Category Archives: religion

Not Your Father’s YMCA

Despite this morning’s post, there are some holiday decorations downtown.

But they’re not Christmas lights.

And they’re not where you might expect them.

Alert “06880” reader Jeff Giannone sent along this shot:

Y menorah

A menorah stands ready for tonight’s celebration of Hanukkah — the “Festival of Lights.” Set for 6:30 p.m., it’s sponsored by the 4 synagogues in town. All Westporters — of all faiths — are invited.

So head down to the site of the recently vacated Y.

Or — as it was once known — the Young Men’s Christian Association.



Getting In The Candlelight Mood

Staples’ 74th Candlelight Concert is more than a week away. But the orchestra, choirs and bands are hard at work, rehearsing for the high school’s annual gift to the town.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be part of the “Hallelujah Chorus”? Here’s an up-close-and-personal view, from backstage behind the string section.



Rudolph Is No Longer Horny

Last night’s ice sculpture carving — part of the post-Town Hall-tree-lighting festivities held around the corner at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church — was very impressive. Rudolph was one of the creations — complete with his trademark red nose. JP Vellotti was inspired to take a photo.

But when he went back this morning, the very alert “06880” reader was surprised to see Rudolph’s antlers were gone. He took another shot.

Rudolph collage

Before and after.

JP asks: “Did they melt in the sub-freezing temps overnight? Or was someone naughty? Only Santa knows who will get a present or coal in their stocking!”

Remembering Elwood Betts

Elwood Betts — a proud Westport native, indefatigable civic volunteer and all-around good guy — died yesterday of cardiac arrest. He was 89.

His next door neighbor sends along this wonderful tribute:

This Thanksgiving, I am truly thankful for having the honor of being the next-door neighbor of the soul of Westport for the last 6 years. Elwood Betts always had a pleasant hello waiting for me and my fellow neighbors, raising his arm with his big hand in the air with an echoing “Helllllllllo there!” When you heard that voice you knew who was outside, happy to see and greet you, rain or shine…

When we first moved to Park Lane, welcoming neighbors were first to inform us who was our street chieftain. He told us great stories about his beloved late wife, and all the joy he shared with her for over 50 years. A few years after we met, his son moved back into his childhood house to take care of his father, along with his lovely wife. We knew Westport was the right town for us to raise a family, but we had no idea we’d be blessed to live next to such a wonderful man.

Elwood Betts at Evergreen Cemetery. That restoration effort was one of his many civic projects.

Elwood Betts at Evergreen Cemetery. That restoration effort was one of his many civic projects.

That first year we moved next door to him, before the arrival of our son, he would show me his library of historical photos and information about the town of Westport, his beloved church, his family heritage. Over the years, he had collected an incredible amount of facts about town because he loved it like his family. He was Westport in my mind, and he wanted to pass on his passion by leaving behind all the reasons why Westport meant more to him than just a zip code. He wanted everyone to embrace the depth of our cultural town.

The first piece of history he shared with me was when his church, Saugatuck Congregational, was moved across the Post Road in 1950. He told me how the road had been blocked so that 500 men, women and children could gather before the shored-up structure for a service of prayer and thanksgiving. They sang “Faith of Our Fathers” accompanied by a portable organ. Then at 60 feet per hour, the 200-ton building was moved down a 19-foot incline on 55 logs across the Post Road, to stand adjacent to the parsonage. He had all the photos in a bound book. I thought, “This guy knows his stuff!”

My wife and I quickly learned what mattered to him most: family and his church. He loved his kids and his grandchildren so much, a proud father indeed. He shared stories that made me think how lucky they were to have him as their family patriarch.

Last year at Sherwood Island, Elwood Betts (left) showed archaeologist Ernie Wiegand where the 1787 Sherwood house stood.

Last year at Sherwood Island, Elwood Betts (left) showed archaeologist Ernie Wiegand where the 1787 Sherwood house stood.

