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Putting its mission before its treasure

Church aiding homeless will sell Tiffany gem

The Rev. Suzanne Andrews, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, preached yesterday, with the church’s Tiffany stained-glass window visible behind her. The church plans to sell the window to help pay its bills, including for operation of a homeless shelter. The Rev. Suzanne Andrews, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, preached yesterday, with the church’s Tiffany stained-glass window visible behind her. The church plans to sell the window to help pay its bills, including for operation of a homeless shelter. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / November 23, 2009

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BRATTLEBORO - They eliminated their custodian. They slashed their pastor’s hours by half.

It wasn’t enough.

Not if the church was going to continue its shelter for the community’s growing number of homeless people.

So First Baptist Church members huddled, they wrung hands, and two weeks ago they voted. Their church’s prized asset, a Tiffany stained-glass window depicting St. John the Divine, would go on the market.

“In life,’’ said Vera Deyo, a member of the church for more than 50 years, “you give up things and God makes you rich again.’’

The decision to sell the window won by a solid 20 to 4. Already, church officials have fielded several unofficial bids, the highest for $75,000, a sum they say would keep the church running for another year and a half.

Opponents say the sale, if it goes through, will be shortsighted.

“I really feel like it’s a temptation,’’ said Will Thompson, a church member who travels from Connecticut each week for services. “It looks easy, like it will be a big solution. But will it?’’

Even those in favor of the sale say they feel a profound sense of sadness as they contemplate seeing plain glass where the Tiffany window has splashed spangled light across the wooden pews since 1910.

“The window is a part of the family,’’ said Lura Bacon, a 16-year-old member who is a goddaughter of the pastor.

Officials at the Gothic brick-and-granite church on Main Street say they have little choice. The church’s bank account has dwindled to $8,000 as contributions have fallen during the economic downturn and membership has diminished. The church has an endowment of about $100,000, but much of that is bequests with conditions that would not be met if the money were used for operating the homeless shelter.

Keeping the hulking building heated alone costs $34,000, said Ron Andrews, the church collector.

The church considered selling its pews; it had an appraiser value its bell. It also has three other stained-glass windows that church records say are Tiffany designs but which are not signed and are difficult to authenticate. The St. John window with its Tiffany Studios insignia was by far the most valuable and seemed the logical choice.

The church, which has been on Main Street since 1867, began hosting the homeless two years ago when existing shelters couldn’t accommodate the growing number of people who lost their homes as the recession began to take hold. The first year, the church hosted 49 homeless people; last year it welcomed 151; this year, it is expected to assist more than 200.

From November to April, the church opens its doors at 5:30 every night and serves a dinner that religious institutions provide on a rotating basis (First Baptist takes its turn on Wednesdays). The homeless are given sleeping bags and pillows and sleep in the church function room, on foam mattresses; families sleep upstairs, in the nursery.

Cutting out the homeless program, many members say, is not an option.

Jean Garrecht is ambivalent about selling the Tiffany window, but she said continuing the homeless shelter is a given because it is “God’s mission.’’

Today, the church counts several members who once sought shelter after losing homes, including Farris Cathey, who now acts as a receptionist for another homeless shelter.

“The fact that the church is still here shows that there is something more powerful than us,’’ Cathey said.

Yesterday, as services wrapped up and the 37 parishioners chatted and some repaired to the function room for doughnuts, pie, and cider, talk turned to the window. For many, there was a sense of resignation mixed with relief that after nearly three years of discussion, a decision had been reached.

“No one wants to see this go,’’ said the Rev. Suzanne Andrews, the church’s pastor. “But to think that a majority of people voted to part with a Tiffany window is a miracle.’’