[Episcopal News Service] Franklin, New Hampshire, might seem an unlikely place for an innovative Episcopal ministry. The paper, hosiery and woolen mills that powered the local economy were gone by the 1970s, leaving behind polluted waterways, boarded-up downtown stores and a sense that the city’s best days were behind it. The Episcopal church, St. Jude’s, closed in 2002. And the state, along with its New England neighbors, consistently rates one of the least religious in the nation.
Yet New Hampshire Bishop Robert Hirschfeld saw in Franklin the possibility of something new. After he took office in 2012, he found several Episcopalians there who weren’t attending church, and he wanted to find a new path for the community. “I thought, ‘What if we just start fresh,’” he told Episcopal News Service. So, in May 2019, he asked a seminarian to lead noondays prayers in the church and see what would happen.
The result today is the Episcopal Mission of Franklin, and it along with three other new church plants in the diocese are called Gospel-oriented communities, a status conferred by action of the diocese’s convention in November 2022. The bishop oversees the new communities, but they don’t have vestries or wardens and do not pay assessments to the diocese (they do comply with all Safe Church guidelines). “These are tender shoots, and they may always be tender shoots,” Hirschfeld said. “They may grow into something more robust, or they may just be that this is what God intends them to be.”
When the bishop first described the new idea, the Rev. Kate Harmon Siberine, who also serves as rector of Grace in East Concord, felt a call to serve in Franklin. When she met people in the community, she saw a glimmer of new life happening in a place she describes as having experienced generations of trauma caused by poverty, addiction and neglect. “I think sometimes in Franklin it can feel like we’re the Dollar Store community, where we just can’t have nice things,” she told ENS. She believes the church can play a role in changing the sentiment.
The community began in August 2019 with a dinner church, celebrating the Eucharist in the context of a meal. Harmon Siberine also showed up at every Franklin event possible because she felt it was the church’s role, and hers, to care for the whole community.
Pandemic impacts the church and its missioner
The COVID-19 pandemic ended dinner church in March 2020, and daily prayer services moved online on the church’s Facebook page. When area death rates rose, Harmon Siberine offered to provide funerals for any family needing one. In the first year of the pandemic, she presided at 37 of them. “We became known as the church that would bury anyone,” she said.
When the building reopened in March 2022, a Sunday weekly Eucharist made the most sense because Harmon Siberine found that people in the community, even those unchurched, expected church services on Sundays. “We wound up being a much more traditional community than I anticipated,” she said. But the impact of the pandemic also played a role. “One of the only things that can effectively hold the hugeness of trauma and loss is the power of ritual, the power of liturgy,” she said. The dignity of prayer book services is important, too, she said, especially for a community where people hadn’t always experienced being treated with dignity.
Harmon Siberine knows firsthand the trauma Covid can inflict. She contracted the virus in January 2022 and it progressed into Long COVID, affecting her lungs and heart. She was away for a few months in the spring as her doctors adjusted her medications. By December she found that using a motorized wheelchair aided her heart, so the church set up a moveable altar in front of the platform where the permanent altar stands so she could more easily preside at the Eucharist while seated. The already-accessible building, she said, helps not only her but also half of the church regulars who themselves have a disability.
The Episcopal Mission of Franklin usually has about 15 people in church on Sundays, Harmon Siberine said, with another 15 regulars watching on Facebook, and most of those 30 never were members of the old church.
Betty Arsenault was a member of St. Jude’s, and her sense of loss at its closing was compounded by the death of her son the day before. But she told ENS that when she saw a sign on the downtown church’s lawn in the fall of 2019 advertising noonday prayers, she and other former members headed there for a service that left them in tears of happiness. Today she credits Harmon Siberine’s passion and youth for not only serving the mission but also for making the town aware of it.
She also functions as the altar guild and hospitality chair as well as the mission’s main cheerleader–a convenience-store chat resulted in a local man offering to paint the building’s exterior for free. She also helped revive a Rotary chapter, which now meets weekly in the parish hall.
The new ministry created a church home again for Valerie Blake, an Episcopalian who moved to Franklin in 2018. She also is a member of the City Council, and in that role, she told ENS, she appreciates the church opening its doors for community meetings and events. And while there are other churches nearby, the Episcopal church is the only one on Franklin’s downtown main street.
City is seeing new life
As the mission in Franklin witnessed new life, so did the city. The owner of an outdoor clothing and equipment store saw the potential for recreation along the Winnipesaukee River that runs through downtown – one of the same rivers that powered area factories decades earlier. Last summer Mill City Park opened, featuring whitewater kayaking and rafting on the river’s rapids, with plans for future hiking and biking trails. The river, now free of industrial pollution, runs clear. Old buildings, including some of the mills, are being remodeled into apartments and condos, and new stores have opened downtown.
The river and the new water park remind Harmon Siberine of baptism. “This water is life, and it’s been a new life for our community,” she said.
During the diocese’s November 2022 convention, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry visited the mission, along with Hirschfeld. Afterward, Curry toured the town and blessed the new waterpark. When passing by an Irish pub downtown, he stopped in to say hello and offer a blessing there, too.
New Hampshirites are used to seeing politicians pass through the state since it hosts the first presidential primary every four years, Harmon Siberine said, with one pub patron remarking rather than a politician, “’… it was nice to see a pastor for a change,’” she said.
– Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.