First Congregational Church: Renovated church house overlooks town gateway

With its steep-hipped roofs, gray shingles and chiseled, rectangular stonework, the First Congregational Church’s newly renovated church house echoes the architecture of the 1880s sanctuary that it serves — along with a congregation that has Ridgefield roots dating back to 1712.

The renovation was completed recently on a church house that was built in 1978 as a replacement for one that had burned to the ground.

“This church house has served the church and the community well for more than 35 years,” said senior minister Charles Hambrick-Stowe.

“Why did we do this? There were reasons that are important for our congregation: to provide an enhanced facility and up-to-date facility for our programs and a lovely environment to welcome people to the church. But in addition, we feel a responsibility to the community — this church has been here since 1712, a part of this community,” Hambrick-Stowe said.

“This church is the first thing people see when they come to Main Street from the south or the west — from the Wilton direction or the Katonah direction — up 33 or 35. And our beautified facility enhances the aesthetics of the town, helps to welcome people.”

The congregation plans a community-wide grand opening and open house in a little over a week, on Sunday, Oct. 15.

“After 10 o’clock worship service, so it’ll start about 11:15,” Hambrick-Stowe said.

Time capsule

First Selectman Rudy Marconi will be a guest speaker, and a time capsule — including written reflections where church members share thoughts on belonging to the congregation, and improving its facility for the next generation — will be placed in the stonework.

The project included work on the church house, the south courtyard, and the parking lot — which has more lighting to enhance safety.

“Everyone has things they were looking for,” said Rhonda Hill, who chaired the church council during much of the four years of design and construction. “Handicapped access is one — the new gently sloping walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary was high on everyone’s list.”

“You can go straight into the sanctuary without steps,” said Hambrick-Stowe.

“And from the sanctuary into the rest of the building without steps,” added Hill.

Gut everything

The church house’s interior has been completely renovated.

“Everything was gutted, floor to ceiling and wall to wall,” Hambrick-Stowe said. “We built the new church house within the shell of the old.”

It’s designed to meet a wide range of needs and functions.

“We’ve opened up our welcome center. We have a new library — with technology. A totally new parlor,” Hambrick-Stowe said.

What’s new?

The main social room — Lund Hall, named after former pastor Clayton Lund — seats 180. It will continue to house community events ranging from Ridgefield Men’s Club meetings to periodically hosting of Interfaith Dialogue sessions where Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths are represented. The next interfaith session there will be Nov. 5, led by Rabbi David Levy Reiner of Temple Shir Shalom.

A new kitchen serves social functions, and four or five times a year, congregation members will gather there to prepare food for Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury, the soup kitchen and homeless shelter.

“The church’s involvement with Dorothy Day goes back to the 1980s,” Hambrick-Stowe said.

For the kids

The renovated church house includes a small children’s chapel with replica stained glass windows that were designed by Tammy Roth and colored in by children of the church — they’d been used back when the real stained glass windows in the sanctuary were being replaced.

There are five Sunday school rooms, which during the week are home to the Creative Children’s Korner preschool.

There are accommodations for teens. “They used to be in the basement,” Hill said. “The youth opted to spend their money on technology — computers and monitors … and there’s a small kitchenette with a microwave and a small fridge.”

The congregation has been supportive.

“I think there’s been a real enthusiasm,” said Hill.

“This is a $5-million project, of which we’ve already received $4.65 million,” said Hambrick-Stowe. “We’re just so grateful for the success — from start to finish.”

Ridgefield-based Doyle Coffin Architecture designed the renovation, with John Doyle serving as the lead architect. A.P. Construction of Stamford was the general contractor.

While Hill led the church council during much of the construction and planning, Dr. Stephen Mathias is now chairman.

Chris Bennett was chair of the church steering committee, which met almost week during the project.

“I have never known a more committed and faithful and smart group of people than this steering committee, in my whole career of 40 years in ministry,” Hambrick-Stowe said. “Truly, I am so proud of this church.”