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Jerusalem Gathering to Celebrate Final Service on Christmas Eve

Jerusalem Gathering to Celebrate Final Service on Christmas Eve

Congregants to Take Mission into the World

By Maurice Harris

Click here to watch “At the Turning of the Year: The Story of Jerusalem Gathering,” an exclusive interview with the Revs. Catherine Nichols and Molly Bidwell.

Most people would agree that Episcopal worship has its own distinctive character, but few congregations could claim to be genuinely “peculiar”—at least not in classical Anglican sense. Even so, to be described as an Ecclesiastical Peculiar is a title Vermont’s Jerusalem Gathering embraces with grace, dignity, and the assurance of a job well done after 22 years of serving Bristol and its surrounding communities. The Jerusalem Gathering will meet for its final service on Christmas Eve, with more joy than sadness, as the flames ignited in the hearts of disciples will continue to burn long after the candlelight carols have ended.

As an Ecclesiastical Peculiar, the Jerusalem Gathering has never been an official parish or mission under the jurisdiction of the diocese. The Jerusalem Gathering has nonetheless maintained close ties with the Episcopal Church in Vermont.

The Rev. Molly Bidwell founded the Jerusalem Gathering and served as priest-in-charge for 19 years. She explains how a chance encounter in a chainsaw shop led to a worship experiment—one that proved particularly successful with families in the immediate area, individuals who felt burnt out from overwork in other churches, and “people for whom regular church, for whatever reason, was not comfortable.”

“The other thing I think that was attractive to people,” Bidwell says, “is the fact that all of the money that we took in went out to the greater community and to the world.”

That’s over $43, 000 during its 22 year lifespan, the Rev. Catherine Nichols adds, which is an impressive figure for a congregation that met only twice a month and averaged between four and 13 attendees per Sunday. Nichols, who has led the services since 2013, notes that Christmas has been known to draw crowds of more than 30 people, jamming the one-room schoolhouse that doubles as their worship space.

Bonnie Solomon, the oldest member of the Jerusalem Gathering, was 93 when she passed away last year.

In recent years, attendance has declined gradually, due partly to the passing of elderly parishioners but also to the dispersal of others whose spiritual needs have changed beyond the scope of the ecclesiastical peculiar, Nichols explains. And for the handful of remaining members, the closing of the Jerusalem Gathering signals a much-deserved respite and a nudge into new areas of God’s vineyard that may be as close as the next town.

Some people who would not have gone to church otherwise found a temporary home at the Jerusalem Gathering, the rectors agree.

“I think that energy will probably carry on, but perhaps in a different way,” Bidwell adds.

Nichols says, “Maybe the parish that’s closest to them over the last decade has changed such that they will feel welcome and be happy to be there.”

Nichols has accepted an invitation to attend St. Stephens Episcopal Church-Middlebury, where she had served as rector 12 years ago. Bidwell has been attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church-Vergennes.

The Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely visited the Jerusalem Gathering on Sunday December 4, to celebrate the ongoing mission of members present and past, and to pray “the End of a Pastoral Relationship” in thanksgiving for all the congregation has done for the community.

The final service will take place on Christmas Eve at 7 p.m. in the schoolhouse at 329 Jerusalem Road, Bristol, Vermont. All are welcome.

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