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Here's the church save the steeple

Congregation hopes to preserve its landmark downtown building.

Back in 1882, when Winslow Way was a mere gash in the dirt, two Civil War veterans decided to build a church in town.

Riley Hoskinson and Ambrose Grow succeeded four years later, but they didn’t do it alone.

Eagle Harbor Congregational Church was built with donations from Winslow’s citizenry, and with proceeds from the clam chowder dinners, dramas and song fests that provided fellowship for the whole town.

The picturesque white church at Winslow Way and Madison Avenue remains at the center of community life, even today.

To keep it that way, the parishioners are once again seeking town support – this time for a capital campaign to renovate and repair the historic structure.

“It’s always been a meeting place, kind of like those churches back in the Midwest and in the prairies,” said David Beemer, who was raised, baptized and married in the church and whose family has three generations of members.

“Although it’s a Sunday morning place, it’s also where youth groups, school kids and other people meet during the week,” Beemer said.

If there were plans to tear the old church down, islanders would be in an uproar, he said. So he’s hopeful that the community will step forward to support the effort to restore and expand it.

Signs of age

The iconic, New England-style church is displaying the troubling signs of old age.

The roof is shot, and the picturesque steeple and bell tower are infected with rot and could topple over in the next five years or so, according to a building inspector’s report.

The sanctuary is in need of a remodel and expansion to handle overflow crowds during holiday church services and public events.

The basement needs framing and renovation to provide more classrooms and meeting space, and the entire facility needs fire sprinklers and access for the disabled to bring it up to code.

Estimated cost for the work is over $500,000.

The church’s three-year “Deeper Roots, Stronger Branches” campaign is off to a good start, said Jim Macpherson, director of lead commitments. When the congregation gathers next weekend for a kick-off banquet, he expects to announce gifts of cash, stock and vehicles worth $170,000 thus far.

“We hope this will give our campaign momentum and encourage others to give,” Macpherson said. “We have pledge cards that we haven’t even opened yet.”

Two major donations have already been pledged, for $50,000 each. One is from an anonymous donor. The other is from the church’s minister and her husband, the Rev. Dee and John Eisenhauer.

“It’s our responsibility and also our joy to share some of what we have with an institution that will outlive us,” Dee Eisenhauer said. “And we hope that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will benefit from this church, hopefully with a watertight roof overhead.”

The success of John Eisenhauer’s business, Mercury Online Solutions, allowed the couple to make the gift.

But the minister stressed that some in the congregation will be sacrificing to give much smaller amounts. It’s not the size of the gift, but the commitment that counts, she said, and everyone is encouraged to do what they can.

“We didn’t build the church,” she said, “it was a gift to us, as have been all the churches I have been a part of.

“When the time comes for refurbishing, it’s the current generation that has that responsibility. We are just doing our job. We would be real slackers if we didn’t.”

Town hub

While Eagle Harbor Congregational Church is a place of worship for liberal-leaning, mainline Protestants, it figures prominently in the island’s secular life as well.

Madrona School classes, 12-Step gatherings, the winter Farmers’ Market, and town celebrations are regularly held there. Its rooms are used for lectures, meetings and rehearsals seven days a week.

At Halloween, it’s become a place to eat chili after trick-or-treating downtown. And on Wednesdays after school, it’s a gathering place for local youths, no matter what their religion.

“This church has been an important part of Winslow for the past 125 years, and as a community it makes sense to restore it, rather than selling it and rebuilding out of town,” said parishioner Reed Price, capital campaign chair.

“In a town that is facing the strains and challenges of growth and the pressures of commerce, we want to make sure this corner church is available to the community the next 125 years.”

Thus far, the campaign has focused on the church members, with a series of home meetings to discuss the building’s needs.

But once pledges are received from the church’s 200 parishioners at a “Celebration Sunday” on April 24, the congregation’s members will go out into the community – as the founders once did – looking for support to meet their goal. That groundwork has already begun, and the results have been promising, church members say.

