At 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, June 27, Minister Greg Foster rang the bell of the Waldoboro United Methodist Church calling congregants to worship one last time.
Church members past and present entered the tall white doors. Former Pastor Joe Beardsley and wife Joy attended, as did Shirley Johnson, wife of former pastor Jim Johnson. Members of the Dolloff family, the Stahl family, the Klein family filed in.
The long wooden pews filled and people greeted friends and neighbors they had not seen, some for years, others since COVID-19 disrupted their ability to safely attend in-person services. Mary Lee Merill, who has been coming to the church since 1991, said “this is my second family,” as she glanced around the nave.
This church that used to seat 200 during services, that once had a choir of more than 30 voices, was full once again.
Church pianist Linda Pease, whose family has a long history with the church, welcomed the congregation with “I have Loved You with an Everlasting Love” at the start the service.
Pease’s role as principal of Medomak Valley High School had precluded her from attending services over the course of the last year in order to minimize any possible risk of COVID-19 transmission to her students.
But she was on hand on this last day to raise her voice in celebration of the community of faith in which she had been raised.
The congregation read in unison Lamentations 3:22-23 then together sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.
In the invocation Dana Dow, a 60-year member of the church who once sang in the choir, asked God to be with the gathered community and asked that they be God’s message to the town of Waldoboro and the surrounding communities.
Following Dow’s reading from the second chapter of Hebrews, Pease sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a favorite hymn that her father, one-time choir director Ronnie Dolloff, played and sang in services past. There were flowers on the altar in his memory, and roses for those of the congregation who had passed on.
Foster invited the congregation to share their memories and one by one they approached the podium, many of them with voices full of emotion — the sound of tears held back.
Ken Black, who lives next door to the church, said he came every time, despite COVID-19. “It was a joy to walk over here when the bell rings,” he said. “And now the bell has stopped.” Black asked that “Amazing Grace” be played in honor of his mother.
Chip Hilton, of Jefferson, reminisced about sitting next to Dow in the choir loft. “The pews were always overflowing,” he said. “We would go down into the vestry afterwards and we had fellowship — coffee, punch. And we ended with a prayer circle.” Hilton encouraged everyone to “be together and pray together always.”
“I am standing here on very holy ground,” said Nancy Duncan, pastor of the Broad Bay Congregational Church, as she invited the congregation to enjoy a church lunch at Broad Bay after the service. “While we will miss this building, we worship a God of resurrection,” Duncan said. “And I know that your faithfulness will continue to inspire our church and our community.”
Former Pastor Beardsley said “I want to mention the music — we’re Methodists after all.” He reminded the congregation of the “bring-a-friend band” and said “not every church likes the idea of a hoedown kind of a band. But you did. And you kept your choir and your organ and your piano. To have all that and more was a very rich mixture.”
Andrew Dolloff remembered ringing the bell as a child. “We would ring that bell and ride it just as high as we could toward the ceiling,” he said. He remembered lighting candles as an acolyte and thinking that Jesus was hiding behind the altar. And he remembered the “unparalleled music”.
“Every time I hear ‘O Holy Night’ I think of Shirley Johnson,” he said. “And if you ever heard the Stahl’s father sing ‘He Touched Me’ it came from the soul.”
“This church has been so foundational in my life my heart breaks a little to know that you won’t be gathering here,” he said. “But I hope you continue to gather somewhere.”
Elaine Knowlton was married in the church in 1966. She said she lost her husband this past spring and was visibly emotional throughout the service. “It’s my foundation. It holds me together,” she said.
Ellie Simons said she had been exploring churches after she and husband Barry moved to town. This church was the first one they tried. “I’m basically quite shy,” she said. “We sat in the back row.”
Simons, who grew up in the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches said, “If you were raised in the high Episcopalian church, you stood up for the gospel.” So when the pastor prepared to read the gospel, she automatically stood. She was the only one.
But the pastor, seeing her, said “and shall we stand to hear the word of our Lord,” and the rest of the congregation rose to their feet.
“We didn’t need to explore any other churches in Waldoboro after that,” she said. “This is my heart church.”
Ardelle Gile, finance chair of the church, said “I am especially excited that adults who attended this church as children are taking items to their churches.”
The piano and organ, the nativity figurines, many of the oak pieces in the altar area, the chairs and the black candleholders made by John Stahl, all have found new homes at those churches. And the two portraits of Jesus that have flanked both sides of the altar since the 1950s will grace the Skowhegan Federated Church, pastored by the Rev. Mark Tanner, husband of Ronnie Dolloff’s daughter, Deb Dolloff Tanner.
After the reminiscences, Pease and Paul Smeltzer played favorite hymns, starting with “Amazing Grace” and continuing with “Til the Storm Passes By” in honor of Woodrow “Woody” Verge. They played request after request as the congregation raised their voices together in celebration of the long history of their old church.
In closing, Foster reminded the congregation that “We the people of God will go on. You are a blessing to the Lord. You are. You are.”
The thrum of the organ, played for the last time by long time organist and Smeltzer, filled the nave with the strains of “God Be with You Till We Meet Again”.
As the hymn faded away, the congregation of the Waldoboro United Methodist Church left the church and after 164 years of service to the Waldoboro community, the doors closed.