NORWAY — Frequent travelers of Main Street in Norway have probably noticed the beautiful First Universalist Church just north of downtown. The regal, white structure has been a staple in Norway since 1828, but the first Universalist congregation in Maine at first inhabited a smaller, simpler building when it was founded in 1799.

Today, its congregation is in the final stages of a transformation that began several years ago, culminating in the latest project – the removal, revitalization and replacement of the bell and belfry, also known as the bell tower.

According to Joan Beal, Chair of the Save the Belfry Committee, members of the congregation have recently completed several important projects – a new heating system, audio system, kitchen improvements, and a renovated vestry.

“We realized the belfry project was really more of a community downtown project,” said Beal. Our life as a church could go on without the belfry or the bell. However, for Main Street in Norway, there would be a gap and a loss. So we decided to try and expand our effort into the community.”

With a budget of more than $400,000, the project began with a substantial grant from the Maine Steeples Fund to determine the size and scope of the job. As expected in a building of its age, the issues were numerous. One of the foremost historical construction and renovation companies in New England, Preservation Timber Framing, assessed the building and found, among other things, posts with irreparable rot, framing that would need to be replaced and a bell that, due to its housing dome, would be difficult to remove.

Undaunted, the construction crew and congregation got to work on making this dream a reality.

“The history of this church and its deep ties to the community and its families made all of us in the congregation motivated to make sure it would be preserved for generations to come,” said Beal.

Fundraising began immediately and the community certainly stepped up. With several grants out for consideration from several giving foundations, the organizers turned their sights to corporate giving. In 2020, Norway Savings Bank donated $20,000 to the cause.

“Norway Savings Bank has been in this community for 155 years,” said Patricia Weigel, CEO of Norway Savings Bank. “We see this project as a true community endeavor, as the building is such a prominent presence on Main Street. I think I can speak for others when I say I miss the daily ringing to signify high noon. We want to hear the bell ring again.”

The original bell in the belfry was the fire bell for the town and some sources report it was also the curfew bell during the time when the town instituted a curfew.

“I was not surprised to learn of the shared history between our bank and the church. The first and second presidents of Norway Savings, Nathaniel Gunnison and Ezra Beal, both had prominent roles in the founding of the church,” said Weigel.

The project is well underway. With phase one – the dome and belfry removal – complete, phases two and three – tower framing and roof repair and belfry and dome repair – are happening at the same time. These are the most expensive phases and, while the work is being done, fundraising continues. To contribute to the project, you can send a check to “Save the Belfry” c/o Norway UU Church, 479 Main St, Norway, ME 04268. Or visit their website – https://www.norwayuu.org/save-the-belfry to donate using Paypal. All donations are tax deductible and will be acknowledged.

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