MADISON — A Bible sat open on the pulpit in the chill of an empty church last week; purple cloth was draped over the edge, announcing the change of seasons.

The Bible was open to the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 59, which, in general terms, focuses on thoughts of a redeemer being delivered.

“Indeed, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save and His ear is not too deaf to hear,” Isaiah writes in verse 1.

The church was the Madison Congregational Church, at the busy downtown corner of Weston Avenue and Main Street, where the dwindling membership could use that verse as they put the 1892 brick church up for sale to the highest bidder.

They pray for a buyer and fear the Madison landmark will fall to the wrecking ball, as other properties in Madison have in the past two years.

“We would like to see the building preserved. Financially, we’re running out of money, and we don’t have enough people to support it,” said deacon and lifelong member Charlotte Withee, of Anson. “The biggest thing is the heat. Maybe another church could take it over if someone needs a bigger space. … In the cities a lot of things happen to old churches — turned into restaurants, art galleries and a lot of things — but in Madison that’s not going to happen.”

She said the church is one of the oldest buildings in town, noting that it is in the middle of town. Just about every picture taken in downtown Madison — of parades or anything — has the church is in it.

“It would just seem kind of sad to see it go,” she said.

Charlotte Withee and her husband, H. Ralph Withee, who were baptized and married in the Congregational church, said the parish board offered the building to the town, but selectmen voted 5-0 not to take it. With property taxes rising and the value of the UPM Madison paper mill diminishing, it simply is not a good time for the town to acquire more property, they said.

“The town has taken back three schools in the past few years, which has cost the taxpayers to tear down or to continue to operate the building,” said Albert Veneziano, chairman of the selectmen. “The board is concerned about the cost of taking care of another building. The yearly expenses and keeping up with maintenance costs might be too much for the town to handle, and we do not feel that we can pass this cost on to taxpayers at this time.”

Veneziano said if Madison taxpayers are interested in the town owning the church, they can petition the board with enough signatures to bring the idea to Town Meeting in June.

Over the past two years, the aging former Main Street Elementary School and the old Weston Avenue Elementary School have been torn down because the town couldn’t afford the upkeep. Also, the Christopher Wholesalers building, on Main Street downtown, was bought and demolished by Campbell’s TruValue Hardware, which is next to that site.

The town also owns the former Old Point Avenue School, which is used as offices and studios for the local community access television station, the Madison Historical Society and the meeting room for the Board of Selectmen.

Selectmen are planning to pursue legislation that would provide tax relief in the form of educational funding and help lessen the effect of a $150 million drop in value at Madison Paper Industries.

The topic is expected to be a major point of discussion at a joint meeting Monday night with the Skowhegan Board of Selectmen, whose taxpayers also face similar funding problems with the town’s valuation and the drop in the valuation of the Sappi paper mill there.

In October, the Madison Board of Selectmen voted to appeal the town’s state valuation, proposed at $491.6 million, on grounds that it does not reflect the loss at the mill accurately.

The Withees say the old brick church is too important to the history of Madison to be left vacant — or worse — to be torn down.

The church’s interior shines. Wooden beams adorn its high ceilings, and its walls are graced by detailed trim and stained-glass windows, some of which bear the names of the church’s founding families: the Westons and the Dinsmores.

The Congregational Church was founded in 1804 in South Anson and was moved in 1826 to Blackwell Hill in Madison. The church moved again to the corner of Main Street and Maple Street in Madison and finally, in 1892 — along with the church bell — to where it now stands.

The parsonage was built in 1909. In 1929, a new Skinner pipe organ, similar to one in Woolsley Hall at Yale University, was installed in its own addition to the church. The Withees said church organist David Mitchell is researching the possible sale of the organ as a separate unit.

Ralph Withee, 73, said the congregation once boasted a membership of about 150 people. That figure is down to 15, and services are now held in the church basement, which is complete with a library, full kitchen, restrooms and offices.

“I think probably the young people lost interest. We were going good until about 20 years ago,” Charlotte Withee said. The Withees said the demise wasn’t so much a loss of religion or a loss of faith, but more of a societal change in which the message can be delivered and received in different, less formal, ways.

Socializing — fellowship — at church was a very important part of life, they said.

The church had its last full-time pastor about a year ago, when Susan Tierney retired. Now the congregation has a different visiting pastor each week.

Freeman “Buzzy” Buzzell, who has operated a barber shop on Main Street for more than 50 years, noted he has seen all of the changes to downtown Madison over the years. Buzzell, 73, took pictures when the Christopher Wholesalers block was torn down recently and can point to bowling pin set-up designs painted on the basement wall where, as a young man, he worked as a pin boy in the bowling alley.

“Madison’s changed a lot since I was growing up,” he said. “But it’s all progress, I guess. The church is beautiful and it would be sad to see it go, but people can’t afford to heat it now, I guess.”

The Withees said the church members will begin to advertise the sale of the church soon. In the meantime, they will continue to meet and pray in the basement with the heat turned down low to save money.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking for me because I’ve been here all my life,” said Charlotte Withee, 71. “We were married here, all of our children were married here and everybody in my family were buried here. What we’re striving for now is to preserve the building, because I think it’s important to preserve history, because we’re losing it fast.

“Who knows? Maybe a miracle will happen.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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