Charles and Nancy Butterfield’s Pathway

We climb the steep granite steps from Main Street and hear organ music as we enter the dark foyer.  An usher in coat and tie hands us a program and opens the leather door into the sanctuary.  It is formal, almost Medieval.  As we sit beneath the paneled, pitched ceiling listening to the organ, we scan the shadowed walls.  Everywhere there are marble tribute plaques, some modest, some grand.  Light through the stained glass windows and from the wall sconces is not sufficient for us to read the plaques, but they look important and permanent.

Charles and Nancy Butterfield

Ahead, the pulpit, lost in walnut woodwork, stands before a mural resembling an Aztec design too shadowed to tell if it signifies anything. To the right the pipes of the organ.  To the left a heavy gold velvet curtain hangs over a huge marble slab bearing some engraved words, perhaps the 23rd Psalm, but in front of the curtain the Snow Angel, sculpted also of marble.  The foreverness of marble figures prominently in this sanctuary.

We are sitting in All Souls Church in Brattleboro. We have come from famous All Souls Church in Washington D.C., where we were introduced to Unitarianism.  We are accustomed to 300 gathered around us, but 60 suit this space.  We are at home among these dressed-up people, though we know none of them.  

It does not surprise us when the robed choir processes to the choir stall behind the organ console, nor when the minister rises  in his place in his academic gown with his doctoral hood draped over his shoulders.  This is our All Souls in the country. 

Following the wholly predictable service—the standard choir selections, hymns, readings and an erudite sermon, we follow the congregation down the steep stairs, and turn the corner to enter the Parish House on Grove Street.  Here there is a huge room, big enough, we’re told, for a parish sit-down dinner at Christmas, and a formal parlor with fireplace. As we wait in line for coffee, the children come bubbling up the narrow stairs from their Sunday school rooms in the basement.  Amid the hubbub,  we meet the minister and his wife, like them, and begin to make acquaintance with the members.  We like them, too.

A few weeks in attendance, and the minister invites us to assist him in leading a group of high school students in their Sunday evening meetings and varied activities.  We accept, and begin three years with the dozen or so totally delightful teenagers in LRY (liberal religious youth).  This ambitious group, many of whom I know as students in my biology class at the high school, volunteer around the church, go for hikes and tours —once for sightseeing in New York City, funded by the kids’ pancake breakfasts and strawberry suppers —and also enter a one-act play contest.  We perform our play (set in the stone age with the lead cave man in a leg cast) at the district meet, and win.

Our fun is tempered somewhat by late 1960s protests against the Viet Nam War spreading across the nation.  The unsettled state feeds into our questioning authority in many spheres.  For LRY, the protest involves hair.

Coaches at the high school do not like the long-hair, hippy look the athletes and some students, including boys in the LRY, are sporting. Leaders that they are, our boys, form an informal protest against the coaches’ and school administrators’ rules about hair length. To rally support for freedom to wear hair however they want, the boys establish a newsletter, but  administrators refuse the boys’ request to print it at school.  Undaunted, the leaders turn to their church.  For its short lifetime, the newsletter is printed on the church’s mimeograph machine.  The protesters, with parental support, win the contest, and the todo is resolved to the boys’ satisfaction.

It might seem absurd to try to draw a line from the LRY hair issue to the  congregation’s decision to build a new church, but is it only coincidence that discussion of moving All Souls began about the same time the boys were churning out their newsletter in the church office?  Change was in the air.

The Unitarians in Brattleboro had built a “little jewel” of quarried stone and, inside, handsome walnut about 1875.  In time, about 1920, it came to house both the local Unitarian and Universalist societies.  By the late 1960s, the location of the church’s two buildings had become problematic.  There was a shortage of parking space, for one thing, and the cramped and damp Sunday school room in the Parish House basement were unsatisfactory.  Also, while the sanctuary held many dear memories for some (witness the abundant marble memorials), the screwed-down, straight-ahead seating, the Biblical scenes in stained glass, the total lack of sunlight otherwise, and the proximity to increasing street noise began to feel at odds with the reflective, inclusive, stimulating air of modern Unitarian Universalism.

To be sure, the meetings called to discuss moving All Souls into the country were heated.  How can the conflict between tradition and innovation be resolved?  Can a small congregation afford such a project?  Why should we abandon our long history in the center of Brattleboro?  Nevertheless, the movement, once started, gained momentum.  Architects were engaged, land was acquired (chiefly through a gift), and in September, 1970, we gathered in a space flooded with natural light to hear Blanche Winnogran dedicate the new building with a harpsichord concert.  Not everyone who’d  attended the downtown church chose to transfer their allegiance from quarried stone to glass and cedar shakes, including the minister of some twenty years, but a week of lectures, exhibits, concerts and worship services established All Souls in a former sheep pasture.

So began an era marked by setbacks (ice ruined the cedar shake siding) and successes (a Guatemalan family rescued and settled); hard times (spending down the long-established endowment) and happy associations (hosting the Jewish community); frightening events (a man shot in the sanctuary and a sexual harassment incident) and national recognition (Welcoming Congregation and Green Sanctuary).   Now begins a new era in which an updated All Souls, resting on a foundation of courage, faces a wide-open future.

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