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Meetinghouse on the hill prospering, pursuing growth

Bill Roberts, left, and Ken Gerken were among the members of the Townsend United Methodist Church that took on the project of buying a new sign. The sign is dedicated to the memory of Carol Roberts, Bill s wife.

TOWNSEND — The big white church above the common has been around a good, long time. The building started life in 1771 as the town meeting house up on Meetinghouse Hill. It served as town hall and was used by the Congregationalists and then the Unitarians.

Piece by piece, a team of oxen dragged the structure to its present location in the center of town in 1804. In 1852, the Methodists bought the building and have owned it ever since.

Now, it is officially the Townsend United Methodist Church. The church website,, includes its history.

Since arriving in the center, the church has seen many modifications. The most recent change is a fresh, new sign facing Route 119.

“The church isn’t standing still,” said member Bill Roberts. “We’re doing stuff.”

Installing the sign meant visiting Memorial Hall and following guidelines. If it was moved closer to the street, it would need to be much smaller, Roberts said.

The land closest to Route 119 is in a historic district and must follow the restrictions of the district. The church and land immediately in front of it are not part of the historic district.

The church would like the sign to be lit, but town bylaws do not allow signs to be lit from below, church member Ken Gerken said. Overhead lighting was not in the budget.

Lighting might happen in the future. Gerken would like to see the lettering illuminated with LED lighting.

Long-time church members have strong ties to the building and to each other.

The Roberts joined the church after they moved to town, sometime around 1965, Roberts said. A dresser in the children’s room is dedicated to the Roberts’ son, Lee, who died as a young child. Recently, he discovered that his wife, Carol, was listed as the second owner of the church on a tax document.

The sign is donated in memory of Carol Roberts who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in December 2014. Their son Glenn died in August 2013 of the same disease. Older relatives of Carol Roberts also died from the familial disease, Roberts said.

Treasurer Lynne Connors grew up in the Townsend church, moved away and returned, rejoining later in life. Her step-father, Howard Barkhouse, rang the church bell for 60 years. During a town-wide celebration, he let all his grandchildren pull the bell’s rope.

Barkhouse is remembered fondly. “He was a pillar of our church,” Roberts said.

“He was a great guy,” Connors said.

Church members are active in both the church and the community. A recent hymn-sing on the common was organized by the Methodist, Congregational and Catholic churches, the three located around the town green.

“It was good,” Roberts said. “I loved it.”

“All the churches worked together,” Gerken said.

Not so long ago, the Methodist church was showing its age. Peeling paint was visible from the street and overgrown trees blocked sight-lines.

Over the past 10 years or so, the wooden building was restored. Photos of work in progress show boarded-up windows and staging. Pine trees were removed, the slate roof replaced with asphalt, and vinyl siding and new windows were installed, Gerken said.

The church has money that is earmarked for different purposes, he said. The funds enabled the repairs.

The church gift store, the Cozy Corner, sells slates removed from the roof. The artifacts, decorated with a picture of the building, can be purchased on Saturdays when the shop is open.

Along with revitalizing the building, the church is working to revitalize the congregation.

“We’re an older congregation, that’s the big thing,” Gerken said.

Outreach to younger people is under discussion, Connors said. The church had a camp-out scheduled in August and is looking to create a space for teenagers and preteens.

Gerken would like to see their next minister be someone younger with good, modern ideas.

The congregation is waiting for a new minister to be appointed by church authorities. Their former minister retired earlier this year. The part-time position is shared with the Pepperell United Methodist Church.

The Townsend Methodist Church is located at 265 Main St. Sunday services are held year-round except in August, when they are held at the Pepperell church. In July, the Pepperell congregation meets with their fellow Methodists at the Townsend church.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.