By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Welcoming all people is a message that the First Congregational Church (FCC) of Bristol hopes to send through its latest capital campaign project.
Since the campaign began on May 17, church members and friends have pledged more than $833,635 to the FCC’s “United in Ministry” campaign. The campaign is getting closer to its goal of $925,000, which will be used to make the church fully accessible to people with all abilities.
“It’s really exciting,” said Senior Minister, the Rev. Kristen Kleiman. “People shared their time and were very committed.”
The capital campaign serves as the first one in 40 years. Campaign funds will be used to renovate the church’s sanctuary, auditorium, classrooms, Lena F. Barnes Memorial Chapel, and dining room, to ensure that people with all abilities have easier access. Through United in Ministry, the church will install a five-stop elevator, a ramp, two new entrances, handicapped bathrooms and other improvements. The church hopes the project will break ground next spring.
Kleiman said the campaign has been a four-year journey. During the FCC’s annual meeting in 2012, the congregation decided that a Facilities Renovation and Design Team (FReD) should be formed to help determine how the building supported or hindered the church’s five spirit ministries. FReD met throughout that same year, and determined that the church’s ministry of welcome and hospitality was hindered by its lack of handicap access and “historic” bathrooms. After receiving feedback from the congregation, FCC’s Church Council voted as its goal in 2013 to hire an architect to help redesign the church building. After many interviews, the FReD team hired architectural firm Clohessy, Harris, and Kaiser, LLC, which made a presentation of the proposed renovations last year for the congregation to discuss and vote on.
Last spring, the congregation voted to start a capital campaign.
“This was definitely a step of faith,” said Kleiman.
Under the architectural firm’s proposed plan, a connector piece will be eliminated from the church’s three historic buildings, the Parish House, the Lena F. Barnes Chapel, and the sanctuary.
“Now when people come up from the parking lot… [they’re] going to find a really large, gracious entrance that’s going to be ramps up from the back,” said Kleiman. “They’ll be able to wheel up onto the main floor, have the bathrooms right there, and will be able to get to the stairwell.”
Currently, the church building’s lifts are often confusing to senior citizens who cannot go up and down the stairs.
“They’re small spaces,” said Kleiman. “It also separates people.”
Kleiman added that the renovations also will allow smaller funerals to take place in the chapel, where currently caskets cannot fit.
“It’s a beautiful historic building that will be even better with ADA compliance,” said Kleiman.
Originally called the Ecclesiastical Society of New Cambridge, the First Congregational Church was established in 1747. The recent church building, located at 31 Maple St., is the third on the site and dates back to 1832.
An addition was built on the south side of the church in 1883 to accommodate the growing ministries of the congregation, but was torn down in 1910 to make way for the current Parish House. When Bristol was unable to raise funds to build a YMCA-type facility in 1914, First Congregational built the Parish House, which served as a recreational facility for all city residents. The Red Cross used the house as a hospital during the 1918 influenza.
In 1951, the Lena Forbes Barnes Memorial Chapel was dedicated, adding another space of worship to the church building as well as much needed classroom space. More classroom space was added in the 1970s when the basketball gym in the Parish House was converted into two floors. In 1953, the church established Century Nursery School to serve the educational and developmental needs of children age 3 to 4 in Bristol.
In 1996, the sanctuary was renovated in preparation for the celebration of the church’s 250th anniversary, which took place a year later.
When the renovations are completed, Kleiman hopes the capital campaign shows the members of the congregation how far they have come.
“They have really seen that being United in Ministry, what amazing things they can accomplish through God,” said Kleiman.
Once the necessary changes are made, Kleiman said the church will be able to better serve local groups. The church currently offers meeting space for Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Al-Anon. The church also supports the St. Vincent DePaul homeless shelter and Family Resource Center’s Backpack food program, as well as other social service and charitable groups in Bristol.
This year, the church formed a new partnership with Prudence Crandall Center, which plans to host a support group at the church.
Once the renovations are complete, Kleiman hopes the church will be able to serve as a location for blood drives with the American Red Cross as well as political debates. She also hopes the Bristol Historical Society also will be able to use space at the church for events.
“It’s an exciting vibrant congregation,” said Kleiman, adding how the congregation has become closer together through the campaign.
FCC also works together on community projects with other local churches. The church is the seventh faith community to sign up as a host congregation for the newly forming Family Promise of Central Connecticut. A national movement with more than 160,000 volunteers and serving 55,000 people yearly, Family Promise aims to help homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence, according to the group’s website.
Kleiman said the church is excited to be a part of the hands-on organization that helps families stay together and helps them find permanent homes. The program will launch once 13 faith communities have signed up, and the hope is that the program will officially begin next March.
Kleiman said the renovation at the church also will help Family Promise, as 14 cots, along with families’ belongings, will be needed downstairs in the dining room. The cots travel with the families from host congregation to host congregation.
“When we say that we welcome all people, we really mean it,” said Kleiman.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO