Tuesday April 3, 2012

LEE -- Members of the First Congregational Church are on a mission to preserve the historic landmark and expand its use as a performing arts venue.

The church's Historic Pres ervation Committee has begun a $150,000 capital campaign to repaint the nearly 155-year old structure's exterior. It hasn't been painted in nearly 20 years, according to committee chairman Garth Story.

The money raised will also be used to complete repairs to the bell tower section of the iconic steeple that was refurbished three years ago at a cost of $150,000. The unexpected steeple work was necessary to save the spire, which is considered the town's unofficial logo and a beacon for motorists as they depart Exit 2 of the Mass achusetts Turnpike.

The exterior of the 155-year-old Congregational Church in Lee hasn’t been painted in nearly 20 years.
The exterior of the 155-year-old Congregational Church in Lee hasn’t been painted in nearly 20 years. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

The steeple project drained most of the funds from a previous capital campaign and that delayed the much needed paint job. Story says the church has hired a local paint contractor to scrape off the loose paint, prime the wood and give it two coats of fresh, white paint. He expects the project will be finished in July, weather permitting.

Church officials say the current capital campaign started with $30,000 in the bank: $20,000 remaining from the campaign of five years ago and $10,000 from the sale of church property on Orchard Street. An additional $15,000 has already been collected or pledged, which leaves $105,000 to raise.

The 120-member congregation is confident they will reach their goal through future church-sponsored special events and a town-wide mailing in search of donations.

"A lot of people are supportive of the church which has plenty of community uses," Story said.

He cited several non-church groups who regularly meet in the parish hall where weekly Wednesday community suppers also take place. The church also stages concerts and provides the land that is used for the town park adjacent to Town Hall on Main Street.

Committee member Ellen Krupka expects Lee residents will support the capital campaign because they understand the church's aesthetic importance to the downtown.

"People are always asking me, ‘When are you going to paint the church,'" Krupka said.

Maddy Tremblay pointed out the integral part the Protestant congregation played in Lee's incorporation as a town in 1777.

"You couldn't have a town, if you didn't have a church," Tremblay said. "It was a mandate from the state."

The original church, built in 1800, was a meeting house. It was replaced by a more traditional structure that was destroyed by fire in January 1857. More than a year later, the third and present church was completed.

The First Congregational Church was once the center of town activity, a place where the annual town meetings took place. Now, the church aims to enhance its role in Lee's downtown revitalization. The congregants have formed a group separate from the church, called Berkshire Gateway Preservation Inc. The soon-to-be nonprofit organization plans to promote the house of worship as a year-round performing arts facility.

"We may become a key site in the winter because many performers don't have a place to play after the summer season," Story said.

Berkshire Gateway Preser vation is currently collaborating with the Lee Com munity Development Corp. to stage the inaugural Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend on Sept. 14-16. CDC Executive Director Richard Vin ette said the First Con gregational Church will be at the heart of the three-day event that will include other Lee venues.

"I expect the weekend will be a good draw," Vinette said. "Jazz fans go everywhere to listen to a concert."

He noted the church is an ideal location for musical performances as it is known for great acoustics. In 1994, world-re nowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma used the church to make a recording of a piece composed for the cello by Johann Sebastian Bach.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.