GUILFORD >> The front doors of the North Guilford Congregational Church (NGCC) have witnessed a lot over the past 204 years.
The ladies who carried little stoves to warm their hands and feet for the six-hour service in the unheated space. The minister who aided runaway slaves to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad. The group of women who held the chicken pie suppers that kept the church going in lean times and continue to this day.
That’s according to Steve Vandermaelen, the artisan carpenter whose meticulously crafted doors will be installed this coming week on the picturesque church perched atop emerald-green Meetinghouse Hill. It’s the first and only time the front doors have been replaced since 1814.
“Those doors are charged with memories, all those Sundays, all those hundreds of thousands of Sundays, that people passed through them, people who considered the church the center of their lives,” said the long-time North Guilford resident.
Vandermaelen’s reverence for NGCC’s rich past is such that he revels in details like the inner front doors used only on special occasions. “Weddings, funerals,” he said, eyes alight. “That’s the only time they open. How cool is that.”
It’s also the reason that, when yawning gaps and loose joints showed in the 204-year-old doors and upkeep was no longer an option, the church tapped the long-time parishioner for the job, according to Rev. Judith Cooke, NGCC’s pastor.
“Steve is a historian,” she said. “We wanted to honor the history of the church in a way that’s as faithful to our heritage as possible. We consider the doors a symbol of welcome, a way into worship and a way out to serve, which is our ministry’s mission.”
That Vandermaelen is also “an immensely gifted craftsman,” as she put it, is “an added blessing. We all know he’ll take the time to get it right and ensure they last.”
To achieve that end, “you can’t just go to a lumberyard and buy boards to make these doors,” said the intense, sturdily built 55-year-old, as sepia light filtered through his County Road workshop and the scent of pine mixed with the sound of roosters crowing outside.
“Once you remove something from a historic building, tacking something on that’s not period to the structure is an insult both to the structure and to all the people who passed through.”
That’s why he employed the same techniques and the same materials as the master craftsmen used back in 1814, but with modern machinery. “That way they’ll hold up over time just like they did before,” he said.
Not only that. “There’s so much lost knowledge in our graveyards, it’s critical we practice these techniques or we’ll lose them.”
It’s a passion that began early. While working for an 18th century company during his time at Guilford high school, he stripped lead paint off old paneling and closely examined the grain. “Then I started reading books about early cabinet work and figuring things out,” he said.
Eventually, through his time apprenticing under master carpenters Carl Raudat and Richard Walston, and years specializing in historical restoration and antique stairwork, “you understand what wood is going to be stable and what wood is not and how to work around it,” he said.
That informed the methodical way he approached fabricating replicas of the two-centuries-old front doors. Initially he studied the originals. They were Federal style, which is characterized by simplicity and understatement. He studied the wood. They were made of old-growth Eastern white pine. He drove up to Belchertown, MA.
“I knew this guy had some really pristine stock of Eastern white pine,” he said. “And he allowed me to go through his warehouse and hand-pick these certain boards and had them milled to quarter sawn,” a method that affords strength and stability.
He brought the rough boards to the New England joinery in Essex to surface and plane them. Using mortise and tenon joinery, an age-old technique for ensuring the strength of the whole, he assembled the parts of the door. “There was no way I was going to use dowels or metal or screws or plugs,” he said.
Unlike many churches throughout New England that have fallen into disrepair due to shrinking membership and neglected upkeep, Vandermaelen had the luxury of having a knife specially made for a molding on the inside edges of the panels. Likewise, the new hinges made of oil-rubbed bronze, and the oil-based primer from a European paint company he used, he said, “for an automobile finish that’s intense white and impenetrable to moisture.”
He could do all this because an anonymous benefactor has been gifting NGCC sizeable donations. “He’s not a member,” Vandermaelen said. “He just loves the sight of the church on Meetinghouse Hill.”
No surprise, according to Rev. Cooke. “You want to support a building that you can tell has been cared for and loved over the centuries,” she said.
It’s the same inspiration that enlivens Bill Sorensen’s devotion to NGCC. “My wife and I have lived in other towns and tried other churches, but we just zoom back to this one,” said the 65-year-old Guilford resident who’s been a member since he was two.
“You just look at the church and you imagine the people building it back in 1814 and it’s something beautiful,” he said.
“And when I walk through those doors, everything outside the church disappears and I just relax. It’s just a lovely sanctuary.”
The chicken pie suppers don’t hurt, either.
The North Guilford Congregation Church is located at 159 Ledge Hill Road, Guilford. A ceremony marking the installation of the doors will be held later this summer. Check back at shorelinetimes.com for the announcement.