SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Aimee Williams remembers how important the Manset church was to the community when it hosted an active congregation. She wants to see it thrive again.
“I grew up four or five houses down from here and the church was important to my youth,” said Williams, a board member of the Southwest Harbor Historical Society. “I didn’t want to see it become a bed and breakfast. It’s always been here and a part of the community.”
Earlier this summer, The Rock Church agreed to sell the historic building on Seawall Road for less than half the asking price of $229,000 to the Historical Society.
Many current and former residents of the village of Manset and town of Southwest Harbor had been concerned the property would be bought and not kept as a church. A few generous donations made it possible for the nonprofit to acquire the building.
“The previous owners were very generous in working with us,” said board member Al Michaud.
Built in 1831, the white clapboard church on Route 102A had been the oldest continuously operating church on Mount Desert Island.
The church operated for most of its history as a United Church of Christ congregation. During former pastor Chuck Ives’ tenure, the church used a $100,000 endowment to make long overdue capital improvements on the building and its attendant Gleaner’s Hall. This included mold removal, a new foundation and heating system.
The Bangor-based, nondenominational Rock Church assumed ownership of the church in 2015. A year later, they made the decision to close its doors and put it on the market.
“They really tried to make a go of it,” Ives said earlier this summer of The Rock. “They invested a lot of time and money here, trying to bring in new, young members, families. My wife and I were so impressed by the vigor and enthusiasm we saw when we visited the Bangor church, we all hoped we could make it happen here, too.”
But when it became clear that the Manset church could not sustain itself, it was closed.
Michaud and Williams joined other members of the Historical Society board Tuesday for a discussion of the future of the building. And for all of them, their heart is in preserving the church because of what it meant to them growing up here.
“Manset was the business part of this district,” said Michaud.
His mother was in the church choir and taught Sunday school. Others around the table recalled a barber shop, a store catty-corner from the church and one down the road closer to the water, as well as a post office.
“There was just a lot of activity here,” said Williams. “This was a huge neighborhood for kids in my day.”
The Historical Society’s collection, photos and documents reflecting this history, now sit in the Gleaner Hall, attached to the church.
When the Historical Society was formed 13 years ago, its headquarters were in the former Chamber of Commerce building on Main Street. Later the Society moved to Harbor House, but the community center had limited storage space.
“You couldn’t build a collection because you had no space to put it,” said board member Lynne Birlem.
She and the other members said they would like to see the historic items on display in the former church space. Programs, public meetings, involvement of school children and community parties were all discussed as future possibilities.
“We have so many ideas now it’s overwhelming,” said Karen Craig, president of the society. In less than a month, she will pass that baton to a new president.
Plans for a public campaign to support programs and the historical society are in the works.
On Sept. 19 the church will host a public event with the Southwest Harbor historic cemeteries committee.
“I grew up down the road, so this was my church,” said Patty Pinkham. She moved to Tremont as a young adult but is a member of the historical society board and the cemetery committee.
“My sense of place is still here, because it’s where I sold my Girl Scout cookies,” she said. “It’s totally different here. We’re so lucky.”