Restoration of Historic Killingworth Congregational Church Marks 200-Year Church-State Divide

KILLINGWORTH — The dome ceiling of the Congregational church is 200-year-old plaster. 

From inside the sanctuary, the only sign of concern is a water stain near the base of a wall where the plaster has started to crack. 

It’s not a superficial issue. 

After climbing a narrow staircase into the steeple, the keys – the plaster that oozes between cracks in the wooden structure, keeping the rest of the plaster in place – have broken off. That’s what needs to be secured, said Charlie Smith, co-chair of the Killingworth Congregational Church’s fundraising committee. 

“If a piece of the plaster falls, and we’re having services in here, somebody’s going to get hurt,” Smith said.

The interior of the steeple, crossed by cobwebs and wooden beams, shows the ongoing maintenance needed to keep the 1820 building sound. Steel beams were installed to reinforce the steeple after Hurricane Bob damaged wooden supports in 1988, said Smith. The wooden lathe that serves as the foundation of the dome plaster ceiling is held up by a combination of the original, wooden supports and newer metal cables.

The Connecticut General Assembly split Killingworth into two ecclesiastical societies in 1735 – now the towns of Clinton and Killingworth. The current church along Route 81 was the third meetinghouse for the Congregational Church of Killingworth, and it has been by far the most enduring. 

The present meetinghouse was raised in 1817 and finished in 1820 at a cost of over $5,000, partly funded by a special tax, according to a history compiled by church member Thomas Lentz. 

In the intervening years during the construction, the 1818 Constitution of Connecticut ended the Congregational Church’s position as the established church, limiting tax levies to pay for construction to members of the congregation, apart from those of dissenting faiths.

Restoration  

On May 31, the church commemorated the 200th anniversary of its building from a distance, postponing the planned celebration, but not the ongoing campaign to restore the 1820 structure.

The plaster ceiling is just one step of the restoration. The belfry, atop the tall, white-painted steeple that stands out in a clearing on the wooded hill is most exposed to the weather, said Smith

The paint on the balustrade railing has been stripped and weathered, and a few of the 20-pound, wooden balusters have broken off and pose a safety concern perched high above the front entrance of the church.

The belfry alone is a huge undertaking expected to cost $96,000. After the belfry the plan is to restore the weathered facade and stabilize the plaster and lath dome ceiling – another $150,000 of work.

Historic church buildings are expensive to maintain, explained Jane Montanaro, executive director of the state-chartered nonprofit Preservation Connecticut. Many congregations are dwindling in size and working with limited resources. Religious communities can be reluctant to spend money on maintenance when there is a ministry and there are community services to provide.

A quick search of property listings shows at least six church buildings for sale in Connecticut, said Montanaro. One is an 1891 building that housed Central Baptist Church in Norwich, which closed its doors on May 31 and combined with First Congregational Church.

Montanaro said she’s concerned that churches won’t know about the resources they have available to maintain the buildings.

Restoration funding

Preservation Connecticut has awarded $1.12 million in grants to over 100 religious organizations since the nonprofit began its grant programs in 2003, according to Montanaro. 

Those grants can be used to assess the condition of steeples, the capital needs for buildings and for preservation plans. These assessments help support fundraising and can lead to more grants to help a restoration get done.

The State Historic Preservation Office offers larger grants that must be matched one-to-one. Those state grants help cover the “hard” construction costs of a preservation project.

According to Preservation Connecticut, for every $1 the nonprofit provides to religious organizations, the recipients have invested another $25 into the properties from fundraising and grants. 

After the Killingworth church completed a preliminary assessment, it secured a $47,700 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office and raised nearly $180,000 from donations and fundraising events like picnics and concerts.

Erin Fink, an architectural preservationist at the state preservation office, explained that these state funds provided for religious structures can only be used to restore historic buildings, not any religious icons like stained glass windows. The buildings also have to be in active use by a group providing services to the community, she said.

Between 2005 and 2019, the state agency awarded more than $2 million in Community Investment Act grants for 68 projects to preserve religious structures – mainly churches and a few synagogues. The grants ranged in size from $4,000 to $200,000.

These state grants were funded by a $40 fee, levied in 2005 by the Connecticut General Assembly on real estate transactions, to fund open space, farmland preservation, historic preservation and affordable housing. Since 2005, the Community Investment Act has provided $149 million in grants, including $30 million for historic preservation through the state preservation office, Preservation Connecticut and Connecticut Main Street, $40.8 million for open space through the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, $14.8 million in agricultural viability grants and $63.7 million for affordable housing projects. 


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