Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
MILFORD – It was about 4 a.m. on March 13, 2013.
The 1930 Milford Methodist Church had burned down the night before in a raging fire that was seen for miles, and tearful and forlorn congregation members gathered in Bob and Glenda Moore’s kitchen on East Main Street.
“What are we going to do?” asked Pam Dubreuil, the Moores’ daughter, an aide at Milford Central School. Her dad, the retired town justice, chaired the church’s Board of Trustees.
“We just have to build another church,” said Pastor Sylvia Barrett, who had been with the congregation since 2013.
Two years and three months later, that’s almost been accomplished.
Pending a final building inspection and Certificate of Occupancy, the congregation will soon be worshiping in a modern building, accommodating 95 in the sanctuary (with room in the narthex for another 44), with in-floor radiant heating, wooden beams (non-weight-bearing), and a skylight above the altar.
Tuesday, May 28, the large stained-glass window from behind the old altar in the church that burned, “Christ At Gethsemane,” was installed behind the new altar, flanked by two smaller windows, all brought back to their original glow by Doug Hallberg, the Oneonta stained-glass designer and restorer.
Following the stricture of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, everyone involved describes the interior as “starkly beautiful.”
The Sunday after the fire, March 19, 2017, 200 fellow Methodists from seven congregations joined their Milford colleagues in a service at the Upper Susquehanna Cultural Center, the former Congregational Church down the street.
From the pulpit, the Rev. Everett Bassett, Oneonta District superintendent, asked for a “season of prayer,” as called for by the church’s “Book of Discipline,” its operating manual.
An 11-person task force was formed, chaired by Lola Rathbone, recently retired Catskill Area Hospice executive director, and guided by Proverbs 3:5-6, quoted at the top of this article.
“We weren’t deciding for ourselves,” said Rathbone, rather, asking: “What would God want us to do?”
Bassett also recommended Rankin & Coppley’s “Check Vital Signs” as a way to assess the church’s health.
What is the purpose of building a new church? The task force soon settled on three areas of need: serving young families, serving the elderly population, and serving the poor.
Bassett concurred: A new church should be built. And so did the district’s Committee on Buildings & Renovations, chaired by Joyce Miller of First UM, Oneonta, whom Pastor Sylvia had invited onto the task force.
“I think what helped is we were already growing,” said the pastor, who rebuilt the congregation from a handful of active members when she arrived in 2013. “There were 70 people at church the day of the fire.”
By spring 2017, the first of three whole-congregation conferences was convened, and it approved converting the task force to a building committee to move forward.
A second conference, at mid-summer, voted to buy Milford Manor Farms, which had gone out of business just up Route 28, and also voted to keep the original church site.
By then, Tom Rathbone, Lola’s husband and recently retired as SUNY Oneonta’s assistant vice president/facilities, assumed duties as clerk of the works. (At SUNY, he oversaw $30-40 million in construction a summer. Asked about challenges in this job, he said: In construction, “every day there’s a toothache.”)
The first Sunday in the new worship space, Pastor Sylvia surprised the congregation: The main stained-glass window, “Christ at Gethsemane,” had been repaired and was on a stand at the front of the room.
In the fall of 2017, RFPs were sent to 10 architects. In late November, Jim Hundt, a partner in Foresight Architect, Schenectady, was chosen. Lola Rathbone called him “a spiritual man: He was called to build churches.” He was experienced, and had written a book on the topic.
The third conference, in spring 2018, approved Hundt’s plan and the budget. “We decided to build,” said the pastor, “but” – using insurance money, fundraising and part of the church’s endowment – “not to go into debt.”
All approvals – by the building committee, the district committee and the whole congregation – were unanimous. “It solidified our faith,” said the pastor.
The contractor, Eastman Associates of Oneonta, broke ground in July 2018. In addition to his local reputation, Rick Eastman had just completed extensive renovations to Oneonta’s St. Mary’s Catholic, and was working on a Walton church that burned.
Pending further fundraising, paving of the driveway and parking lot is on hold. Also pending is a kitchen upgrade, and a “memorial park” on the former church’s site, perhaps designed around the bell removed from the former church tower.
During construction, church life hasn’t been on hold. Men’s Fellowship breakfasts were begun, and an evening counterpart for women. Bible study is underway, as are a monthly senior meal social, and second weekly service – “the Wednesday Gathering.”
An organized choir sings every Sunday. And when Ron Johnson of Cooperstown joined as music director, he alerted church members to Oneonta’s Lord’s Table, providing meals to the needy, and a team volunteers one Monday a month.
“People can see a new momentum, and they want to be part of it,” said Pastor Sylvia. Added Lola, “Members who were members are more active members.”
It is a busy place.
During the three-way interview Sunday, May 26, Anthony and Emily Welsh, comprising the IT committee, were installing two 82-inch monitors, one on each side of the altar, assisted by Ron Johson.
Marion Mossman, assisted by a couple of youngsters, was testing the acoustics.
When a photographer stopped by the day before, David Mead and Bill Trioli, also building committee members, were building shelves for the foot pantry. A low roar of chatter and laughter was coming from the soon-to-be social hall, where a baby shower was underway.
Above the altar, above the skylight is a lantern, where a light will burn 24-hours a day.
“We want that lantern lit all the time,” said Lola. Young members of the congregation will grow up with it, passing it at all hours.
“All through your life,” she’s telling them, “that light will mean something to you. The light will remind you that God loves you.”