BENTON — The Benton Falls Congregational Church served its annual bean supper by curbside pickup on Saturday afternoon due to restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Dawnela Sheehan, the church’s treasurer and grant writer, the modified format of this 60-year-old tradition was carefully planned to ensure the health and safety of patrons and organizers.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this (and) we put a lot of planning into this,” Sheehan said during a phone interview Saturday. “Typically we have a sit down meal, and servers, but this is all going to be curbside … we figured out how to do the food preparation so that only people that are in the same bubble, are in the kitchen at the same time. And by bubble I mean people who are in the same family or are close enough that we trust each other …” 

For added precautions, Sheehan said that all of the people preparing the food wore masks and frequently washed their hands.

“We’ve really taken this whole thing very seriously,” Sheehan said. “We’re working in shifts because we don’t all want to be at the parish hall at the same time. We have someone directing traffic, we have someone taking the money and we have a food runner.” 

Before the supper, Sheehan and a few church members gathered to cut pies and prepare the take-out meals in the parish house next to the church.

Kay Gagnon, who has attended the church for more than 40 years, said the curbside supper is a learning process for everyone.

“This is a new endeavor,” Gagnon said. “But we’ve been able to plan this and work out the kinks.”

Organizers prepared 100 meals for the supper which featured a 200-year-old bean recipe and brown bread that is steamed “the old fashioned way,” according to Sheehan.

Served alongside the beans and bread was baked ham, macaroni and cheese, and coleslaw, all for $8.

The proceeds from the supper will be used to keep the church up and running.

“This is a maintenance fund,” Sheehan said. “We use that to keep the lights on, keep the church heated, as well as pay the minister.” 

For the past five years, the church, located at 112 Benton Falls Road, has been undergoing a series of restorations.

The church was founded as the Sebasticook Meeting House in 1826.

According to Sheehan, the purpose of the meeting house was to create a place for the community to gather as well as to provide a venue for church services.

The building next to the church — now the parish hall — was originally a schoolhouse called Clinton Academy.

The restoration of the church began in 2015 when it received a grant from the Maine Steeples Fund. The grant was used to contract with Preservation Timber Framing to identify which areas of the structure needed the most work.

Since then, the building has been jacked and leveled, a new support beam and water table have been put in, some trusses and rafters were repaired or replaced, a new roof deck was replaced, a new roof was installed with a grant from the Belvedere Fund and the capstones were leveled.

The church’s bell was the last Revere Bell produced from the Revere Foundry in Canton, Massachusetts.

The bell, which dates back to 1828, was removed from the tower and placed in a new cradle under a cement shed to protect it.

“The next thing is to work on the bell tower,” Sheehan said. “There are seven big beams that need to be replaced in the tower … it’s going to cost about $230,000 to do that so that’s our next big goal, to figure out how we can pull together $230,000.”

The restoration projects have been paid for through fundraising efforts, grants and community support, according to Sheehan.

Carol Bessey, 82, has attended the church her entire life and feels it’s crucial that the restoration projects are completed.

“We need to get the restoration finished,” Bessey said. “I was baptized here, I was married here, I go to church every Sunday when I can. This church has been here forever.”

Bessey, who now lives in Winslow, also attended Clinton Academy for seven years.

“I guess you could say this is my stomping ground,” Bessey said.

Sheehan emphasized that the labor and financial support the church has received from local businesses has been essential in moving forward with the restoration. These businesses include Gregory’s Disposal, McPhail’s Tree Service, Sean Dixon Construction, Niram Construction and McCormick’s Building Supplies

 “This has been a ground up operation and we have wonderful support from the community …” Sheehan said. “We just need some more financial help. It takes a lot of yard sales and bake sales to get this kind of work done.” 

Sheehan said the church’s board is looking to form a nonprofit organization.

“We’re hoping to get some other interest and form a 501(c)(3) to make this more of a community effort,” Sheehan said. “We’re hoping we can join forces with the town and the community members so we can save this beautiful little 1826 church … it would give the town another small meeting place, especially for music. The acoustics in that building are amazing, it’s almost ethereal.”

The church is also working to become a registered historic site, according to Sheehan.

“We’re really optimistic,” Sheehan said. “It might take a while but we’ll get this done.” 

Another bean supper is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26, from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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