The Old West Church

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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton says that there is a church in Central Vermont that was built in the early 1800s, has changed hardly at all since then and is still in use today.

(SLAYTON) The people who built the Old West Church in 1824 unknowingly created a masterpiece. It is a spare, white, country meetinghouse sitting atop a gentle, rolling hill about a half-mile south of Kent Corners in rural Calais. Both the exterior and interior of the building are plain, even rough-hewn when compared to later, more elaborate churches.

The Old West Church is less grand than the Rockingham Meeting House, less refined than the elegant Strafford Town House. Nevertheless, it has its own simple charm, and is on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Almost nothing has changed about this large, white-clapboarded building since it was erected in 1824. The only exterior decoration is its three-tiered wooden steeple. Should you wander around to the back of the building, you would immediately notice that the builders of the church were frugal people. They painted the back end of the building – invisible from the road – with cheaper red barn paint. And the community has thankfully kept that folksy touch down through the years: the back wall is still barn-red.

It feels very much as though you could step back into the 1820s simply by walking through one of the church’s three front doors.

The interior of the building is just as austere as its outside: weathered wooden box pews, both on the floor and above on the balcony; a raised pulpit at the far end; no central heat or electricity; lots of light from the many multi-paned clear-glass windows. The interior walls and trim are painted light blue, and above the raised pulpit is the stern admonition (added by the Ladies’ Aid Society in 1886): Remove Not the Ancient landmark Which Thy fathers have Set.

The surrounding landscape is quiet. There’s a farm next door and, except for the little, fenced-in cemetery out back, pastures, farm fields and forest stretch away on all sides.

This is a place and a building where less is definitely more. The Old West Church is clearly a Puritan meetinghouse, simple and spare – and yet profound. You can hear the echoes of past hymns and sermons, weddings and funerals here; the joys and sorrows of a small town’s life.

It’s a very Vermonty church in another way, also: it has stronger ties to the secular community of Calais than to any particular religion. No one religious denomination has ever owned this church. Originally built cooperatively by six religious societies, the building has long been used by the community for secular meetings, weddings and concerts.

And community members protect the structure. When the steeple of the church was struck by lightning and caught fire in 1953, people came from miles around to help battle the blaze. Fortunately, little damage was done. Among those who fought the blaze were descendants of some of the settlers who originally planned and built the church.

It is now a firm part of Calais and Central Vermont, both a treasured relic of the past and a living part of the ongoing life of the town.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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