Susan Briggs, left, Jody Welch, center, and Jennifer Day gather Saturday at the Oak Grove-Coburn School chapel in Vassalboro. The three alumnae of the former school sit on the board that is working to build a structure that will allow the chapel to be used for events. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

VASSALBORO — The Oak Grove-Coburn School may have closed more than 30 years ago, but its alumni have long kept the former Quaker school’s legacy alive.

Sprouted out of necessity, the Oak Grove School Foundation is looking to build a caretaker’s property at the chapel, the one physical part of the campus still in the possession of those connected with the school.

“I feel it’s very important, because they sold the school, and the only thing alumni have left, where they can go on their own time and sit and be present with something from Oak Grove School, is the chapel,” said Susan Briggs, a 1976 Oak Grove-Coburn graduate and lifelong Vassalboro resident.

“The chapel was built in 1786. It’s built solid. It’s lived that long, so I want to keep it living longer, for more people to enjoy it.”

The school goes back as far as 1828, with Waterville Academy, Waterville Classical Institute and Coburn Classical Institute, which merged with Oak Grove School in 1970.

Briggs, who has served on the foundation’s board for more than a decade, teamed with Oak Grove School Foundation board President Jody Welch, a 1978 graduate, in February to establish the goal of building a caretaker’s cottage.

After conversations with builders, advisers and town officials, the idea of building a financially self-sustainable rental unit began to take form.

“When the chapel became in need of repair, we stopped having weddings and started thinking about how we were going to save money to do repairs,” said Welch, also a lifelong Vassalboro resident. “We kept thinking, ‘How can we use the chapel and for what purpose?’ Sue Briggs and I put it forward and said, ‘Why don’t we do something ourselves?'”

The Oak Grove-Coburn School served students in grades six through 12 from 1970 to 1989. The school may be long closed, but its legacy lives on through the nonprofit Oak Grove Educational Foundation.

A postcard shows the chapel in about 1910. Courtesy Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg joined the board this year, but has deep connections to Oak Grove-Coburn. The 1979 Oak Grove-Coburn graduate was a resident on the school’s campus when his father, Fred B. Steinberg, served as the school’s headmaster. Michael Steinberg keeps a detailed website with archival photos, yearbooks and other materials.

Steinberg, who teaches and is director of the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School, described Oak Grove-Coburn as “an amazing, special place.”

“I talk to people now about their high school experiences, people all over the country, and nobody seems to have that connection to their time in high school that I do and my classmates do,” said Steinberg, who was born in Boston but moved to Maine at a young age.

“There were not the type of cliques that you see typically in high school. You had students that were not only great athletes, but participated in theater and music. We knew we had something special at the time, but, looking back, friendships were made for a lifetime.”

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy now occupies the former school’s castlelike structure, but the foundation maintains a chapel on the 500-acre campus.

“Going forward, it’s for the community, for central Maine,” Welch said. “It’s a product for the future, and to keep it going for the next generation.”

As it stands today, the chapel is in disrepair. It does not have water or bathroom facilities, which makes it a challenge to host events. To solve the issue, members of the foundation plan to build a caretaker’s cottage on the property.

The new rental unit will share a common area with running water and restroom facilities, creating a more-complete opportunity to host more events. There will also be additional meeting space and a kitchenette for events at the chapel.

Oak Grove-Coburn School alumni gather at the 2019 reunion outside the chapel. Courtesy of Michael Steinberg

“I think it’s critically important,” Steinberg said. “It’s a beautiful, historic building. It’s just some great memories. It has unlimited potential, except for the fact that it does not have running water, and that has been a major impediment to have events on a regular basis.”

The chapel has played host to many school reunions. Some weddings, too. In fact, Welch married her husband, Bernard, at the chapel in 1981.

The foundation’s board approved the decision to build the caretaker’s cottage in March, but the COVID-19 pandemic created obstacles. Donors had less money and material costs went up. Recently, however, an anonymous donor put up an $80,000 matching grant. Once the grant is matched, the foundation can break ground on the cottage.

Jennifer Day, a 1988 Oak Grove-Coburn graduate and am agent with Coldwell Banker Rizzo Mattson Realtors in Augusta, joined the nonprofit’s board of directors this year.

“Because the foundation had already been identified with its mission statement to support education and promote, when possible, Quaker education and support the chapel, it doesn’t directly state that we can make capital improvements,” said Day of Saco. “The building of the cottage completely depends on raising outside funds for the cottage.”

Initial construction estimates were $160,000, but Day said the cost looks more like $190,000 to $200,000.

The Oak Grove Educational Foundation supports educational, charitable and religious organizations. It has two grant seasons, one in spring, the other in fall.

Spring grants are up to $5,000 and given to organizations. In fall, which is a “mini grant” season, the foundation seeks $1,000 grants that are awarded to faculty members or faculty groups at high schools, such as the Maine Arts Academy in Sidney, one of this fall’s grantees.

Susan Briggs sits Saturday at the Oak Grove-Coburn School chapel in Vassalboro. Briggs, a 1976 graduate and lifelong Vassalboro resident, sits on the board that is working to build a structure that will allow the chapel to be used for events. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The grants support many initiatives, from arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly known as STEM.

The foundation is funded by the proceeds from the sale of the main building to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and support from the Sandy River Charitable Foundation. Due to the pandemic, however, most grants are paused and fundraising is delayed.

“It originally started as giving money to the area high schools and middle schools for students who were displaced by the Oak Grove School (closing),” said Briggs, who is a teacher at Vassalboro Community School. “It evolved over years to support programs that are innovative toward students’ learning.”

As a school, Oak-Grove Coburn charged tuition. Vassalboro and a handful of towns funded students who opted to attend the school.

Although the school was Quaker, the curriculum did not include theology. A daily morning meeting was held, but it served more as a general school assembly.

The school, whose enrollment peaked at 175 students, had domestic and international boarding students.

Day said she shared a world history class with students from Germany, Japan and Spain. She had classmates from cities across America — Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Pittsburgh and more.

The school provided students from rural Maine with opportunities to meet and develop friendships with people from many backgrounds.

“I think it created its own little nucleus within rural Maine that never would’ve existed,” Day said. “We had the most organic cross-pollination of students that you could imagine.”

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