Category Archives: religion

Westport’s Thanksgiving Miracle

Last week — a few days before Thanksgiving — this poignant post appeared on Facebook’s “Exit 18: Westport CT Residents and Ex-Residents” page:

My name is Effie and I grew up at 28 Hillspoint Road, where the Conservative Synagogue is now.

They are demolishing the house I grew up in in the next day or two… and I am hundreds of miles away. I wonder if there is anyone there locally who would be kind enough to go by the house and take some pictures, today possibly, before it comes down, and when it’s being taken down.

I grew up there with my brother Alex, who passed away 12 years ago in a car crash. All of our memories are in that house. I have tried for months to get the synagogue to allow me to retrieve some things from the house, to no avail. They said they would get me a door knob and send it to me.

I am devastated and would just like someone who cares, to try and take pictures of the house… before and during demolition. I can’t make it down for a couple of weeks and they didn’t let me know until the last minute. I don’t wish this on anyone. Thank you for your time and understanding. Effie

Effie posted this photo of her old Hillspoint Road home.

Comments poured in. Jeff Van Gelder remembered delivering the Town Crier newspaper to that house. He wished he could help — but he now lives in Germany.

Carmine Picarello lives just 10 minutes away. Unfortunately, he’s currently in San Francisco.

Janette Kinally jumped in. She offered to stop by and take photos.

Other readers added memories or sent condolences. A few others said they’d help too.

Inspired, Effie added more information about her house.

It was built by her great-aunt Frances Humphrey in the 1920s. One of the first women to graduate from Columbia Medical School and never married, she traveled the world alone, bringing much of what she found back to Westport. The hearthstone in the living room is solid jade, from one of her many steamship trips to Japan

“All going to turn to dust,” Effie lamented. “I’m not ok with it, and there is no way to stop it or salvage anything. I tried. It’s not been a good experience. Very disappointed. We all know the drill. It stinks. Thank you for understanding. It means a lot to me.”

Effie and her brother Alex.

Touched by the offers to help, she wrote:

Even with the sad things going on, the kindness and understanding I have received from all of you kind people has helped me tremendously, and I will never forget your kindness. Ever.

It’s not the items so much as the love attached to them. You have turned something sad into something very special and positive. I don’t know how to thank you, except know that I will keep your kindness with me, and pay it forward.

Two days later, Effie wrote again. This time she said:

I received a call from the synagogue this morning. They had tried to reach me yesterday as well.

We, myself and the Conservative Synagogue, are equally impressed, deeply moved, and extremely touched, by the outpouring of love, from the people of Westport.

This is a picture of a board from the attic of the house, that I apparently wrote on, years ago. The rabbi took it upon himself to go into the attic last night and remove it for me. Other members went in and took out quite a few other items, that are there for me to pick up in 2 weeks when I come down to Connecticut. They also had a professional photographer take pictures for me, and took video.

The items from the home are now a bonus. The selflessness and the genuine love, that has come out of the situation, is priceless. As are our collective memories. These are the things we need to hold onto the tightest, and value the most, always. I know I will. Thanks to every single one of you kind and selfless souls, who took the time to comment, take pictures, send me kind and supportive messages, and retrieve items from my childhood and family home. The LOVE I feel, coming from my home town, brings me to tears. Happy and grateful tears. 

The Thanksgiving miracle happened just in time. Two days after her original post, Effie noted:

It’s down. It’s done. The house is gone. I can live with that, knowing how many people will keep and cherish their own memories of 28 Hillspoint Road, my brother Alex, and our family. There is no other way I can really thank you all, other than to say, THANK YOU, from myself and my parents.

I heard from a friend, that Westport has had some internal friction in recent years, because of the school situation. I hope this experience brought some of those people together, who otherwise might be at odds. I also hope that tomorrow, everyone will be giving thanks for the things we have, that aren’t things. Most of all each other.

I love Westport, because of the people, who call, and have called this very special town, “home.” You are all now family to me.

Our LOVE, and deep gratitude, to you ALL. — Effie, and the Watts family.

(Hat tip: Mark Potts)

“The Number On Great-Grandpa’s Arm” Comes To Westport

A pair of bomb threats to a Bridgeport temple — just 2 days before the first anniversary of the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue — reminds us all that anti-Semitism is still very real.

Which makes an upcoming townwide, interfaith event particularly important.

This Sunday, November 10 (1:30 p.m.), the Westport Library will screen HBO’s Emmy Award-winning short documentary, “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.”

The film — which features an intimate conversation between a young boy and hi beloved great-grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor — includes hundreds of animated drawings by Westport filmmaker/painter Jeff Scher.

