GREAT BARRINGTON -- Two long-established Episcopal congregations have become one in an effort to continue their South County ministries and eventually build a new church.

St. George's Episcopal Church of Lee and St. James Episcopal Church of Great Barrington have merged, spiritually and financially, to become Grace Church.

The Rev. Frances A. Hill is the church rector, having been St. James' rector for nearly five years and vicar of St. George's for two years.

On Jan. 20, the newly formed 91-member congregation is scheduled to hold its inaugural meeting to elect lay leaders and conduct other church business.

Many young and long-time members of the two former churches have welcomed the "marriage" with open arms.

"I think it's a great [having] a new congregation, a new beginning," said 11-year-old Talia Pott, previously a St. James congregant.

A member of St. George's since birth, Debbie Holmes, 68, said the transition from two parishes to one has gone smoothly.

"Everybody has blended in because we realized the way we were wasn't working," Holmes said.

While the consolidation officially took effect Jan.1, St. James -- the oldest Episcopal church in Western Massachusetts at 250 years-- and St. George's, formed in 1857, have been worshipping and working together for more than two years, in part, out of necessity.

In August 2008, St. James was forced from its house of worship on Main Street due to a collapsed stone wall of the church sanctuary. Church members soon began holding Sunday services at Crissey Farm, a banquet hall on Route 7.

Due to the estimated millions in immediate and future repairs to the 155-year-old blue limestone structure, the congregation sold the building to a nonprofit entity for multi-purpose uses.

Meanwhile, St. George's, with 50 members and dwindling, couldn't afford to maintain its late 1850's stone church and informally joined St. James at Crissey Farm in December 2010. Six months later, the Lee congregation sold its church on Franklin Street to local businessman Michael McManmon, who converted the building into a visual and performing arts center.

The newly formed Episcopal congregation will continue to worship at Crissey Farm and operate out of several other Great Barrington locations until a new church can be built, according to Grace Church officials.

However, bricks and mortar weren't the driving force behind the church consolidation.

"We are mission focused; concerned about people outside our doors," Hill said.

"We have ministries that are far more important then keeping a building heated," added parishioner Louise Robitaille. "But it will be nice to have a permanent address and not operate out of [a post office] box."

Among the Grace Church ministries carried over from St. George's and St. James: Lee Food Pantry, bible study sessions at area retirement homes and Gideon's Garden.

Since 2009, the student-run garden at Taft Farms in Great Barrington has provided fresh produce for the needy in South County, according to its coordinator, Pennie Curry.

"If the kids plant it, care for it, harvest it and deliver the food, they come into contact with people they may have never met before," Curry noted.

As Grace Church seeks out a permanent home, the congregation views its new beginning as an opportunity to reconnect with South County.

"We hope our [consolidation] will draw people to us," said John Cheek.

"And we're looking to have more partners in the community," added Kathy Clausen.

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