritten note, for every one that they received. The parish remained open for prayer for days afterwards.
“It was a pretty extraordinary witness for a tiny little church that happened to be there at the right time and right place, literally to the world,” said Mark.
A difficult decision
It was indeed extraordinary, but it didn’t change the decline, or the average Sunday attendance. The congregation knew it was a reality to face.
“We were a vital part of the community,” said Ann, “But we didn’t have a sufficient number of people to form a viable working parish. It just wasn’t happening. At a certain point you have to see what’s happening as opposed to what you want to see. Numbers and finances. We decided it was time.”
Bruce Moulthrop, senior warden and Cheryl’s husband, said they’d known for some years that things were coming to this point.
“In December 2015 prior to [Bishop Laura Ahrens’] visitation in January, we decided to tell her then that it was time for the church to close,” said Bruce.
“When she came, we presented the information to her, said we were down to eight families, and we couldn’t sustain financials,” said Bruce.
They’d sold the rectory in 1995, which helped subsidize expenses for a while, but that account was down to $8000. Cheryl, the treasurer, said that it takes $39,000 a year to run the parish. Everyone was already giving as much as they could, she said, but the money wasn’t there.
“We said it was time to close,” said Cheryl.
The congregation held a formal meeting and made the official decision in May.
Since then, they’ve been following the protocol in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT) for closing churches.
“We do everything from an audit of the building and grounds and inventorying the assets to collating archival materials and planning the closing liturgy,” said the Rev. Tim Hodapp, Canon for Mission Collaboration, who helps congregations move through the process.
He is impressed by the graciousness of the people of St. John’s.
“This community is unique among many that have wrestled with the reality of closing,” said Tim. “They have kept their eyes open and in equal measure, opened their hearts to both heartache and joy.”
ECCT Property Manager Dave Desmarais had done two walk-throughs of the property and given some recommendations and advice, and Bruce has gone through historical records and other items in the building.
“I’ve been with the church so long that I know every nook and cranny,” said Bruce. He’s single-handedly gotten most of the church cleaned out, he said, and has a pile to be donated, a pile for the dumpster, and a pile of everything going to the archives or elsewhere in ECCT. A subcommittee that included Ann, Steve Zakur, and JoAnne Hornak helped make decisions about the disposal of certain items.
Faith Food Pantry is exploring relocation options and both Bruce and Ann said that they’ve already helped other groups and businesses using the building to find new homes. They’re in conversation with town leaders and others about the status of an unofficial stone memorial to the victims of the school shooting, which the church accepted as a donation and installed on church property.
“We’re in a holding pattern now,” said Bruce. “The church [itself] is wrapped up, except for services on Sundays.”
Time to move on
Parishioners want to stay part of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut but most haven’t decided what they’ll do next. They might join a nearby Episcopal church as a group, or individuals and families may each make their own decision. Mark is open to a new assignment, as well.
Although the decision to close was clear to the congregation, it came with a sense of loss. Cheryl, for example, dates her history with St. John’s back to its foundation in the 1860s.
“The founding families were cousins of my father and his family,” said Cheryl. She and Bruce were married at St. John’s as were her parents, her sister, and her son. Bruce and Cheryl’s two grandchildren were baptized at St. John’s just this past spring.
History will change for her, as it will for other parishioners.
“Personally, for me,” said Ann, “I’m sad that our experiment for moving forward didn’t work. I feel like we made a valiant effort. And now, it’s time to move on, time to turn the next page.”
When asked, Ann said her best memory will be the people there. “The current parishioners are very kind and very funny,” she said. “That will sustain us.”
A final service will be held Wednesday, September 7, 2016 with Bishop Ahrens presiding.
“As this chapter in the journey of the people of St. John's comes to a close, we remember how their witness to God's love, in times of hurt and deep sorrow, touched all of us as well as others around the world,” said Laura. “As they now turn the page to begin a new chapter, it reveals to the rest of us a story about faithful people of God who are claiming new life. I have no doubt that their faithful journey and their sharing of God's love will continue in new contexts and new communities with faith-filled stories yet to be told.”
The public is invited to attend the celebration of the life of St. John’s, Sandy Hook, which will be held on Wednesday, September 7, 2016 starting at 7:00 p.m. (This is a change from an earlier time due to increased interest.)
Photo credit: Dave Desmarais