The screening will be followed by an audience Q-and-A with Elliott Saiontz, the film’s young narrator; his mother, and Scher. The discussion will be moderated by Rev. John D. Betit, of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

One of Jeff Scher’s drawings in the film.

Monique Lions Greenspan has helped organize the event.

Her mother survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “I know firsthand the incredible strength, optimism and gratefulness that survivors possess,” Monique says.

“Their stories provide invaluable lessons for both adults and children. I feel a deep sense of obligation to make our community aware of this opportunity for our children — and adults too — to bear witness to and learn from survivors’ experiences.”

Unfortunately, she says, in the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue attacks — and others, in places as varied as Christchurch, Poway, El Paso and Halle — “it is more important than ever to commit to programs and discussions that clearly define expectations for, and the responsibilities of, all members of the community. Hate cannot be normalized.”

(The November 10 film is sponsored by the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, PJ Our Way and the Westport Library. After the screening and discussion, the Nu Haven Kapelye offers “a musical journey from sorrow to joy, through the Klezmer tradition.” Both events are free. Click here for more information.) 

ADL Raises Voices, Inspires A “Show Of Unity”

For decades, the ADL has helped Westport.

Now it’s time for us to return the favor.

The organization — the Connecticut chapter of what was originally called the Anti-Defamation League — has:

  • Offered anti-bias training programs for teachers, students, parents and community members
  • Provided Holocaust education
  • Responded to anti-Semitic and other hate incidents
  • Sponsored Police Chief Foti Koskinas for a special course on extremist and terrorist threats, for senior-level law enforcement personnel
  • Helped begin the Kool to be Kind initiative
  • Worked with Staples High School staff on the new “Connections” program
  • Brought former neo-Nazi Frank Meeink, and ex-Westboro Baptist Church members Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper here
  • Worked with every synagogue in town on the interactive “Words to Action” program, for students from middle school through college.

“We will always be there for our community,” says ADL Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg, a Westport resident. “Now, we’re bringing the community together with a ‘show of unity.'”

It will be quite a show. “ADL Voices” is a major fundraiser, on Saturday, November 9 (Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, 8 p.m.).

Trombone Shorty — the New Orleans-based jazz, funk, R&B, hip hop, pop and rock trombone, trumpet, organ and tuba player — will star.

Trombone Shorty

Award-winning gospel artist Pastor Marcia Fountain will solo. David Letterman’s bandleader Paul Shaffer emcees. Westporter Sarah Green serves as artistic director.

The Voices Choir — a talented, diverse group of musicians, singers and dancers from across Fairfield County — will perform, along with the Pivot Ministries Choir from Bridgeport.

Students from Staples High School, the Bridgeport public schools and Neighborhood Studios will sing, along with those from Fairfield Prep, Fairfield University, Keys Bridgeport and the Manhattan School of Music, and various church and synagogue choirs.

Westport Academy of Dance’s senior company introduces a piece specially choreographed for the event.

Other Westporters involved include the Staples Service League of Boys; ADL board member and event chair Claudia Cohen, along with many volunteers.

It’s truly be a “unifying” night. The fundraising benefit and community gathering is designed to “bring people together, foster dialogue and build mutual respect,” Ginsburg says.

It will also be very entertaining, quite inspirational, and tons of fun.

(For more information, including tickets and sponsorship opportunities, click here. Major sponsors include Bercham Moses LLP, Norwalk Hospital and Terex.)

From Gun Barrels To Garden Tools

The prophet Isaiah said it well:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Over 2,000 years later we use guns, not swords. And we use them not only against other nations, but on ourselves.

This morning, the Unitarian Church in Westport took Isaiah literally (with a 21st-century twist).

Retired Episcopal Bishop Jim Curry preached on his work of taking guns off the street, and transforming them into garden tools. He was joined by Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence.

After the service, Rev. Curry fired up his forge in the courtyard, and demonstrated the transformation.

Linda Hudson and Bishop Suffragan (ret.) Jim Curry, hard at work.

Truly, he practiced what he preached.

“Swords into plowshares; guns into gardening tools.” (Photos/Stephen Axthelm)

“Stand By Me”: Royal Wedding Choir Comes To Westport

You — and the world — watched in awe as the Kingdom Choir sang “Stand By Me” at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.

They’ll sing it again, next month.

In Westport.

The British gospel group — whose stirring rendition of the Ben E. King classic led to a record deal with Sony — comes to Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Saturday, November 2 (5 p.m.).

They’re on their first-ever North American tour. But mostly — since arriving in September — they’re playing big venues, like Hollywood Bowl.