He was a rich soul who cared for everyone else first, putting himself last. When his beloved place of worship suffered a devastating fire, Park Lane was lined with cars for months. He stepped into a leadership role, towards restoring Westport’s centerpiece of grace and place for the faithful. People rallied for him, took his direction and the spirit of community spread from there.

I learned recently that because the church is under restoration, he had offered to host the men’s group on Thursday mornings at his home. Even at the age of 89, he was still thinking of ways to help his community.

Tomorrow I will truly miss wishing a “Happy Thanksgiving” to a man of such character, integrity, sincerity, and humility — my irreplaceable neighbor and friend, Elwood Betts.

God bless you and your family. Here’s thanks for all your efforts to make Westport what it is today. May we all live up to your standards of preserving its authenticity.

Click below for Elwood Betts’ oral history of Westport:

(Calling hours are this Friday, Nov. 28, from 5-8 p.m. at the Harding Funeral Home. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 11 a.m. at Greens Farms Congregational Church. A reception will follow.)

(For more “06880” stories about Elwood Betts: resurrecting Evergreen Cemeteryremembering the Hindenburg over Westport; remembering Sherwood Island Mill Pond)

Church Finds Sanctuary In A Temple

For 3 years — following a devastating Thanksgiving Week fire at Saugatuck Congregational Church — something remarkable has taken place in Westport.

Every Sunday morning, Temple Israel has welcomed the Saugatuck congregation to worship in their space.

Recently — as the church gets ready to return to its almost-renovated home — Michael Hendricks delivered this beautiful, thanks-filled sermon. It’s worth reading no matter what your faith — or even if you have none at all.

It is very tempting to look at today’s Bible text about the people of Israel despairing over water following their exodus from Egypt and think how it relates to our congregation’s situation since the fire that devastated our church home back in November of 2011.

The Israelites were afraid because they had no water. And we were afraid our lack of a building could threaten our identity.

No water. No identity. No existence. No wonder people get frightened.

Do any of you remember talking to our lay leaders in the first days and weeks after the fire? When they had to promise that everything would be okay. Even though they had yet to learn even what the first step would be. Even though they had no idea if any clergy candidate would have the courage to take on the senior pastor position we were still seeking to fill. In light of the incredible achievements that have taken place these last 3 years, it is easy to forget where it began.  But think what it must have been like for those lay leaders to ask for our trust at the beginning,

While the main damage was in the rear of the building, no part of the Saugatuck Church was untouched by some degree of fire, soot, water, and smoke damage.

While the main damage was in the rear of the building, no part of the Saugatuck Church was untouched by some degree of fire, soot, water, and smoke damage.

It was at that point of greatest doubt and fear in the Bible story – when there was no hope left – when the ordinary physical world had exhausted its ability to sustain existence – that God steps in and the miracle takes place. Water suddenly, impossibly springs not from a hidden well or oasis, but from a dead, arid, hard rock. And the people of Israel are saved.

Like I said, it is tempting to see parallels in this story with our own congregation’s feelings of wilderness wandering these last 3 years.

Especially now when our return to our church home is imminent and the realization is beginning to sink in that through the grace of God, the contributions of many, and the exhaustive work of a few, we are going to survive this ordeal.

I am, however, going to resist the temptation to draw these parallels.

I am going to resist this temptation because, despite the similarities, in some crucial and pivotal ways our recent experiences, difficult and unsettling as they have been, really don’t parallel the experiences of the people of Israel at all.

And that’s why, though I’m sure some variation of this story undoubtedly happened, I’m not surprised that nobody thought it important or dramatic enough to record it. But, sisters and brothers, I can’t help feeling that, in its own way, this might be the greatest story never told.

And, with regard to Saugatuck, this would be the wilderness story that most closely resembles our experience.

Because before we ever got anywhere near thirsty enough to feel threatened, before the lack of a place to meet for worship ever came close to dispersing us, our friends at Temple Israel said to us, “Come. We have space. We can figure this out. Worship here.”

