The Rev. Frank Byron walked around the perimeter of the Second Baptist Church on Water Street in Waterville pointing to all the work it needs.

“The exterior is starting to deteriorate so we’re in the process of trying to put it back together somewhat,” he said.

Byron, 88, said the beautiful stained-glass windows were covered with plexiglass years ago because kids would throw rocks at them, but that plexiglass has since become foggy so you can’t see the windows.

“We’d like to replace it with something transparent,” he said.

I met Byron and church historian Don Perrine on Tuesday at the church, which was built in 1887. The lighting and windows in the basement need to be replaced. The paint on the belfry walls need to be scraped and repainted and the rotted belfry sills fixed. The bricks must be repointed, the floor in the vestry refinished and the wiring throughout the church redone.

“The church is approaching its 135th year,” Perrine said. “We have been working like crazy, trying to dress this place up.”

A contractor told them it would cost about $30,000 to fix everything, and it is money the church doesn’t have. Some people volunteer to help, including church member Bill Lawrence who scraped the paint off the front of the church, and then Perrine himself climbed up and painted nearly to the belfry.

At 86, it’s probably not safe to do that, but he is determined to see the church preserved at a time when so many older buildings are being torn down.

The Rev. Frank Byron stands inside the Second Baptist Church on Water Street in Waterville on Wednesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It represents a lot of history in the city of Waterville, ” he said. “Up until 1951, all of the services were in French.”

A detail-oriented Perrine recounts its history, going back to the 1800s when French Baptists needed a place to worship and Jonathan Forbush, a student at Waterville Theological College, which later would become Colby College, helped establish a mission for the French Canadian immigrants who worked in the mills.

Forbush died in 1836 at just 21, but other theology students continued his mission, which evolved some 50 years later as the French Baptist Mission. It met in a saloon on the spot where the church is now, but the saloon owner told the mission to get out or buy the property. The Ladies Social Union of the First Baptist Church bought the property, the saloon was razed, and the current church built. It split from the First Baptist Church in 1938.

More recently, in 2003, the HBO film “Empire Falls,” based on Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, included scenes from the church, where actors Paul Newman and Ed Harris were featured prominently.

There’s a lot more history to the church, but it would take pages to recount.

Suffice it to say that Byron, Perrine and the small congregation of about 20 are anxious to preserve not only that precious history, but also the physical structure itself. And part of ensuring the church survives means drawing new and younger members, as most are now between 70 and 90, they said.

“He’s 88 and I’m 86 and the warranty’s about up on this,” Perrine said. “There hasn’t been much talk about it, but we’re going to need a younger group for the future.”

He and Byron say they welcome anyone, regardless of age, to the church, where old-time hymns are sung and on Sunday mornings before the 10 a.m. service they have a music session. Perrine plays the tenor guitar and harmonica, Lily Glidden plays piano, Lawrence plays a six-string guitar and Perrine’s wife, Sandy, as well as Byron and his wife, Joy, sing.

They hope people will get involved in activities like the church had several years ago when Colby students would come regularly and mentor and tutor children in the afternoons. A few years ago, AmeriCorps volunteers helped paint the vestry, they said.

Byron, who laughs easily and often, has been with the church five years. Before that, he was pastor at Center Vassalboro Baptist Church for 15 years and a missionary in Ontario for 20 years before that. He and Perrine, both U.S. Air Force veterans, believe in service, continue to serve and hope others will, too, through donations, labor or by just attending church.

“We need donations badly and a receipt and a thank-you note will be given for each person who donates,” Byron said. “The Lord has kept this church open for a reason. There’s certainly all kinds of possibilities here.”

He said anyone who wants to help may call Perrine at 207-238-0279 or write the church at 172 Water St., Waterville, ME 04901.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 33 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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