- Alicia Freese
- Left to right: Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, Bishop Thomas Ely and Craig Smith
Religious organizations own roughly 6,000 acres of land in Vermont, which ranks among the most secular states in the nation. But those churches are losing ground.
Six years ago, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington sold 33 acres of lakefront real estate to Burlington College to settle multiple priest-abuse lawsuits. The school, also cash-strapped, then resold most of the land to a housing developer, despite fierce opposition from those who wanted it to be conserved.
Just north of that property is an equally breathtaking tract that is still under ecclesiastical ownership. For years the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont has insisted it has no desire to sell the peninsula known as Rock Point. But it's never been clear how the diocese would be able to hold on to 130 acres of forest, open fields and steep cliffs surrounded by Lake Champlain.
Last week, Bishop Thomas Ely acknowledged that the status quo "is no longer, if it ever was, a sustainable model."
For the last two years, Ely and his advisers have quietly been crafting a plan that, if successful, will prevent Rock Point from meeting the fate of the former Burlington College land. To advance that goal, the diocese announced several weeks ago that it had hired a "legacy minister" to raise as much as $2 million.
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell doesn't have experience in the pulpit, but she has friends in high places. She spent 10 years as Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) chief of staff before becoming a deputy assistant to then-president Bill Clinton. She worked with then-first lady Hillary Clinton to create a national historic preservation program called Save America's Treasures.
McCulloch-Lovell has fundraising credentials, too. For a decade, she served as president of Marlboro College, doubling its endowment before she stepped down in 2015.
Can she help a church of relatively modest means maintain what Ely calls a "natural cathedral" on "the last open land on Lake Champlain in Burlington?"
Rock Point has been under Episcopal auspices since the early 1800s, when it hosted John Henry Hopkins, a Dublin-born book illustrator who became the church's first Vermont bishop. He built his home there, as well as a striking Gothic-style school, which later burned down. Hopkins' son deeded the land to the Episcopal diocese on the condition that it would continue to serve as the bishop's residence and as a place for education.
Today, a grand edifice of stone and wood at the entrance fulfills the latter purpose. Down a narrow drive just beyond Burlington High School, it's home to Rock Point School, with roughly two dozen students. The alternative boarding school is affiliated with the diocese but is not religious.
On the grounds beyond are playing fields, community gardens, a working sugarhouse, 35 standing solar panels and a modest brick building that serves as the diocese's headquarters.
On the promontory, a conference center, summer camp cabins, an outdoor chapel and the bishop's house are nestled discreetly in the forest. Wind-swept cedars cling to the dramatic bluffs overlooking the lake. Trails traverse the property.
The diocese has long allowed anyone to come onto the land, and Ely estimates that roughly 10,000 people do so each year. The diocese asks that visitors pick up a free pass online or at the headquarters, but it's easy to enter the private property accidentally from North Beach or the Burlington Bike Path, which bisects it.
Schools, youth groups and spiritual organizations regularly use the land at no charge. Geologists from across the country come to study two stacked rock masses visible from the water that are part of the Champlain Thrust Fault, which stretches from Québec to New York.
"One of our strengths is that we're pretty informal and friendly ... But one of our weaknesses is, we're pretty informal," said development minister Craig Smith, calling attention to the conundrum. Smith spent his summers on Rock Point, where his parents directed the Episcopal summer camp that is still in operation.
The diocese, Ely added, needs to help people understand, "This is not just a park that someone else is paying for."
The bishop sat with Smith and McCulloch-Lovell in a conference room decorated with two portraits of John Henry Hopkins and a large aerial photo of Rock Point. Ely, who wore a festive red sweater, has a down-to-earth demeanor, despite his lofty title. He has overseen the diocese for 15 years, residing in a stately brick Tudor revival house on the property.
As with other denominations, the number of Episcopalians is decreasing, a trend Ely attributes to an aging membership. Roughly 1 percent of Vermonters — or 6,500 people — identify as Episcopalian, but only about 3,500 regularly attend services. "It's a challenging time," Ely acknowledged.
Three Episcopalian congregations in Vermont have sold churches in recent years, and some of the 46 remaining ones struggle to maintain their buildings.
In such a climate, it's hard for the diocese, which has a $1 million annual budget, to justify spending large sums of money to maintain Rock Point.
While it helps that the diocese doesn't have to pay taxes on the property — religious and nonprofit organizations are exempt — the upkeep isn't cheap. According to Smith, the 2016 budget for the property amounts to $410,000. Over the years, some of the buildings have fallen into disrepair, creating more financial pressure.
"We are not in crisis," Ely stressed. But, he said, the diocese must act now to head off "reactionary decisions" about Rock Point in the future.
McCulloch-Lovell warned: "There is no deep well to draw from."
It's easy to see how church leaders might be tempted to sell the land, assessed by the city at $13 million. "That's always a question out there," Ely conceded. "This is a valuable piece of property, and if the church decided it wanted to be rid of it, there would probably be plenty of interest."
He also pointed out that there would be obstacles to developing Rock Point. Among them: Current zoning doesn't permit it, and only one road leads to the property.
Ely has instead chosen a more idealistic — and arguably more complicated — path.
He hired McCulloch-Lovell with a clear mission: to raise between $1.5 million and $2 million to pay for repairs on the conference center, the bishop's residence, the summer camp cabins, and the roads and trails.
Sprucing up the conference center, which is commonly rented for spiritual retreats and nonprofit meetings, would position the church to earn more income. The diocese intends to better market the venue to entice more groups to come during the week.
Money from the fundraising campaign would also be used to purchase a solar "orchard" on the property that is currently owned by AllEarth Renewables. Ely considers having a clean energy portfolio to be part of the church's mission to "care for the Earth." He also estimates that the solar array could generate up to $50,000 a year.
Finally, the donated funds would pay for an executive director, who would oversee Rock Point and secure grants to help maintain it.
When seeking donors, the diocese may have to compete with similar campaigns in Burlington. The Vermont Land Trust, for instance, is raising money to create a 12-acre park on the former Burlington College land.
Ely was eager to make clear that the fundraising campaign is just one element of the diocese's strategy. Smith and other Episcopal leaders have developed a land-use plan that, if successful, should make the property generate enough revenue to cover its costs. It hinges on bringing more people to Rock Point and convincing them to play a part in preserving it.
The church will ask groups, such as the University of Vermont, that have had free access to start paying something to use it. It also wants these organizations to coordinate their activities with the conservation goals for the property — which include trail maintenance and rooting out invasive species.
The diocese doesn't have formal agreements in place yet, but Smith said it is "starting to have conversations."
While the diocese doesn't intend to charge an entry fee, the process of obtaining a pass — online or at the office — now includes a request for donations. "We're going to invite people to own 'a piece of the rock,'" said Ely, invoking the quintessential Prudential Insurance ad campaign.
It's a utopian vision: different groups all chipping in to preserve a common space; people tending the land while learning environmental principles and moral values. But Rock Point's leaders aren't naïve. Bringing more people onto the property also has the potential to degrade the land and disrupt its status as a spiritual sanctuary.
"It's a delicate balance," said McCulloch-Lovell.
Ely agreed: "It's like any resource — you can use it up."