For that, we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, and because of that we share a bond that I hope continues as long as both congregations exist.

Temple Israel

Temple Israel

As most of you know, there was a time when the congregation of Temple Israel was welcomed to celebrate their services at Saugatuck Church. And while I am proud, but not surprised, that Saugatuck was the church that opened its doors to our neighbors of a different faith tradition, I confess that I am unable to see the symmetry in our now being welcomed to worship here.

From where I sit, sadly, there is simply no comparison in a church allowing the symbols of Jewish worship through its doors, and a Jewish temple allowing the symbols of Christian worship to enter theirs.

The history of the last 2,000 years, the history of the last 100 years, very understandably and more regrettably than I can ever express, may for some have lent an aura of threat and violence to the symbols that for us read as nothing but pure and holy love.

Nevertheless, these last 3 years, we have taught our stories to our children in the same classrooms that the Temple uses to teach their stories to their children. We have met on the Sabbath to worship God in the same space that the Temple meets in on Shabbas to also worship God.

And I can’t tell you how powerful and how humbling it has been for me these last 3 years that we have been welcomed to celebrate Christmas and Easter – think about it, Christmas and Easter – in Temple Israel’s sanctuary.

Neighbor helping neighbor.  Reaching across the things that separate to lend the helping hand that is needed at the moment.

In its own way, is there a more needed miracle in the world today?  Maybe even in the entire history of the world? It almost makes the water from the rock miracle seem easy.

Before returning home, Saugatuck Congregational Church offers thanks to Temple Israel.

Before returning home, Saugatuck Congregational Church offers thanks to Temple Israel.

God bless Rabbi Orkand, Rabbi Shapiro and Rabbi Friedman. God bless Rabbi Mendelsohn Graf and Rabbi Schwartz. God bless Cantor Silverman  and Cantor Sklar. God bless Lisa Goldberg. God bless Greg Jones and Troy Golding.

And maybe most importantly, God bless all the members of the Temple Israel congregation who never got the chance to work with us or get to know us, who maybe felt threatened by our presence in their holy place of sanctuary and, by the grace of God, welcomed us to worship here anyway.

Your generosity and courage saved us from ever really having to face that threat to our existence that the people of Israel faced in their wanderings

You have written yourselves a place in the history of our congregation that we can never forget.

You have taught us a lesson in true welcoming that we had better not forget.

Thank you.






Everyone Lift! Kemper-Gunn House Move Set For Tuesday

It’s not the Saugatuck Congregational Church move. But it should be pretty cool anyway.

In 1950, the church — sanctuary, bell tower, hymnals and all — was moved from its longtime location near Baron’s South (the site today of a gas station) across the Post Road (then called State Street) to its current spot on the corner of Myrtle Avenue (where it now looks like it’s been all along).

How do you move a church? In 1950, this way.

How do you move a church? In 1950, this way.

The move — accomplished thanks to a series of logs — took 10 hours. Life Magazine spotlighted the event. (It was a slow news week.)

This Tuesday (starting at 6:30 a.m.), the much smaller Kemper-Gunn House makes a much shorter trip. The 1890-era building will be wheeled — or in some other way conveyed — across Elm Street. Its new home is the Baldwin parking lot.

An artist's rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

An artist’s rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it settles in at the Baldwin parking lot.

Lost in the mists of history is what those mid-20th-century Westporters did while watching the church make its verrrry slooooow trip down Route 1.

But we do know what will happen Tuesday. Java — the 1-year-old coffee shop across Church Lane from Kemper-Gunn —  will hand out free coffee and baked goods (courtesy of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce).

Pray for good weather.

Jean Donovan, Remembered

More than 3 decades after her brutal murder, Jean Donovan is back in the news.

The Westport native was 1 of 4 American churchwomen killed on December 2, 1980 by Salvadoran national guardsmen.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

Jean — a junior high and Staples High School classmate of mine — was a lay missionary working in El Salvador, helping the poor.

