WATERFORD — It is said when God closes a door He opens a window.
In this case pieces of lead glass windows – salvaged from the embers of the 1837 First Congregational Church in Waterford Flats after it burned to the ground in 1928 –now grace the church’s Christmas tree in the form of ornaments.
The 180-year-old embossed leaded glass was donated by a church member who held the precious treasure, that had been rescued from the ruins by her father in the days following the fire, in a box.
On the box was the inscription, “Keep this always.”
During the Sunday morning service on December 3, and after several months of delicate work, ornaments fashioned from the remains of the old lead glass windows were hung on the Waterford Congregational Church’s annual Christmas tree, marking what parishioner Sally Holm called, “a beautiful, powerful combination of the new and the old.”
“The old glass was a gift to the church from Agnes Bancroft Lahti and her daughter Janet Lahti Truman,” explained Holm, who told the wonderful Christmas story in a recent email to the Advertiser Democrat.
“Fragments of the windows from the ruins of the old church were rescued by Agnes’s father, Moxie Bancroft, in the days after the conflagration that also destroyed the community house next door.
“Agnes Bancroft was a 9-year-old schoolgirl, attending a 4-H meeting with her friends the day the fire broke out. They ran up the hillside and sat and watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Later, Moxie gave the box of glass to his daughter with these instructions: ‘Keep this always.’ And she did,” said Holm.
The fire destroyed the iconic 1837 church designed by Nathan Nutting and built in Waterford Flat on Plummer Hill Road, just down the hill from the original meeting house that was eventually torn down in 1843.
When the 1837 church burned in 1928, it was was rebuilt soon after and to almost the exact original plan – a Colonial Revival one-and-one-half story with tower, frame with clapboard exterior. Noted Portland architects John Calvin Stevens and John Howard Stevens designed the 1928 church. The adjacent Wilkins House was built at the same time.
The church is part of the 27-building Waterford Historic District, designated as an National Register Historic District by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Parks Service in April of 1980.
Holm said that almost 90 years after the construction of the new church and as Agnes was about to celebrate her 100th birthday, Janet Truman asked if the church might have any interest in the old glass pieces.
The answer was a resounding, “Yes!” said Holm.
With the box of the precious glass in hand, the church then had to decide what to do with it.
“It was decided that some of it should be incorporated into a stained glass representation of the original church from which the glass had come,” said Holm. “Local water colorist Nancy Engdahl took them to a glass artist, Jane Croteau of Naples, and they roughed out a design.
The Church Activity Committee determined that the finished hanging should be presented to the church on Agnes Lahti’s very important birthday. So, they developed an oral history of the 217-year- old church with members of the congregation taking speaking roles of long-dead leaders of the church that came from old sermons, letters, and historical records.
Holm said that on Nov. 8, the pews were packed with a full worship service to celebrate Lahti’s birthday and hear her tell the story of the fire and the precious glass. Ironically, it was also a celebration of the dedication of the church’s new energy-efficient church windows, paid for through a summer fundraising campaign after the nearly 100-year-old ones began to fail.
“At the end of the service, the stained glass work of art was hung in one of the large windows, and then everyone went next door to the Wilkins House to celebrate with birthday cake and singing,” recall Holm.
“But the story was not about to end,” continued Holm. “The hanging had used only a fraction of the glass. What to do with the rest of it? Joy Plate was one of the women involved in the planning. One night at dinner with her son, Bob, and his wife and some friends, the question was raised.
“Bob said quite nonchalantly, ‘Why don’t you make the rest of it into Christmas tree ornaments?’
“And so it came to be that four women in the church, only one of whom had much glass work in her past, created more than 100 pieces – Christmas trees and replicas of the Revere Bell that hangs in the church belfry – to deck trees at home and in the church,” continued Holm.
The project was started in late June after several of the women took a glass- working course to prepare for the delicate work. By late October they were done.
“The work was painstaking, and challenging,” Holm said. “The glass was thick, the designs difficult for the novice artisans. Each ornament took 25 to 30 hours to complete. The glass needed to be cut, ground, washed, and sanded. In order for the solder to adhere, metal foil was wrapped around the edges before soldering. Wire loops for hanging were attached, colored glass added for decoration, and each was cleaned and polished.”
The ornaments were boxed with a brief history enclosed and offered for sale at $20 each, Holm said. “They sold briskly, all 101 of them!”
Proceeds will be donated to enhance the sanctuary of the church.
“The Waterford women who made it possible all called the experience gratifying.” said Holm. “The obvious joy was preserving pieces of the old church for posterity.”
Ginny Raymond told Holm that her mother had witnessed the fire with her friend Agnes Lahti as a child, and that working with the glass had brought her “closer to both my mother and the Waterford community.”
Engdahl said that it was particularly meaningful to her as she loved combining art and charity work, and after losing her husband last year she was eager to fill her time with ways of giving back to the church.
Joy Plate loved the fellowship of creating the ornaments with other church members. Gail Nixon, a relative newcomer to Waterford, found it “a wonderful way to develop relationships with people from the community.”
Holm said all four women said that they found the willingness of people to work long and selflessly very impressive.
“It was,” Plate told Holm, “a beautiful illustration of the church’s unofficial motto, ‘The Little Church with the Big Heart.’”