Saturday January 26, 2013

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MARK E. RONDEAU

Religion Editor

BENNINGTON -- The year 2012 was a time for local houses of worship and congregations to both look back and look forward.

Looking back, almost to the very settling of Bennington, was the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church.

On Dec. 3, 1762, the separatist churches of Hardwick and Sunderland, Mass. joined together to become the Church of Christ of Bennington and agreed to follow the principles of the Cambridge Platform, a 1648 doctrinal statement for the Puritan Congregational churches in Colonial America.

In a move with implications for future American views in favor of separation of church and state and religious liberty, the founders rejected provisions supporting the use of civil authority to compel people to pay to support the church; they also rejected the use of governmental force to prevent schisms or splits of a dissenting church off from an established one.

The present congregation of the Old First Church in Bennington held observances on both Dec. 2 and 3 in honor of the anniversary.

*New clergy arrive*

Looking forward, the Bennington faith community said hello to two new members of the clergy in prominent downtown congregations.

On Aug.


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1, Jarah Greenfield became the new rabbi at Congregation Beth El. "A rabbi is someone who not only gives you information, or guides you along a path of learning, but is held to live a life of justice and ethics and spirit," she said in an interview with the Banner. For her, this is a combination of the spiritual life and the intellectual life.

Greenfield replaced Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, who served the synagogue for six years and has moved to the West Coast with his wife and baby daughter to be closer to extended family. She comes from a post as rabbi at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, N.J.

Greenfield went to Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, just outside of Philadelphia in Wyncote, Pa. She overlapped there with Boettiger. Her undergraduate work was at Sarah Lawrence College. She grew up in Miami, and has also lived on the West Coast, New York City and Philadelphia.

In October, the Rev. Justin Lanier became the new rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. His past explorations into spirituality include time as a Trappist monk in Colorado and time as a Zen monk in Japan.

He is the first rector of the church since the Rev. Anita Schell-Lambert left to take a post in Newport, R.I., in April, 2010. In the interim, the Rev. L. Paul Gratz held the position of transition minister.

Lanier, who is in his 30s, was in a two-year diocesan residency program for new priests, stationed at St. Patrick’s Church in Lebanon, Ohio, before he came to Bennington.

* A departure*

One clergyman who left town about the same time as Lanier arrived, was the Rev. John Britto Antony, C.S.C., who served as a priest at the Catholic churches of Bennington and North Bennington. A member of the Holy Cross religious order, Antony was transferred by his order to be an associate pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church on the east coast of Florida, in the town of Viera, near Melbourne.

A popular, soft-spoken and cheerful man, Antony, a native of India, was ordained a deacon in Bennington in September 2010, and was ordained a priest at Notre Dame University in April 2011. He served as an associate priest at Sacred Heart-St. Francis de Sales in Bennington and its sister parish, St. John the Baptist Church in North Bennington, since his ordination.

Antony said he was both sad and happy about leaving. "People have been generous toward me, and treated me like their own," he said of Bennington. Parishioners have treated him like a son, partly because he was ordained a deacon here, he said.

*30 years’ service*

One local pastor here for the long haul, the Rev. Michael Benoit on Oct. 30 marked 30 years to the day that he pulled into the lot of the First Assembly of God Church on Route 22 here to take over as the new pastor. The community is now known as the Cornerstone Fellowship Church.

At that time in the early 1980s, the twists and turns of fate -- or Providence -- had brought Benoit to Phoenix, where he was the youth minister at a megachurch.

Benoit was born and raised as a Roman Catholic in Albany; his wife, Lois, is originally from Berlin. The members of the Hoosick Falls Church had been familiar with Benoit before his call, because his father-in-law had once been pastor and Benoit had attended the church.

"This church here had seen me go from a hippy dippy, dope-smoking musician to on fire for Jesus, playing Christian music, Christian worship, Christian rock. They called me and asked me in Phoenix if I wanted to come back, if we wanted to come back, and take the church, and I said ‘no.’ This is Hooterville. I’m in Phoenix, my church was 14,000, my youth group was bigger than almost every church in our area, just the youth group."

However, at the advice of his pastor in Phoenix, Benoit came back to see if the call was from God. So "I came back, I started to see that God was beginning to work in the Northeast, and I felt called to come back here," he said. "I’m only 40 miles from my original home, my family’s close by, most of them, they’re in Albany. I see them regularly."

*GBICS moves ahead*

Another faith-based entity making news in 2012 was Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services (GBICS), which runs the Bennington Free Clinic, the Kitchen Cupboard Food Pantry and the Food and Fuel assistance fund.

The Kitchen Cupboard food pantry, at the corner of Gage and Bradford Streets in Bennington, closed down for a week in September for renovations and the installation of kitchen equipment, as part of a $15,000 improvement project.

"We closed down so that we could do some renovations and get our new kitchen put in here. So we put in new flooring from the kitchen all the way back to the back of the building, giving it a facelift and a painting and then we’re going to get appliances and commercial sinks and all that kind of stuff so we can start doing cooking and nutrition classes over there," said Sue Andrews, executive director of GBICS.

Cooking and nutrition classes now will be offered at the facility, which is at the corner of Gage and Bradford Streets. The cooking curriculum offered is known as Cooking for Life or The Learning Kitchen. It consists of small groups of five to eight participants, a few volunteers and a chef, she said.

In April, Gov. Peter Shumlin came to a GBICS community celebration at the First Baptist Church in Bennington, where the Free Clinic is located. Helping add to the festive atmosphere was the announcement of a nearly $50,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen foundation to expand outreach to women and make sure that women in the community have timely mammograms.

Shumlin received a standing ovation from the 200 or so people present.

"I want talk to you first of all about why this is so important, why it reflects who we are as a state, who we are as a community, who we are as a county and a town and also tell you how hard I’m working to put part of you out of business," Shumlin said. "You judge a society by how neighbors treat those in need, and what this organization does to keep people healthy, to keep people fed and keep people warm is an example of what makes us all so proud to be Vermonters."

In another faith-based effort to help people in need, in this case a tasty effort, the Arthritis Foundation of Northeastern New York and the Nuns of New Skete partnered to raise funds for the fight against arthritis.

The nuns, who support themselves through their baking and other products, designed a new cheesecake flavor, Raspberry Chocolate, exclusively for the Arthritis Foundation. A portion of the proceeds from each sale went to this group. In the new cheesecake, rich chocolate was blended with raspberry puree resulting in a smooth, mousse-like texture. It is crowned with additional raspberry sauce.

The nuns are also dedicated a portion of the sales of their Deluxe New York style cheescake, described online as "a delicately vanilla flavored favorite in a lemony cookie crumb crust."

The campaign started in January and will run through May, not only completing the campaign but concluding Arthritis Awareness Month.