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Work nearly complete at Christ Episcopal

Christ Episcopal Church is poised to celebrate a major milestone next month.

The congregation plans to gather — socially distanced — on Aug. 2 following months of extensive preservation and renovation work on the church’s 1832 era building at 111 S. Church St. in historic downtown Smithfield.

About 18 months earlier, an unexpected discovery set multiple projects in motion to save the structure. In short, the building’s walls, foundation, roof trusses and the framework supporting many of the large stained glass windows were all in need of major repair. The windows were installed from the 1890s through about 1910.

“We knew we had renovations we had to do. We had identified them some time ago and had budgeted and set aside the money to deal with that,” said Eric Leaman, the church’s senior warden and interim congregational leader.

No one, however, initially realized how significant the defects were.

“It’s sort of providence. If we had gone through a windstorm with some snow on the roof, we could have easily lost a whole wall,” said church member Bill Egan, who is also a structural engineer by trade.

Some work still remains on the bell tower and replacing stucco. Leaman said the church also plans to add a nicely appointed bench underneath one of the building’s stained glass windows that depict scenes from the life of Christ to make it an attractive spot for visitors and residents alike.

Thanks to the action and support of church and community members, along with the work of several construction and engineering firms, work began in earnest to make the building safe and sound for generations to come.

Then came an invisible threat — the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re in an interesting time where our renovations and our needs for the sanctuary are wrapped around and entwined with COVID-19 and the pandemic and our desire to still keep a viable congregation working together, meeting together and worshiping together,” Leaman said.

“Bill had created a curtain halfway down the church and we were meeting as a congregation in the front part of the church. Our rector was holding services. We were going through a normal spiritual journey, I guess, figuring we would worship around the renovations and we were actually looking to be in the church in a couple of months.” But as COVID-19 reached a crisis level, the local bishop canceled church activities.

Although nothing about the damage and pain wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is good, from a project standpoint, “it did give us a window” to complete the unexpectedly extensive building work, Egan said.

They turned to the internet to continue worshipping and to keep the congregation connected. The congregation has recently gathered at St. Luke’s Historic Church and Museum for worship while the work on their building was completed.

Christ Episcopal has “been an operating church since 1832. And while I don’t think George Washington ever walked through our church, I think most of the major citizens and people within the area have at one point or another worshipped in this building,” Leaman said.

Through hosting numerous community events and concerts, many who live in Smithfield have a memory involving the church, Leaman said. He praised the community for supporting them at a time of need and is optimistic about the future.

“We are a small town church,” Leaman said. “We’re not a huge congregation, probably 50 families. Everybody has pulled together to keep this church moving forward.”

The church plans to celebrate the completion of the project soon, possibly in the fall, on a date to be determined.

Contributions to support the preservation project are still being accepted at by mail at: Christ

Episcopal Church, Preservation Fund, 111 S. Church St., Smithfield, VA 23430 and online through a GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/f/cecsmithfield-preservation-campaign.