With the rail project, the Vermont
Agency of Transportation wanted to
blast a ledge located just 25 feet from a
corner of the church. The initial timeline
for the work laid out a protracted
schedule of 20-hour construction days,
five days per week. Amidst widespread
community angst that followed the
announcement, McGarry and her
parishioners recognized an opportunity.
The time had come for St. Stephen’s to
serve its neighbors in a radically new way.
Most churches aren’t presented with such an overt hreat to their well-being.
Many may simply experience a gradual
slide. Congregations age, maintenance
costs mount on historic structures, and
interest in religion, especially among
millennials, continues to erode.
Nationally, the number of
Americans who claim no religious
affiliation is on the rise, increasing to 23
percent in 2014 from 16 percent in 2007,
according to the most recent report
by the Pew Research Center. Among
millennials, Pew found that 35 percent
consider themselves atheist, agnostic
or with no religion in particular. And
in Vermont, despite the majestic white
steeples punctuating its towns —
perhaps the most iconic of all Vermont
images — the state is not really churchgoing. A Gallup survey this year ranked
Vermont the “least religious” state in
the country, with only 21 percent of the
people categorized as highly religious.
Vermont has held that ranking for all
but one of the last nine years.
“The general trend is that, especially
in the mainline Protestant churches,
membership is declining,” says Tuomi
Forrest, executive vice president of
Partners for Sacred Places, a national
nonprofit, nonsectarian organization that
helps congregations of all denominations
overcome the challenges of falling
attendance, constrained resources and
the burdens of aging places of worship.
“Somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of
active churches in this country may face
closing in the next decade.”
In Middlebury, parishioners at St. Stephen’s knew there would be no stopping the railroad project.
The two bridges had long been a safety
hazard and needed to be replaced. Still,
there were actions the townspeople
could take to ease the upheaval while
construction was underway.
Through its work with Partners for
Sacred Places, St. Stephen’s realized it
could advocate for protections for its
own building, which is listed on the
National Register of Historic Places,
and also provide the leadership to unify
everyone toward the goal of finding positive ways to ride out the project.
A steering committee was convened
with representatives from a wide
range of stakeholders — business, the
arts, Middlebury College and many
others — and the group decided on a
name for itself: Neighbors, Together.
“This coalition was terribly important
because it galvanized all of the town’s
constituents to say, ‘This project is
going to happen. It’s going to be ugly.
What can we do to make lemonade
out of this lemon?’” says Ken Perine,
retired president of the National Bank
of Middlebury and a participant in
various civic organizations, including
Since the rail project was first
announced, the timeline has gone through
many iterations, and construction scenarios
have changed, but the community
momentum has been established and
Neighbors, Together plans to continue its
work. “I can’t overstate how valuable it was
for the church to lead the way in bringing
us together to have a shared, unified voice,”
says Karen Duguay, marketing director
of the Better Middlebury Partnership.
“The best thing about it is that it’s inclusive,
positive and not representative of any
TOP & MIDDLE The Starline
Rhythm Boys entertain in
Montpelier outside Christ
Episcopal, which turned its
plaza into a public park.
BELOW ”Jesus of the People,”
by Vermont artist Janet
McKenzie. Waitsfield United
Church of Christ displayed
the painting as part of an
art exhibit meant to spark