This is a story about change in a small Maine town. The changes come in many forms. This piece is about setting the framework:
The first sign that change had come to Mount Jensen, Maine was the sight of a short man in a blazing yellow jacket nailing a FOR SALE sign to the front door of the Congregational Church.
He admired his handwork for a second or two, touched the edges with two fingers to straighten it; then satisfied, he turned, tossed the hammer and pack of nails into the trunk of his white Cadillac, and drove off.
Not exactly Martin Luther nailing his thesis to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg and starting the Reformation, Henderson thought, watching the actions of the unnamed prophet from a ladder angled against the front of his diner three doors down, but unsettling enough that he dismounted the ladder and strolled over to the old, unpainted church building.
It was the in-between season, late April, the morning air still chilled by an icy touch not yet warmed off. Graying snow piles lined north-facing ditches; fields were broken with cocked roots of cow corn, laid bare, awaiting the furrowing plow. Early sunlight cracked the tips of the dark and silent tree stands, while the palest green shoots of hardwoods brightened the black spruce groves down to the lake where the water swirled with Stygian menace, the shore guarded by frozen blades of rim ice. A layer of wood smoke swirled across the face of the hills that sheltered the settlement, the gritty air burnt.
The diner regulars piled in with dirty ballcaps and hooded sweatshirts covered by stained denim Bean work coats; he would mop a layer of mud and stones off the linoleum before lunch. Trout season would open in two weeks and the streets would be lined with pick-ups hauling small boats that had been dragged from storage, the dust still thick on their canvas covers. The tourists and seasonal campers would show up on Memorial Day.
The church had not been painted in years, about as long as it had not been used as a church, but its sturdy walls and imposing bell tower that rose like an arm outstretched to heaven reminded all that the strong faith of its congregants had carried them through trials and tribulations as they served their stern God. Paint, Henderson had decided as a younger man, meant the church goers would have had to acknowledge that faith and life was not always a grim slog through deep snow in winter, days of privation or that hardness cured the soul of frivolity.
In truth, the Congregational church had not served that denomination after a dispute a hundred-fifty years ago sent half the congregation up to the top of Apple Hill where they constructed a new sanctuary and painted it white. Suddenly half the village of Mount Jensen were Baptists.
The root of the schism was lost to time and a pile of dusty records buried in the cellar of one of the churches, Henderson knew. Legend said it was dispute between the Jensens and the Nettlesons, founding families whose disagreement seemed to have started the moment those early settlers set foot on the lakeshore where the settlement was established.
It was clear who won: The village was not named Mount Nettleson.
Either way, Mount Jensen, a settlement of about five hundred souls had two churches. In modern times, church members settled on a convention of using the hilltop church in the summer and the village church in the winter. Henderson as a kid wondered if that mean everyone was a Congregating Baptist. While it appeared the arrangement was made because the new church had no heating system other than a fireplace, Henderson, who attended neither church, quietly enjoyed the symbolism of using a bright, white church building in the spring and summer, seasons of joy and growth, and then occupying an angry, dark finger-pointing sanctuary in the cold, hard times of fall and winter.
During one Christmas pageant years ago, Henderson, wearing a bulky knit sweater under his choir robes overheated in the closed, crowded church and threw up during “O Holy Night.” They had cut away that smelly piece of ancient rug and never replaced it, leaving an oval of bare floor in the top left corner of the choir loft.
He stared at the sign on the front door of the church: FOR SALE. Can you sell a church? If all its meaning had been removed, you could, he decided.
But if you can buy a church, what else can you buy?
At least it wasn’t the Inn, he thought. The wreck of the Mount Jensen Inn, a sanctuary of a different kind, filled a fenced-in lakeside lot between Henderson’s diner and the old church. It had been the center of the economy and life in the village for more than a hundred years; even if the town fathers disagreed on where to worship, they had placed an oval black-and-white photograph of the Inn on their official stationary.
While the placement of a FOR SALE sign on the church door could feel like the end of times, Henderson thought, even in its grand wreckage, the fact that the Inn was still standing, was a sign of hope.