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Congregation plans to shore up historic building

The Rev. Dee Eisenhauer stands before  Eagle Harbor  Church, which is in disrepair. - JIM BRYANT photos
The Rev. Dee Eisenhauer stands before Eagle Harbor Church, which is in disrepair.
— image credit: JIM BRYANT photos

Eagle Harbor parishioners will begin a fund drive in January.

With its iconic steeple and simple beauty, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church has served as a downtown landmark, house of worship and public meeting place for more than a century.

But the historic structure is beginning to show signs of age.

Every time it rains, buckets are hauled out to catch the drops. Roof patching has become a year-round chore. 

And the church’s distinctive 60-foot steeple and bell tower is suffering from dry rot, with one inspector giving it a life of five to 10 years at best.

“With a good strong wind or an earthquake, it could be in our yard,” the Rev. Dee Eisenhauer said.

With faith that the community will help, the church’s members voted unanimously Sunday to begin a three-year, $553,000 capital campaign for repairs and renovations on the historic structure.

Fund-raising will begin in earnest after the New Year.

Work on the roof and 60-foot steeple and bell tower is slated to begin this summer.

“Our goal is to repair what’s aging, update what’s out of date, and renew the facility so that it’s useful to the congregation and the wider community,” said Reed Price, vice president of the church council.

“We’re looking at how to make it ready to serve the community for the next 150 years.”

The renovations will include the addition of a sprinkler system and improvements to the classrooms, basement, offices and sanctuary, although no change in the “footprint” of the church is foreseen, said architect Charlie Wenzlau, who has been hired to help with design.

While the bell tower is “vulnerable” and in need of repairs, it is not an immediate hazard, Wenzlau said.

The congregation’s vote Sunday was preceded by a series of roundtable discussions to examine the history of the church and its current and future missions.

Then as now, the public’s reliance on the church’s open-door policy played a key role.

“We’re the only downtown church, and we have a long history of wanting to host the community,” said Eisenhauer, who leads the 200-member congregation.

The church has indeed served as a de facto town hall and community center since it was built on the corner of Winslow and Madison in 1896.

“I was reading one of the old history books, and back when this was one of the first buildings, the community Christmas tree was here,” Eisenhauer said. “Every family brought their presents, and they had candy and oranges before going inside for a meal.

“And one year they stopped the meal, the history book said, because when they were inside eating someone stole all the presents.”

 Today, the church’s fellowship hall host’s the island’s winter Farmer’s Market every Saturday, and it serves as a regular meeting place for 12-step groups and as the hub for the Bainbridge Foundation’s One Call for All campaign.

The Madrona School holds classes there. The sanctuary has also served as a house of worship for various Jewish and Christian groups when they did not have a home of their own.

“We are in a prime location downtown, but I also like to think that our attitude of inclusion and welcoming the community is what draws people here,” Price said.

Eagle Harbor Congregational Church is a member of the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination which was among the first to ordain women as well as gay men and lesbians.

The denomination has made national headlines in recent weeks for a series of television ads that were rejected as “too controversial” by CBS and NBC.

The ads feature two “bouncers” standing guard outside a picturesque church, letting some people in and keeping other people out.

Then a nararator says, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we. No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

The ad used in the “God is still speaking campaign” can be viewed online at www.stillspeaking.com.

Eisenhauer said it is clear to church leaders that God is still speaking, by virtue of how the network ban has made so many people aware of the church’s welcoming stance.

“One of the problems with mainline churches is that we have kind of faded into invisibility,” she said, “and so we’re delighted for people to know that this is a living, vital denomination.”

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