A 146-acre peninsula jutting into Lake Champlain two miles north of the Church Street Marketplace hosts a school, a conference center, community gardens, hiking trails, a huge solar-power installation, one of the most famous geological features in Vermont and a magnificent set of stained-glass windows. Yet many Burlingtonians have never set foot there; some may not even know that Rock Point exists.
This grand piece of private property is open to the public but doesn’t call attention to itself. Its owner, the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, is a low-key entity associated more with discretion than ostentation. But the place represents considerable wealth — at least on paper — and is seen by some developers as prime real estate.
“It’s a drop-dead location,” comments Ernie Pomerleau, president and CEO of the realty business that bears his family’s name. Any homes built there would carry prices “in the high end of the range,” he notes.
The real value of Rock Point, including its dozen or so buildings, is listed by the Burlington assessor’s office at nearly $19 million. The Episcopal Diocese, which doesn’t pay taxes on that sum due to its religious status, would pocket quite a bonanza if it were to sell some or all of its land to a developer. And, God knows, the Episcopal Church could use the cash.
The diocese’s flock is thinning. “Fewer people are involved” with the church than was the case a couple of decades ago, says Lynn Bates, whose official title is canon to the ordinary, which can be translated as assistant to the bishop. “Attendance at regular church services is not where the culture is right now,” she observes. “We struggle with budgets and operating expenses.”
But does that mean the Church is looking to sell? Rock Point’s potential market value does give rise to temptation, Bates confesses. Officials and the faithful alike know that by selling just a few of Rock Point’s acres, the diocese could stop worrying about covering its roughly $1 million annual operating budget. It could also carry out all the deferred maintenance projects on its grounds.
Church members “south of Route 4 and in northeast Vermont say this doesn’t mean anything to them, so sell it,” Bates says, gesturing to the expanse of land outside a window of the diocese’s nondescript office building. “Others say no, this means everything to me.”
The diocese did recently sell one of its churches — Trinity in Poultney — because the local congregation had drastically diminished. The buyer was John Collier, a Vermont sculptor who specializes in biblical figures. Deaccessioning could also occur in the case of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Richford, says Rev. Thomas Ely, the bishop of the Vermont diocese. “We’re in discussions with Preservation Trust of Vermont about what will happen there,” he reports.
That would leave the diocese with 47 congregations scattered around the state. And Ely estimates that about 6500 Vermonters — or roughly 1 percent of the state’s population — now identify with the Episcopal Church. “We’ve lost members, just like every religious denomination has,” the bishop says.
Despite the challenges the church is facing, however, “There’s no interest on the part of the trustees in selling Rock Point,” Ely declares. “It’s not a part of our vision.”
Financially, the diocese is “holding its own,” he says. “It’s stable.”
Besides, church officials learned several years ago that many of the most attractive pieces of Rock Point could not be developed due to septic issues and topographical factors. They had considered selling, but “decided there was no point in proceeding,” Ely relates.
Another disincentive to building on Rock Point, Pomerleau adds, is Burlington’s inclusionary zoning program, which stipulates that about 20 percent of residences in a multiunit development must be “affordable.”
“That changes the potential value substantially,” the realtor says, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t be developed.”
Ely’s residence is one of Rock Point’s hidden gems. The 120-year-old Bishop’s House, a brick building designed in the Tudor Revival style, stands about half a mile to the west of Burlington High School, down a one-lane road and amid a copse of bare trees and evergreens.
Nearby is the Bishop Booth Conference Center. It was built about 30 years ago as a replacement for the Episcopal Institute, which was constructed in 1857 — three years after the Episcopalians originally came to Rock Point. That grand Gothic structure, first used as a school for boys and later as a meeting facility, was destroyed by a fire in 1979.
The modern conference center rents — for $100 to $700 per day, depending on the number of people — to religious groups and secular institutions for staff retreats and other gatherings. Weekends are fully booked well into the future, Bates notes. That makes the center an important source of income, which the diocese would like to increase by renting the space more frequently on weekdays, she says.
A refurbished farmhouse, now the home of the property manager, is situated near a few cabins that are used during the diocese’s summer-camp programs. Kids who attend become steeped in the church’s social mission, Bates notes. She cites as an example the relief work performed by Episcopalians around the state in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. The Episcopalians also have a progressive political agenda. Ely recently joined 29 other Episcopal bishops in a court action challenging the constitutionality of a federal law prohibiting same-sex marriage.
City-administered community-garden plots lie close to the entrance to the property and along a portion of Institute Road lined with white pines and Norway spruce. Another kind of harvesting takes place alongside them. In what used to be an open field, AllEarth Renewables has built Burlington’s largest solar-power installation, consisting of 35 roughly 20-foot-tall sun trackers arranged in rows. The array is expected to produce about 205,000 kilowatt-hours of power a year — enough to account for two-thirds of the electrical energy used on the diocese’s property.
Burlington residents familiar with Rock Point likely associate it with the imposing stone-and-wood building a short distance up a hill from the main entrance to North Beach. Formally known as Bishop Hopkins Hall, it was built in 1888 as a finishing school for young ladies. It was reconstituted in 1928 as the Rock Point School, though it remained an all-girls institution.
That female orientation is reflected in the design of the stained-glass windows found in the former Episcopal chapel inside the school. Beautifully crafted New Testament scenes put women in the forefront. The windows are probably original to the building, but their provenance is unknown, says Lawrence Ribbecke, a specialist in architectural stained glass who maintains a studio on Burlington’s Pine Street. Ribbecke probably would have been called on to make repairs on those windows even if his wife, Marylen Grigas, hadn’t taught English at Rock Point School for many years. Ribbecke says the quality of the unknown artisans’ work is in “the 99th percentile, right up with the very best.”
The school, which is still owned by the Episcopal Diocese but is not religiously affiliated with it, today educates 27 students in grades nine through 12. “They’re bright and curious,” says school head C.J. Spirito, but many also present behavioral challenges linked to “anxiety, depression, high-functioning autism,” he adds. Boys account for two-thirds of the current student body.
Tuition, room and board is pegged at $53,500. Part of that sum pays 23 staff members to provide nearly one-on-one coverage for the students, most of whom are from out of state. About 85 percent of Rock Point graduates go on to college, Spirito says.
He describes the school’s finances as sound but adds that he’s trying to recruit an additional eight students to increase income and to make maximum use of Rock Point’s resources.
In addition to a well-equipped library with a dance floor at its center, the school’s attractions include a sugaring cabin that is a short walk from the main building. Its wood-fired evaporator boils sap gathered from buckets pegged to trees in Rock Point’s sugarbush. The cabin will be the site of a celebration on March 16 involving Rock Point’s students and community members. Burlington High School students will also be invited to the maple-sugar party as part of Rock Point’s efforts to collaborate with its neighbor, Spirito says.
The diocese’s grounds offer some rich outdoor-education opportunities. For example, geologists as well as students trek out to the tip of the peninsula to view a dramatic section of the Champlain Thrust, a fault that runs 200 miles from southern Québec to New York’s Hudson Valley. Perhaps 10 yards into the lake, the aptly named Lone Rock pokes above the waterline. It was believed to be sacred to the Abenakis, who once hunted and fished nearby.
It’s special still.
The print version of this article was headlined "A Piece of the Rock?".
“The diocese sees this as a sacred place,” Bishop Ely says, referring to all the property at Rock Point. Partly for that reason, he adds, “The whole issue of this land being developed is a non sequitur. It’s not going to happen.”