They’ve booked only 2 intimate church venues. One was in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The other is Westport.

Christ & Holy Trinity director of music Michael Burnette is very excited. He replied “yes!” the moment he got an email from a booking agent, asking about interest.

The Kingdom Choir will sing a mixture of gospel, spiritual and pop tunes, Burdette says. They provide “a message of hope, and a brighter tomorrow.”

The choir’s debut CD is called “Stand By Me: 15 Songs of Love, Hope and Inspiration.”

In 2018, they inspired the royal couple, and the world.

Soon, they’ll do the same on Church Lane.

(Tickets are $65 for preferred seating, $50 for general adult, $15 for children 18 and under, and $115 for a family ticket. To order or for more information, click here or call 203-227-0827.)

Remembering Anne Salmond

Anne Salmond — a longtime Westporter — died Sunday in hospice care, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Anne and her husband Willie spent over 30 years in Africa, from Ghana to Zimbabwe to Uganda, working in international development. But since 1981, Westport was always their base camp.

A psychiatric social worker, Anne had a special place in her heart for orphaned children. After graduating from Queen’s University in Northern Ireland, her home country, she worked in London and then Uganda at the height of the AIDS pandemic. A million Ugandan children were orphaned.

Anne was appointed orphans’ coordinator with World Learning. She organized Africa’s first Orphans Conference, bringing together experts from government and international NGOs.

In Uganda, Anne rehabilitated a school for the blind. She requested donations of braille story books. Quickly, huge boxes arrived by air.

In retirement Anne continued to support children’s education, with help from her daughter Heather and others.

Anne Salmond

Locally, Anne was an active member of Y’s Women, and a longtime member of Saugatuck Congregational Church. She volunteered with its missions board, and helped Pivot Ministries and Homes With Hope. She also served many meals at the Gillespie Center.

Anne supported Amnesty International, was an associate member of the Iona Community, and a member of the Daughters of the British Empire. She made many good friends through those groups.

She loved Compo Beach in all seasons.

A service for Anne will be held Saturday, November 9 (11 a.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church).

Woodmen Spared That Tree!

Over the years, “06880” has reported on too many tree removal stories.

This is not one of those.

Over the past months, there’s been an effort in town to improve the intersections and cross streets on Myrtle Avenue.

One victim of this modernization project was to be the island in front of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, by Sconset Square. The plan was to remove everything, to form a “T” intersection.

The site is lovely. It’s also historic.

It’s where the Disbrow Tavern was located, back in the 1700s. George Washington is said to have had some ale there, and maybe even a room for the night.

The original Myrtle Avenue traffic island was much larger. (Photo courtesy of Morley Boyd)

A tree sat on the island for centuries, until the 1960s. It was removed in an earlier modernization project.

Church members took it upon themselves to inform the town of the site’s history and beauty, and the utility of the island and tree.

In the mid-’60s, parishioners planted what they called the new “Trinity tree.”

Fifty years later, that history has been forgotten by — or is unknown to — many Westporters. Construction has decreased the size of the island, and damaged the roots. All of that endangered the Trinity tree.

Some area residents and members of the Planning & Zoning Commission worked through a variety of town agencies to save the tree, and the island.

Over the last couple of weeks, a contractor hired by the town has loosened the soil, injected it with mulch and nutrients, trimmed the branches — and removed campaign signs.

The tree, after trimming last week. (Photo/Chip Stephens)

Thanks to tree warden Bruce Lindsay and others, the Trinity tree now has a good chance of adorning, and shading, the island for another 50 years.

That is, if people don’t tramp on the island and its roots, while putting up signs.

Lindsay placed 4 small signs on the island, asking people to stay off and give the tree a chance.

A campaign sign appeared this morning. Town officials say they’ll remove them, as long as the tree is convalescing.

This is not about politics. It’s just about common sense.

And the history and beauty of a downtown tree we all love, admire and respect.

Remembering JoAnne Siebrasse

Westport has lost another longtime civic volunteer.

JoAnne Siebrasse died last month. She was 93 years old.

She and her late husband Dick spent most of their long married life as enthusiastic Westporters. They came here after several corporate transfers, requiring 2- and 3-year semi-permanent relocations in the Midwest.

While Dick first commuted to New York as an advertising “Mad Man,” and later climbed the corporate ladder at CPC International in New Jersey, Westport remained their home for over 50 years. JoAnne invested her time and significant effort to make many long-term friends and community connections here.

JoAnne Siebrasse

Her primary focus in life was to be of service to others. She was active with the Westport Woman’s Club serving on its board  and with the Curio Cottage, Scholarship Committee, Yankee Doodle Fair and more.

