New Milford church restoring ceiling to its '1833 beauty'

NEW MILFORD — Work has officially begun to repair to the roof of First Congregational Church of New Milford.

Parishioners have long awaited the construction, following several years of fundraising and the placement of a temporary steel structure to secure the roof.

Work began earlier this month and is expected to be completed in about 10 weeks, according to Doris Papp, a member of the church’s communication committee.

The roof has been supported by a temporary steel structure since 2013. A new structural beam must be inserted into the ceiling above the temporary structure.

“It’s exciting,” Papp said of the work in progress. She said she has never seen the sanctuary without the steel beams because her family joined the church in January 2013, shortly after the beams were put in place.

“The building has been maintained in a safe fashion since the temporary structure was put in place, but the historical look and feel of the sanctuary” has been obstructed, said John Wittmann, church trustee and chairman of the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee’s construction subcommittee.

“Restoring it to its 1833 beauty is something we really want to do,” he said.

While repairs are being made now — all of the stained glass windows, the organ, pews and pulpit are covered and protected — services are being livestreamed from the church’s Taylor Room.

In-person worship services have been temporarily suspended since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Wittman said $625,000 was raised for the project, which includes repairing the failing ceiling beam, restoring the building’s structural integrity and removing the temporary steel supports inside the historic meetinghouse.

Of that total, a $100,000 grant was received from the State Historic Preservation Office.

Several trusses will be repaired, a new truss will be installed and the beams are going to be steel reinforced, Wittmann said, with work being done in the attic.

Problems discovered

Problems with the roof began in the winter of 2010-11 when repeated heavy snowfalls blanketed the region.

A dip in the sanctuary’s ceiling was discovered in the fall of 2012 while changing lightbulbs in the chandeliers.

The discovery forced the closure of the sanctuary in October of that year, and a structural engineer was hired to assess and make temporary repairs to support beams until funds could be raised to completely repair the roof.

The sanctuary was reopened in early spring 2013. Services had been temporarily moved to the church’s parish house while the roof was secured.

The church’s Meetinghouse Restoration Committee first began in 2013 to oversee all aspects of restoration. The financial arm of that committee blossomed into the Raise the Roof Committee, which spearheaded fundraising for several years.

In late October 2017, the church stepped up its fundraising efforts.

At that time, church historian Ross Detweiler launched a GoFundMe page, and a special mailer about the campaign was distributed in the community with the hopes of drawing more support from townspeople.

“This church really is and has had an historical impact (on the community),” Papp said, adding the church has been in the forefront of many community initiatives throughout its history.

“It’s hard to imagine that green without that church,” she said. “And even though we’re under construction and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re resilient. We’re still providing services and working behind the scenes.”

Once the majority of funds were raised, the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee reformed and took over the project again, Wittmann said.

The church, which marked its 300th anniversary in 2016, is also thinking ahead to phase two of restoration work, which includes steeple and exterior painting. The cost of those projects is not part of the roof campaign.

Additionally, the church is working with St. John’s Episcopal Church on a garden that supports the Community Culinary School of Northwest Connecticut that operates at St. John’s.

“It’s amazing,” Papp said of the church’s collaboration. “There are different members who go each day of the week to do weeding, watering and other tasks. And the culinary school has access to go into (the garden) and harvest. ... Anything they can’t use, we give to the food bank.”