BY STEVEN JUPITER
PITTSFORD — The Pittsford Congregational Church (PCC) is a classic New England house of worship, built in 1837 for a congregation established in 1784. The Gothic Revival structure occupies a site at the center of town, not far from the Lothrop School and Kamuda’s, two other pillars of the Pittsford community.
The early establishment of the congregation is apparent not only from the architecture of its church but also from the age of the headstones in the adjoining graveyard. People have lain in repose here for hundreds of years. Without question, PCC is an old institution.
It is fitting, then, that PCC’s new permanent Pastor, Michael Dwyer, is an historian.
Dwyer is an esteemed genealogist (he’s the only Vermont fellow in the American Society of Genealogists), a member of the Pittsford and Rutland Historical Societies (he hosts a monthly program on PEG TV called “Historically Speaking” in association with the Rutland group), and was a Social Studies teacher for many years at Mount St. Joseph in Rutland and at Otter Valley.
He’s right at home in a congregation that prides itself on its history and continuity. While helping set up a reception on a recent morning at the Church, Dwyer said, “There are four generations of one family in the building right now. The parishioners here have deep roots.”
Dwyer will be formally installed as the settled pastor at PCC in August, after three years of interim service. We met at the Church to discuss the PCC faith community and his approach to ministry.
“I try to be modern and fresh but retain the traditional elements that people take comfort in,” he said. For example, Dwyer eschews new translations of the Bible in favor of the traditional King James Version that most American Christians grew up with and can quote. “’The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.’ has a lot more power than ‘The Lord is my Shepherd. I lack nothing,’” Dwyer said with the literary discernment of a man who has an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Breadloaf School of English.
“Comfort” is a word that comes up often in our conversation. “A large component of my work here is making sick calls, hospital calls, and comfort calls for the dying,” Dwyer said. He sees personal connection to members of the congregation during “key transitions” as a fundamental function of his position. During the worst of COVID, he continued to visit with the ill, even when it required donning a hazmat suit to enter a hospital ward.
Congregationalism was one of the dominant forms of Protestantism in early New England. Yet, today’s Congregationalist churches are generally far removed from the Puritan extremes of colonial New England. A core tenet of the denomination is the emphasis on self-governance by each congregation (hence the name Congregationalist). Many “Congo” churches (as they are often affectionately called) these days would generally be seen as liberal.
In fact, Dwyer has been living in Pittsford with his husband, George, since 1999, and the last two Pastors at the Brandon Congregational Church have also been LGBT. The Mission Statement of the United Church of Christ (Congregationalism’s parent body) states, “We welcome all.”
Dwyer affirms, “This community has been extremely welcoming to me and George.”
But Dwyer does not preach politics from the pulpit. He said, “My job is to preach Gospel and prepare meaningful worship that transcends the complexities of life. An essential element of Congregationalism is responsible freedom to act within the dictates of our individual consciences.”
And this approach appears to be working. Despite the demographic challenges that most faith communities face in Vermont – the state has been deemed the least religious in the country – Dwyer is proud that PCC’s congregation recently added six new parishioners who joined after researching the various churches in the area. But there’s still much work to be done to keep PCC vital and thriving.
“Not a lot of younger people want to get involved in church function. They see less need for the fellowship that church provided historically. People’s social networking needs changed. And we lost Sunday,” Dwyer added. “Sunday used to be set aside for church. Most everything else was closed. Now we compete with all the other activities in modern life.”
To combat these trends, Dwyer makes a special effort to provide a sense of community at PCC. “I make sure I greet everyone by name. I make sure I remember what’s going on with everyone personally. A recurrent message from me is the importance of our common worship, fellowship, and praying together,” he said.
In service to fellowship, PCC offers Bible study and community suppers (both to resume in the fall after a hiatus during COVID). And the church deacons serve dinner monthly at Village Manor. PCC even sponsors music concerts like EnerJazz on the Village Green on August 6th.
“I believe in what I’m doing and am positive. It makes a difference,” Dwyer said. “I think people are seeking meaning. Church will make a comeback.”