WATERFORD — It is said that when God closes a door He opens a window.
In this case pieces of lead-glass windows salvaged from the embers of the 1837 First Congregational Church in Waterford Flats after it burned to the ground in 1928. They now grace the church’s Christmas tree in the form of ornaments.
The 180-year-old embossed leaded glass was donated by a church member who held the precious treasure, which had been rescued from the ruins by her father in the days following the fire, in a box.
On the box was the inscription, “Keep this always.”
During the Sunday morning service on Dec. 3, and after several months of delicate work, ornaments fashioned from the remains of the windows were hung on the church’s Christmas tree, marking what parishioner Sally Holm called “a beautiful, powerful combination of the new and the old.”
“The old glass was a gift to the church from Agnes Bancroft Lahti and her daughter Janet Lahti Truman,” said Holm, who told the story in a recent email to the Advertiser Democrat.
“Fragments of the windows from the ruins of the old church were rescued by Agnes’ father, Moxie Bancroft, in the days after the conflagration that also destroyed the community house next door.
“Agnes Bancroft was a 9-year-old schoolgirl, attending a 4-H meeting with her friends the day the fire broke out,” Holm said. “They ran up the hillside and sat and watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Later, Moxie gave the box of glass to his daughter with these instructions: ‘Keep this always.’ And she did.”
The church was designed by Nathan Nutting and built in Waterford Flat on Plummer Hill Road, just down the hill from the original meeting house that was eventually torn down in 1843.
When the church burned in 1928, it was was rebuilt soon after and to almost the exact original plan: a Colonial Revival one and a half story with tower, frame with clapboard exterior. Noted Portland architects John Calvin Stevens and John Howard Stevens designed the 1928 church. The adjacent Wilkins House was built at the same time.
The church is part of the 27-building Waterford Historic District, designated as a National Register Historic District by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Parks Service in April 1980.
Holm said that almost 90 years after the construction of the new church and as Agnes was about to celebrate her 100th birthday, Janet Truman asked if the church might have any interest in the old glass pieces.
The answer was a resounding yes, Holm said.
With the box of the precious glass in hand, church officials had to decide what to do with it.
“It was decided that some of it should be incorporated into a stained-glass representation of the original church from which the glass had come,” Holm said. “Local water colorist Nancy Engdahl took them to a glass artist, Jane Croteau of Naples, and they roughed out a design.”
The Church Activity Committee determined that the finished hanging should be presented to the church on Agnes Lahti’s birthday. They developed an oral history of the 217-year-old church with members of the congregation taking speaking roles of long-dead leaders of the church that came from old sermons, letters and historical records.
Holm said that on Nov. 8, the pews were packed with a full worship service to celebrate Lahti’s birthday and hear her tell the story of the fire and the precious glass. It was also a celebration of the dedication of the church’s new energy-efficient church windows, paid for through a summer fundraising campaign after the nearly 100-year-old windows began to fail.
“At the end of the service, the stained-glass work of art was hung in one of the large windows, and then everyone went next door to the Wilkins House to celebrate with birthday cake and singing,” Holm said.
“But the story was not about to end,” she said. “The hanging had used only a fraction of the glass. What to do with the rest of it? Joy Plate was one of the women involved in the planning. One night at dinner with her son, Bob, and his wife and some friends, the question was raised.
“Bob said quite nonchalantly, ‘Why don’t you make the rest of it into Christmas tree ornaments?'”
“And so it came to be that four women in the church, only one of whom had much glass work in her past, created more than 100 pieces — Christmas trees and replicas of the Revere Bell that hangs in the church belfry — to deck trees at home and in the church,” Holm said.
The project was started in late June after several of the women took a glass- working course to prepare for the delicate work. By late October they were done.
“The work was painstaking and challenging,” Holm said. “The glass was thick, the designs difficult for the novice artisans. Each ornament took 25 to 30 hours to complete. The glass needed to be cut, ground, washed and sanded. In order for the solder to adhere, metal foil was wrapped around the edges before soldering. Wire loops for hanging were attached, colored glass added for decoration, and each was cleaned and polished.”
The ornaments were boxed with a brief history enclosed and offered for sale at $20 each, Holm said. “They sold briskly, all 101 of them!”
Proceeds will be donated to enhance the sanctuary of the church.
“The Waterford women who made it possible all called the experience gratifying.” Holm said. “The obvious joy was preserving pieces of the old church for posterity.”
“It was,” Plate told Holm, “a beautiful illustration of the church’s unofficial motto: ‘The Little Church with the Big Heart.’”
Gail Nixon, left, and Ginny Raymond perform a delicate soldering maneuver on a glass ornament at the Waterford Congregational Church. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)
A Christmas tree ornament was made from the old embossed window glass of the Waterford Congregational Church. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)
One of the ornaments was made to reflect the image of the rare church bell, cast by the Paul Revere Foundry, that hangs in the steeple of the church. Based on research done by Edward and Evelyn Stickney in 1961, there were only 134 bells inscribed with the Revere name remaining worldwide at that time. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)
Waterford Congregational Church members Nancy Engdahl, left, and Joy Plate work on the last of the 101 ornaments created from the church window glass. (Leslie H. Dixon/Advertiser Democrat)
The hand-made ornaments were hung on the church’s Christmas tree, seen here before it was decorated, during the Dec. 3 service. (Leslie H. Dixon/Sun Journal)