JoAnne also was an avid, longtime participant in American Red Cross blood drives; Meals on Wheels; board member of Christian Community Action food pantry (now Person-2-Person); Westport Senior Center; Westport Historical Society, and community outreach at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Greens Farms Congregational Church.

Her son Tom says, “Never one to take direction well, she always served on the boards of the organizations she joined to make her voice and enthusiasm heard. She gathered countless friends and interesting companions along the way.”

Donations in JoAnne Siebrasse’s name can be sent to CT Food Bank, Fidelco Guide Dogs or Homes for Our Troops.

Friday Flashback #163

This Sunday (October 13), Saugatuck Congregational Church celebrates the dedication of its new organ.

Founded in 1832, it’s been an important part of town life for nearly 2 centuries. The 1835 announcement about the incorporation of the town of Westport was nailed to the meeting house door. For years, town meetings were held there.

But “there” was not its typical New England site: the back of a broad lawn, on by Myrtle Avenue. 

The church was first located diagonally across the Post Road, up the hill and a bit east, near the current site of the Sunoco gas station and the Fairfield County Bank branch that no human being has ever been seen going into or out of.

In 1950 the church was moved — carefully, and over the course of a long day — to its present spot. The event was featured in Life Magazine. I’ve written about it before, on “06880.”

There will be a big crowd Sunday, for the organ dedication and concert. Will anyone there remember when the church was here?

(Photo courtesy of Don Willmott)

Thanksgiving Feast Is On The Marc

It’s one of Westport’s greatest traditions: the Community Thanksgiving Day Feast.

For decades, it’s happened organically. Members of the sponsoring Saugatuck Congregational Church — and many others — sign up to bring food, or help elsewhere. Over 200 people show up, alone and with families. There’s music, fellowship and fun.

Every year, many hands help create Westport’s Community Thanksgiving Feast.

Sometimes there are tweaks. Sign-up Genius now makes it easier to assign tasks. When a fire rendered Saugatuck Church unusable, Christ & Holy Trinity stepped into the breach.

Last year brought a big change. Marc Weber and Anthony Miami took over the turkeys.

Plus the stuffing, gravy, potatoes, salads, vegetables, desserts — everything about the meal from, well, soup to nuts.

They were not simply volunteers. Weber owns OnTheMarc Catering. Miami is executive chef of the Inn at Longshore.

These guys are pros.

Marc Weber

Five years ago Weber — a Culinary Institute of America graduate who began as a private chef, then grew his business to include clients like the Warehouse at FTC, Audubon Greenwich and Hudson Loft — partnered with the Longshore Inn.

He works all over Fairfield County, Westchester and New York City. But he lives in Westport.

And he wants to give back.

He’s on the board of an organization that helps local families find volunteer opportunities. At Longshore, he works with non-profits like Sunrise Rotary and Tiny Miracles.

His mother — a philanthropic adviser — emphasized the importance of “skills-based” volunteerism: contributing not just money, but talent and expertise.

Last year for the first time, Dan Levinson and Monique Bosch of Main Street Resources coordinated Westport’s Thanksgiving Feast. They asked Weber to help. He and Miami fed nearly 300 people, at very low cost.

“We know how to do it,” Weber says simply.

This year (Thursday, November 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), they’ll do it again.

Once again, they’re doing it gladly.

“I was so impressed by the number of families who volunteered,” Weber says of last year’s event. The first selectman helped serve. High school kids transported food from the Inn.”

That’s right: Now, the food is cooked off-site. It’s a big step up from the former potluck-type planning.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws hundreds of people.

Of course, Weber and Miami can’t do it all alone. Westport Rotary, the Senior Center, Gillespie Center, Homes with Hope, the Unitarian Church, United Methodist Church, Bedford Middle School and Coleytown Elementary School all participate.

So do over 80 volunteers. They decorate, set up, greet, serve, clean up, even drive attendees who need transportation.

Monique and Dan hope for the usual donations of turkeys from Stew Leonard’s, pies from Temple Israel,  bread from Sono Bakery and s’mores from Westport Boy Scouts. Other generous donations traditionally include floral arrangements from Westport Garden Club and greeting cards from Coleytown Middle School,

Somehow, it all comes together. It’s a true community feast.

But now the turkey and trimmings are prepared by true pros.

(To volunteer at Westport’s Community Thanksgiving Day Feast, click here. If you need a ride, call the Saugatuck Church: 203-227-1261. For more information, call Monique Bosch: 203-858-8829.)