For the first time since their making, the 130-year-old stained glass windows on the oldest church in Waterbury are getting restored as part of a project to maintain the historic building that has stood since 1824.
Driving by the “light on the hill,” as Pastor Peter Plagge calls it, one wouldn’t think that this is the same building that was built almost 200 years ago. With its clean look and intricate designs on its stained glass windows, the Waterbury Congregational Church, the United Church of Christ – originally named the White Meeting House – is still standing strong.
In recent weeks, work has taken place to give the historic landmark a facelift including exterior painting and landscaping.
As church pastor for 21 years, Plagge has presided over all aspects of the church’s operations from renovations to celebrations to most recently mastering remote worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, he is overseeing something that has never been done before to the church.
In 1890, the flowerlike, mosaic-designed stained glass windows were installed and have only been slightly repaired since to keep them intact. They have never been fully restored. Sections of the windows stand out with different shades of colors and visible glue streaks, making clear where repairs have taken place.
The restoration process is tedious and very labor-intensive, according to Kathy Chapman, an artist from Corinth who is working on the windows. Restoration means all the pieces are saved and repaired. If a piece is beyond repair – and Chapman points out that 100-year-old glass is hard to come by – there is an exact copy designed to maintain the window’s integrity. Once the window is finished and installed, it is good for another 100 years or so. Luckily, Chapman has some friends with a nice collection of old glass, so for some of the pieces that can’t be repaired, she is able to find replacements to recycle.
Plagge said the windows have been a priority to address and when a contractor came in January to have a look they said the restoration should be done sooner rather than later. At a cost of $15,000 a window and with 10 windows, it was not cheap. Chapman said she tries to keep the cost as low as possible because she recognizes the financial burden, yet it is painstaking and time-consuming to do properly.
The effort also involves other contractors. “One of the windows had a rotten rail, so I hired a carpenter to replace the rail and reassemble the frame,” Chapman said. She also hires helpers to remove and transport the heavy windows.
A gift of $150,000 from the Lena and Nathaniel Gage Family Fund is making the restoration project possible. The charitable trust is part of the Gage Family Trust, which encompasses multiple different family estates that trace their roots in America back to the early 17th century. The first Nathaniel Gage in the New World was recorded as “signatory to the covenant at the first Church in Boston, underneath Captain Winthrop on August 27, 1630,” Plagge explained. John Winthrop was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
However, there are six generations between the Nathaniel Gage of 1630 and the Nathaniel Gage of the trust that has made the generous donation to the Waterbury church. Three hundred years after the founding of the Boston church, descendant Nathaniel Gage and his wife Lena moved to Waterbury with their children in the 1930s. They have family ties in the area still as their children began marrying sons and daughters of Waterbury, Plagge explained.
So far, restoration on one of the 10 windows has been finished and the window installed. As every piece of glass is handled about seven or eight times through cleaning, repairing, assembling, and cementing, the process for one window takes about three months or so. Chapman said she is unsure how long it will take to do all of the windows since she is the only one who does the detailed work, but oftentimes it can take several years, she said.
Fresh paint and moreIn addition to the window restoration, the Congregational Church recently has undergone a complete exterior painting job. After a building renovation in the early 2000s – which included the addition that contains Plagge’s office and a repainting – Plagge and five or six others took on the task themselves of repainting the church three or four times since, tackling a different side each time every summer for the next 10 years.
“That’s a lot of work, especially the side where the sun just beats on it all day long. So, we finally decided to put aside money every year into a paint fund and just have the paint company come out once every 10 years or so,” Plagge said.
The recent painting was done by Russwood Decorating Inc. from Williston. The company this summer also painted the Waterbury Train Station.
In addition to supporting those in need, church fundraisers contribute to the painting fund. In October, the church will hold a tag sale – its first fundraiser since COVID-19 happened. Its plans for a chili contest and supper were canceled in 2020.
Along with the windows and the painting, the church property is getting the front landscaping updated with old overgrown shrubs removed as well as new signage that recently arrived. Moretown carpenter Bill Doenges has donated the sign.
“We hope by next spring we’ll be done with all that work for at least another decade for painting and hopefully not much more outdoor building type work,” Plagge said.
Plagge sees the upkeep of the church symbolically. If it is standing strong, so is the town, he said.
“People in this community can combine this sort of knowledge of the work we do in town with the beauty of the building and sort of put two and two together and say, ‘Hmmm, maybe that is a place where no matter who I am or where I’ve come from, I’m welcome here,’” Plagge said.
Megan Schneider is a senior at St. Michael’s College working with Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.