On May 16, 1965, the members of St. Mary's in the Mountains worshiped together in their own church for the first time. That day Vermont’s Bishop Butterfield dedicated the building and celebrated the Eucharist, marking the end of a what was a nomadic period for the fledgling congregation, and the beginning of a stable presence in the community.
The first official record of the idea of establishing an Episcopal parish in Wilmington came in late 1959. On Dec. 21, 1959, Father Wolf, Rector at St. Peter's in Bennington, wrote to Bishop Van Dyck about conversations he had been having with a recent newcomer to Wilmington who found quite a few people in the area in need of a local Episcopal church. Father Wolf had been asked to investigate starting a chapel or mission.
It wasn't until the fall of 1961, almost two years later, that significant progress was made on what had become known as the Wilmington project. St. Michael's of Brattleboro and St. Peter's of Bennington agreed to provide once-a-month services on Sunday evenings in Wilmington, with the two parishes alternately providing a priest. The first service was held in the Grange Hall on Feb. 25, 1962, with eight people in attendance. The small group of the faithful gradually grew, experiencing typical and not-so-typical growing pains along the way. When the Grange announced that they could not afford to heat the building in the winter, the group turned to meeting in members' homes during the winter months.
The monthly alternation of priests caused problems of its own, including at least one occasion which found the congregation gathered but no priest in attendance, due to a scheduling mix-up. When the parish priest retired from St. Michael's in the fall of 1962, the church in Bennington shouldered the responsibility for providing the monthly priest to Wilmington.
In the spring of 1963, the informally organized Wilmington mission chose a name for itself: St. Mary’s in the Mountains.” Two years later at the Annual Meeting of the congregation in January 1965, the group seemed to be at a turning point as it addressed the long-term housing needs for the church. At that meeting someone mentioned that construction of the new Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington was
nearly complete, and that the Catholic Church hoped to sell their old church. Happily, the Roman Catholic church was eager to have another church buy the property, rather than see it turned into a commercial establishment. The building had begun its life as a restaurant, built in 1939 and was no longer of sufficient size to serve the Roman Catholic community. An agreement was reached to sell the church to the Episcopal Diocese for $25,000.
It took only a few months for a funding mechanism to be established. The Diocese agreed to give a $10,000 grant for the project, and to underwrite a $15,000, no-interest 10-year loan. The parish of St. Peter's in Bennington agreed to formally sponsor St. Mary's as their Parochial Mission, shouldering the responsibility for the loan. The magnitude of the commitment by St. Peter's can't be understated. Not only did they commit to paying back the loan, but they also agreed to pay any shortfalls in maintenance costs, priest's salary, and other mission expenses until St. Mary's was able to support itself. St. Peter's Vestry, through a committee, became responsible for managing the mission.
By 1969, the congregation consisted of about 100 people in 37 families, 20 of which participated regularly. While this number was a large increase over the 6-7 committed families from 1965, it was still not enough to support a full-time priest., St. Peter's and St. Mary's began considering the concept of a "worker-priest" to better meet St. Mary's pastoral needs.
Enter John Morris, who, in 1971, became St. Mary’s first worker-priest, a bi-vocational position with service to St. Mary’s and service in the world of elementary education. By 1976, St. Peter's paid off the last of the $15,000 loan which had been used to buy the building and ended their formal sponsorship of the mission at St. Mary's. At this point St. Mary's became a diocesan mission, with the bishop shouldered the ultimate pastoral responsibility and the Diocese provided financial oversight. John Morris remained with St. Mary’s until February 2000. During his tenure, John was instrumental in welcoming women into the ministry, including Ester Brown, Sarah Horton, and Patty Moore. He created a close family of parishioners who were the genesis of the kind of energy that’s come to define St. Mary’s.
In 1999 John retired from his teaching position in Marlboro, which lead to his eventual retirement as Vicar from St. Mary’s. A period of discernment began, and St. Mary’s began a prolonged period of supply priests and morning prayer lead by the laity.
In early 2001 a new Bishop, Tom Ely visited St. Mary’s and challenged the congregation to prove it could support a quarter-time priest in charge. In July, Bishop Ely recommended the Reverend Canon Thaddeus Bennet meet with the discernment committee to determine whether the right “fit” existed. Thankfully, it did, and a ten-year relationship began under Reverend Bennett’s spiritual leadership. Thus 2002 ushered in an era of rebirth and regrowth. A new emphasis on lay participation in all aspects of church life, from liturgical and pastoral to Christian Education and fellowship was stressed, Christian education for adults was introduced for spiritual and intellectual development and to address issues in everyday life.
Following Thad’s retirement in 2010, St. Mary’s was asked by Bishop Ely to accept a Priest in Partnership relationship with Ms. Donna Reidt who remained at St. Mary’s for a three-year period. Around the start of Ms. Reidt’s tenure at St. Mary’s, Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont and St. Mary’s lost its home. Flood waters devastated the small parish, and a period of crisis became a regular part of St. Mary’s existence.
But God works in mysterious ways as evidenced by the manner in which St. Mary’s found itself a new home. The Congregational Church in downtown Wilmington had been suffering from declining attendance for years and the cost of maintaining its home had grown beyond the remaining member’s financial capabilities. Rather than allowing the building to become another retail location, the leaders of the church asked St. Mary’s if it would be willing to assume ownership. For a dollar.
Thus, St. Mary’s moved what remained of its church to its new home at 13 East Main Street, not far from the crossroads of routes 9 and 100.
In 2015, St. Mary’s was blessed to welcome as Priest in Partnership, the Reverend Canon Nicholas Porter as its quarter-time priest. Reverend Porter has a distinguished career serving the Connecticut Diocese and is the founder and current Executive Director of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, an interfaith, non-profit organization with a mission to create a better future for humanity across religious, cultures, and nationalities. A longtime resident of Europe and the Middle East, Reverend Porter has taught St. Mary’s how to accept and grow into its new home while leveraging the strengths that our members bring each week. He has opened our eyes to the world beyond the Deerfield Valley and has instilled in all of us an attitude that says we’re small, but we are mighty.
In October of 2023 St. Mary's welcomed the Reverend Dr. Mary (Molly) Scherm to be its Priest-in-Charge, Reverend Molly has already made a signifcant impact on the congregation and we look forward to her spiritual guidance as we enter a new Liturgical year.
Our Red Doors
Why are the doors of St. Mary's in the Mountains, and many churches, red?
In the Middle Ages, the color red, signifying the Blood of Christ, was painted on the north, south and east doors of a church (the three doors signifying the Trinity). The symbolism represents the sign of the cross. This marked the building as a sanctuary, a place of refuge and a safety zone from physical and spiritual dangers. Today, our Red Doors shine forth with the warmth of a welcome to all who enter, and who need to be refreshed.
"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28.