AMHERST—First Congregational Church in Amherst, a 279-year-old congregation that meets in a 150-year-old building, will celebrate another milestone on Sunday, January 7: the completion of a major project to make the large stone building more accessible and welcoming to all.
The church already hosts the Spring Street Preschool, Not Bread Alone soup kitchen, Primera Iglesia Hispana de Amherst, and numerous 12-step groups. Last October the congregation received Lucio Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant facing deportation, into sanctuary, and he has lived in the building ever since.
Sunday’s celebration marks the culmination of a years’-long project to make the building more useful and accessible. Financed with a bequest from the estate of Ben and Marjorie White and a 2014 capital campaign, the approximately $1-million Widening the Welcome project provides a mechanical lift to carry individuals between floors, a robust fire alarm system, widened doorways, an additional second-floor restroom, improved access to the building from the parking lot, and other improvements.
The project was overseen by Amherst-based Kuhn Riddle Architects and managed by D.A. Sullivan & Sons, Inc. of Northampton. The congregation worshipped in the building throughout the construction project, and for several months its only main-floor restroom facility was a porta-potty stationed in the bell tower.
While the congregation has long been committed to welcoming all kinds of people—in 1986 it adopted a covenant welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people—access to and movement throughout its building has lagged behind.
“We are thrilled that our building is now more in line with our faith commitment to welcome and love all people as children of God,” said the Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor.
Construction of the building, the congregation’s fourth meeting house, was overseen by Austin Dickinson, brother of poet Emily Dickinson. The family lived across Main Street from the new structure, which the congregation first occupied in 1868.
Sunday’s celebration, which begins with a worship service at 10:30 a.m., will feature a brass quintet, blessings on and consecrations of new and renovated building spaces, and a reception with speeches and acknowledgements. As always, all are welcome. First Church Amherst is a congregation of the United Church of Christ.