Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Local church holds final service

When the lights in the basement of the United Methodist Church were turned out Easter Sunday, and the congregates filed out the door into the brisk spring afternoon, a story in Dixon’s history ended without fanfare.

The oldest congregation in the county seat met for the final time in its 155-year existence, and its members now look toward a future in separate places of worship.

In her home — itself a remnant of a time when the Civil War was still a fresh memory instead of a chapter in a history textbook — Janice Gillespie related some of the history of the church and its members.

At one point speaking past a catch in her throat and tears in her eyes, she recalled some of the connections she and others have formed over the decades. Connections that will slowly fade away like the ink in the old membership book that rests on a table in her living room.
The church, for lack of a better term, simply passed on because of old age.

The building itself has been around almost as many years as the UMC has been established in Dixon. But at 110 years old, it has slowly and inevitably been chipped away by time.

“The front of the building was built about 1906,” said Gillespie, who played the piano for the congregation for over 40 years. “It established the old-fashioned tradition of two entryways, one for men and one for women.”

The bell tower is topped by a dome that she jokingly compared to a Hershey’s Kiss, and is reminiscent of the towers found in western Europe from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Several years ago, the belfry became too unstable to hold the heavy bell it housed.

“We removed the bell so it didn’t fall on somebody,” Gillespie said. The bell now stands on a brick pedestal next to the sidewalk in front of the building.

“When all of this started, we were doing upkeep on the church,” she said. “We were doing repairs. We had just put a roof on the bell tower.”

After the bell tower roof was fixed, eventually a leak started in the basement where a small kitchen and a Sunday school area are housed.

“We couldn’t get it stopped,” Gillespie said. “We did several fundraisers to repave (the drive) and run the blacktop up to the building.”

The work did not solve the problem, and while the congregation looked to new solutions for the problems downstairs, new ones were beginning upstairs.

The cross beams that act as the main supports for the roof began to bow downward. The beams run the length and width of the auditorium and are connected to the walls with turn bolts.

“That’s the same construction, they tell us, that My Old Kentucky Home is built with,” said Gillespie.

Work on the beams initially looked as if the problem could be solved. But the age of the wood may have been its own undoing. When the turn bolts were rotated to make the beams arch upward, something cracked and eventually began to sag again.

The congregates still wanted to save the building, so they called in someone to check the construction and see what could be done.

“This was the Sunday before Christmas a year ago,” Gillespie said. “He said he wouldn’t let anyone in there again, that he would put yellow tape up.”

Finally, a structural engineer came in to study the feasibility of replacing the rook beams.
The cost took the wind out of the congregation’s sails.

“He estimated that to replace one beam would cost between $200,000 and $250,000,” said Gillespie. “And there are four such beams. When you replace one, who knows what you are going to get into.”

If they had just torn down the front part of the building, leaving the back addition of Sunday school rooms and the basement, the cost dropped to $70.000. Tearing everything down would cost $80,000.

Even seeking grants for the historic value of the building through the state historic registry would cost more than the congregation could afford.

When the group contacted the United Methodist conference for Kentucky, the news wasn’t good. There didn’t seem to be enough money to dedicate to the project.

Financing any project on its own was an impossibility for a congregation that has 51 recorded members, but only about 20 faithful attendees. Many of those are of retirement age.

“We just don’t have anyone coming along that would enable us to incur that sort of debt,” Gillespie said.

The final rug that was pulled out from under them was the coming cancellation of the insurance on the building. As of April 7, the structure will no longer be covered for any eventuality.

Because the United Methodist conference holds the deeds for all its buildings, the congregation came to the realization that giving the property to the UMC would be the best option.

“We don’t want (our trustees) to be responsible, so the only way out is to disband,” Gillespie said.

The congregates will begin the process of finding new church homes, and the funds in the bank will be used to pay off the remaining time they owe to their pastor, who leads Dixon and Dixie UMC in Poole. Whatever is left will be used to help in the community.

“We have spent a year and a half trying to come up with solutions for this,” Gillespie explained. “It’s really sad that it’s happening this way.”

The congregation’s building now sits vacant near the center of town. The bell, once rung loudly to call adherents to worship, and silent for years now, has weeds growing up around it.

Inside, where music and laughter once rang off the walls, is a sanctuary cordoned off by the criss-cross of yellow caution tape. An auditorium once so welcoming and vibrant, is now too dangerous to enter, and has been given over to the slow demise the passage of  time brings with it.

But as one story ends, a new one begins. A new church in the Kentucky conference will soon set pen to paper to record its own budding membership. And the materials that now sit unused in Dixon will be taken there to begin that congregation’s first chapter.

And though the group in Dixon has shelved their hymnals, covered the piano keys, and turned the key on the back door, they can laugh through the tears, knowing that the story never truly ends.

photo and story by Morgan Mcinley/J-E Reporter

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