She and 3 nuns were beaten, raped, shot in the head, then dumped by the roadside.

Now, the New York Times reports that 2 Salvadoran generals — defense ministers during the “blood-soaked” 1980s — may be deported.

The Times says:

They were allowed to settle there during the presidency of George Bush, who, like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, considered them allies and bulwarks against a Moscow-backed leftist insurgency.

But administrations change, and so do government attitudes. Over the past two and a half years, immigration judges in Florida have ruled that the generals bore responsibility for assassinations and massacres, and deserve now to be “removed” — bureaucratese for deported. Both are appealing the decisions, so for now they are going nowhere. Given their ages, their cases may be, for all parties, a race against time.

Longtime Westporter John Suggs says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”

A Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship at Santa Clara University — a Jesuit school — supports students interested in social justice, while in Los Angeles the Casa Jean Donovan Community Residence houses members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

A tribute to Jean Donovan  and fellow churchwomen, near the spot of their murder in El Salvador.

A tribute to Jean Donovan and fellow churchwomen, near the spot of their murder in El Salvador.

But, Suggs says, “in Westport she is all but forgotten.” The few who remember her, and mourn her passing each December, believe she has been forgotten by her town, her school and her parish. (There is a brief mention of her, he says, in the back vestibule of Assumption Church. And Staples graduate Cynthia Gibb played a character based on Jean in Oliver Stone’s “Salvador.”)

The New York Times has shed a new light on Jean Donovan’s murderers. Perhaps next month, she will not be mourned by so few.

(The New York Times story includes a fascinating 13-minute video.)

Hit-And-Run Driver Strikes Downtown

Christ & Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church, in the heart of downtown. They open their doors to all, in many important ways.

Which makes what happened yesterday morning even more deplorable than if it happened someplace else.

Someone tried to drive up the stairs from the parking lot to the Memorial Garden. He (or she) significantly damaged the wrought iron railings on either side of the stairway.

Church officials think the car may have gotten hung up on the step or railing. There are 2 spin marks on the ground.

Christ & Holy Trinity damage

They know it’s a Nissan since a piece of the front grill broke off. A bit of the plastic license plate frame says “Wilton.”

Keep your eye out for a Nissan — perhaps silver — with a damaged front end.

In the meantime, Christ & Holy Trinity will continue to serve all Westporters. But please: park in the lot.

Update: Earthplace, Temple Israel, And The Future Of Westport Transit

An “06880” post earlier today reported that the after-school Westport Transit District bus routes serving Earthplace and Temple Israel would be suspended indefinitely.

“06880” has learned that last-ditch negotiations may provide a solution. But time is running out.

EarthplaceThe reason for the suspension of the routes is cessation of federal funds. Because the route is geared to students traveling from schools to afternoon activities — but not run by a school district — it is out of compliance with government regulations.

If the funds are cut, dozens of Westport parents will have to figure how to get their kids to Earthplace programs, and religious education.

One result, of course, would be more cars on the road.

Temple IsraelBroader issues include: What’s the future of the Westport Transit District? How does it fit in with other area organizations? How do we live and move around in town? Is there any role for mass transportation, suburb-style?

A number of folks are working hard, seeking a resolution. State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, First Selectman Jim Marpe and town operations director Dewey Loselle, the WTD’s Jennifer Johnson and Gene Cederbaum, along with Earthplace and Temple Israel officials, have pulled many levers seeking a stay of execution — or at least a delay.

There are many layers to this onion. Stay tuned as Westport peels them back, one by one.

A Westport Transit District bus.

A Westport Transit District bus.

3 Bears For Sale

No, not the longtime restaurant on Newtown Turnpike. That was sold awhile ago — to Chabad Lubavitch.

These 3 bears — papa, mama and baby? — have stood for years outside the Post Road BP gas station, near Maple Avenue.

Bear collage

Now it’s an Exxon station.

And the bears bear “For Sale” signs.

The oil industry doesn’t get more cutthroat than this.