“I’m not a member of the church – actually, I consider myself a respectful agnostic,” said island activist and Winslow resident Clarence Moriwaki. “But this church has been a remarkable community asset.

“They have bent over backwards to make room for us and have been a real friend.”

When vandals several years ago painted racist graffiti around town targeting Jews and Filipinos, the town rallied with “Take a Stand Against Hate,” a gathering that drew more than 1,000 people to the church grounds.

“The church volunteered its space right away,” Moriwaki said. “This is a church that has open arms for all people, regardless of race or sexual orientation, and that speaks volumes.

“It really represents the community spirit of Bainbridge Island.”

Early church

The first Eagle Harbor parishioners met in people’s homes until the church was finally built in 1896, on land donated by A.D. Grow.

The lumber was brought from Port Madison by Capt. Paul Oliver on his sloop, according to “Bainbridge Thru Bifocals,” a history by Elsie Frankland Marriott.

It cost about $1,050 to construct, money raised through community donations and events put on by the industrious Ladies Aid group.

The first minister, the Rev. John F. Damon, traveled around Bainbridge in a canoe.

For many years, children reached Sunday School in a rowboat piloted by their teacher, Delia Scott, who also rowed them home afterward, according to a history of the church written by parishioner Harry Wallace, who later married Delia.

At one point in its early history, the church was in danger of being sold for nonpayment of $1.18 in back taxes; a parishioner took care of the matter by rowing a skiff to Port Orchard to make the payment.

To accommodate a growing population, additions were made to the building over the years. The kitchen and fellowship hall were added in 1925.

In the 1960s, the church was lifted up, turned, and moved back on the property, so that a former temperance hall and library up the street could be added on to create a classroom wing.

Virginia Beemer, now 75, joined the congregation in 1950 with her husband Don. Their family life, with five sons, revolved around the church.

The boys took turns serving as janitors; Don was on the board of trustees, and Virginia ran the annual rummage sale and served as Sunday school superintendent.

“The church has taken part in the community all these years, in all aspects, and it stands out today,” she said. “I remember when the two ladies groups would hold a luncheon there once a month, and all the business people in the town came.

“There weren’t that many restaurants in Winslow back then. Well, maybe one, if I remember right.”

Besides being a central meeting place, the church’s admirers say it’s lovely to look at, a testament to the town’s rural heritage.

“There is something incredibly charming about having such a picturesque church in the center of town,” Moriwaki said. “There is an aesthetic interest in preserving the church as well.”

The building’s silhouette is so distinctive, it’s featured on the logo for the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association.

“We partner with them on events, and I see how busy it is,” said Cris Beattie, the association’s executive director. “It is just one more indicator of how vibrant our downtown is.”

Architect Charlie Wenzlau couldn’t agree more.

Wenzlau served as a team leader on the Winslow Tomorrow charrette, which yielded visual representations of downtown’s future growth. And he’s the architect on the church renovation project, which will preserve its historic look.

The importance of the building in the downtown area, he said, was emphasized repeatedly in the charrette process.

“When you look at traditional downtowns, two of the most important focal points are the town green, and the church on the town green. We have both of these,” Wenzlau said. “The Winslow Tomorrow effort recognizes how the church, in conjunction with Winslow Green, can redefine that intersection.

“We can enhance them and make them an even stronger place for the community than they are now.”

What good timing, he said, that the town is considering its future, as the church ensures its own future on the corner.

“I think it’s important, as our town grows, to preserve those older institutions,” Wenzlau said. “In a symbolic way, the church represents our history and evolution as a community.”

* * * * *

Steeple chase

Donations to the capital campaign to restore and renovate Eagle Harbor Congregational Church in Winslow can be sent to the church, 105 Winslow Way West, Bainbridge Island, WA, 98110. For further information on the capital drive, see www.eagleharborchurch.org or call 842-4657.

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