Published May 09. 2014 4:00AM
Ledyard — Nearly two years after the sound of bagpipes ushered parishioners out of their home of more than a century, the Bishop Seabury Church is finally settling in to a new space - for now.
After eviction from 256 North Road in Groton following a court case with the Episcopal Diocese in August 2012, the congregation searched far and wide for a place to call its own - storefronts, office fronts, former school buildings, an old synagogue - all while paying $250 per Sunday service in a room at the Groton Inn and Suites. Eighteen months passed; expenses piled up; and then, an opportunity.
After a February trial-run service in the gym of Gales Ferry Landing - the site of the former Gales Ferry School that the town of Ledyard now uses as a business incubator - the church signed a one-year lease with the town. Less than a month later, they moved in.
A permanent home is still ideal, said Ronald Gauss, the archdeacon of the church who led the parish away from diocesan supervision in 2007. But this is "the next best thing."
"We're still looking," he said. "We're always looking."
Over time, the church has lost more than half of its parishioners. At its peak, Gauss said, 780 people attended Bishop Seabury. Now, up to 200 people attend Sunday services.
Gauss insists that these departures were not due to a difference of opinion, but rather a desire to have a permanent building. Others left simply because they "didn't want to do battle," he said.
The church's legal battle dates back to seven years ago, when the parish opposed the Episcopal Church's ordination in 2003 of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire and the election in 2006 of a woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. The parish chose to affiliate instead with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, putting it under the oversight of a Nigerian bishop.
Bishop Seabury and five other churches in the state filed a federal lawsuit against the Right Rev. Andrew Smith, the presiding bishop at the time, seeking millions in damages for violation of their civil and property rights.
Three years later, a state Superior Court judge ruled that the Connecticut diocese owns the 6.5-acre church site and everything on it.
Gauss and his parishioners were ordered to give up the property, where they remained pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court. A year later, the state Supreme Court ruled against Bishop Seabury. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case in June 2012.
Gauss said he knew the possibility of eviction existed as far back as 2005. They began looking for fallback options as far back as that year.
"We've got a lot of military, and they always plan contingencies," he said. "Just in case."
This isn't the first time the town-owned space in Gales Ferry has been home to a religious group. When the former school first emptied, more than a decade ago, the town leased the auditorium and a couple of classrooms to a church, then the building's only tenants.
The site became Gales Ferry Landing as Mayor John Rodolico took office at the end of 2011. For a while, aerobics programs were the "bread and butter" of the space, said Mark Bancroft, the town's director of administrative services.
Now, the church has joined a building with a range of tenants - among them a massage therapy center, an arts studio, a marketing firm and regular aerobics classes.
For the town, Bancroft said, having the parishioners there regularly brings members of the public in to the building, many of whom patronize the growing businesses.
"It was a match made in heaven," he said.
The church leases four rooms in all. Gauss' office - "my mess," he calls it - is partitioned off in one room, which also contains a sacristy, meeting space, and office space for two assistants. There's a nursery, a Sunday school room, a small chapel with pews gifted from former church buildings, and an altar Gauss purchased himself on sale. In here, a single stained-glass pane - also a gift - sits propped up on the wall-length windowsill.
In the gym, a Jazzercise banner hangs at the back of the stage from which Gauss leads Sunday services. The town's Parks and Recreation department also holds classes here during the week, along with a dog training class.
On Sunday, for the most part, they have the place to themselves.
Gauss said his parish has learned to be flexible. But the search for a home isn't over yet.
"We're still in the wilderness," he said.
The parishioners' convictions are worth their homelessness, he said: They haven't had to change their understanding of scripture.
"Everyone that has stayed thinks that, too," he said. "Otherwise they wouldn't have stayed."
John Lawrence, a senior warden at the church, and his wife, Eleanora, have been parishioners for five years. Lawrence said the church has adapted "extremely well" to the building.
"It works out good for us," he said. "We have what we need."