Minister Greg Foster rang the bell of the Waldoboro United Methodist Church, calling congregants to worship one last time Sunday morning.
Church members, past and present, entered the tall white doors. The long wooden pews filled and people greeted friends and neighbors they had not seen for a long time — some for years, others since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“This is my second family,” said Mary Lee Merill, who has been coming to the church since 1991, as she glanced around the nave.
The pandemic took a toll on the congregation, with only five to 10 people attending services once the church went back in person. Because of the dwindling number of attendees, who were mostly older, church leaders decided to close its doors for good after 164 years.
The church that used to seat 200 during services, that once had a choir of more than 30 voices, was full once again.
Church pianist Linda Pease, whose family has a long history with the church, welcomed the congregation with “I Have Loved You with an Everlasting Love” at the start of the service.
Pease’s role as principal of Medomak Valley High School had prevented her from attending services in the last year to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission to her students.
But she was on hand during the service to raise her voice in celebration of the community of faith in which she had been raised.
The congregation read in unison Lamentations 3:22-23, then together sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
In the invocation, Dana Dow, a 60-year member of the church who once sang in the choir, asked God to be with the gathered community and asked that they be God’s message to the town of Waldoboro and the surrounding communities.
Following Dow’s reading from the second chapter of Hebrews, Pease sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a favorite hymn that her father, one-time choir director Ronnie Dolloff, played and sang in past services. There were flowers on the altar in his memory, and roses for those of the congregation who had died.
Foster invited the congregation to share their memories. Members approached the podium one by one, many of them with voices full of emotion — the sound of tears held back.
Ken Black, who lives next to the church, said he came to the church frequently, despite COVID-19. “It was a joy to walk over here when the bell rings,” he said. “And now the bell has stopped.” Black asked that “Amazing Grace” be played in honor of his mother.
Chip Hilton of Jefferson reminisced about sitting next to Dow in the choir loft.
“The pews were always overflowing,” he said. “We would go down into the vestry afterwards and we had fellowship — coffee, punch. And we ended with a prayer circle.” Hilton encouraged everyone to “be together and pray together always.”
“I am standing here on very holy ground,” said Nancy Duncan, pastor of the Broad Bay Congregational Church, as she invited the congregation to enjoy a church lunch at Broad Bay after the service. “While we will miss this building, we worship a God of resurrection. And I know that your faithfulness will continue to inspire our church and our community.”
Former pastor Joe Beardsley said, “I want to mention the music — we’re Methodists after all.” He reminded the congregation of the “bring-a-friend band” and said, “not every church likes the idea of a hoedown kind of a band. But you did. And you kept your choir and your organ and your piano. To have all that and more was a very rich mixture.”
Andrew Dolloff remembered ringing the bell as a child.
“We would ring that bell and ride it just as high as we could toward the ceiling,” he said.
He remembered lighting candles as an acolyte and thinking that Jesus was hiding behind the altar. And he remembered the “unparalleled music.”
“This church has been so foundational in my life; my heart breaks a little to know that you won’t be gathering here,” he said. “But I hope you continue to gather somewhere.”
Elaine Knowlton was married in the church in 1966. She said she lost her husband this spring and was visibly emotional throughout the service.
“It’s my foundation. It holds me together,” she said.
Ellie Simons had been exploring churches after she and husband Barry moved to town. This church was the first one they tried.
“If you were raised in the high Episcopalian church, you stood up for the gospel,” said Simons, who grew up in the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches.
So, when the pastor prepared to read the gospel, she automatically stood. She was the only one.
But the pastor, seeing her, said “and shall we stand to hear the word of our Lord,” and the rest of the congregation rose to their feet.
“We didn’t need to explore any other churches in Waldoboro after that,” she said. “This is my heart church.”
The piano and organ, the nativity figurines, many of the oak pieces in the altar area, the chairs and the black candle holders made by John Stahl have found new homes at other churches the members will attend.
And the two portraits of Jesus that have flanked both sides of the altar since the 1950s will grace the Skowhegan Federated Church, pastored by the Rev. Mark Tanner, husband of Ronnie Dolloff’s daughter, Deb Dolloff Tanner.
After the members spoke on their experiences at the church, Pease and Paul Smeltzer played favorite hymns, starting with “Amazing Grace” and continuing with “Til the Storm Passes By” in honor of Woodrow “Woody” Verge.
They played request after request as the congregation raised their voices together in celebration of their old church.
In closing, Foster reminded the congregation that “we the people of God will go on. You are a blessing to the Lord. You are. You are.”
The thrum of the organ, played for the last time by long-time organist Smeltzer, filled the nave with the strains of “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”
As the hymn faded, the congregation of the Waldoboro United Methodist Church left the church. And after 164 years of service to the Waldoboro community, the doors closed.
This story appears through a media partnership with The Lincoln County News.