Cracks formed as the wooden eaves of Stepney United Methodist Church began to split under the weight of the bell in the belfry, forcing the congregation to temporarily leave their building, which is now Our Lady of the Rose Chapel on Pepper Street, at the edge of Stepney Green.
“We had to suspend services at Stepney United Methodist Church, because the belfry was likely to collapse into the church,” said The Rev. David York, the pastor at the time. “We had to use a crane to take down the bell and the belfry. We went to East Village United Methodist Church for a short time.”
Taking part in services with East Village Methodist Church, at the East Village Meeting House at the corner of East Village and Barn Hill roads, was a sign of things to come.
In 1970 the two churches decided to merge, forming the United Methodist Church of Monroe and the congregation received a certificate of occupancy for its new building on Cutlers Farm Road on October 5, 1973, according to York.
The bell, now prominently displayed on the United Methodist Church of Monroe’s property at 515 Cutlers Farm Road, is rung by Paul Lesko every Sunday, signaling the start of the 10 a.m. service.
“I think we did a decent job of merging,” York said. “We brought china from Stepney Church and furniture from East Village Church. There’s more of a feeling of unity now than at the beginning.”
This year, UMC of Monroe is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its building. A special 10 a.m. service will be held on Sunday, Oct. 8, followed by a catered lunch.
One recent afternoon, York, who served as pastor during the first year, sat across from the current one, The Rev. Chuck Schif, who joined UMC of Monroe two years ago, after the church had gone a while without a pastor.
“The congregation is hugely welcoming,” said Schif, 51. “But what made it so smooth is that the congregation is self-sufficient, because they learned how to be the church without a pastor. So that made it easier for me, the newbie. It’s been a pleasure.”
‘Just love them’
Schif, whose full-time job is a remote position as a software engineer for a tech company in Austin, Texas, grew up in Stratford and graduated from Bunnell High School in 1990. He now lives in Shelton with his wife, Patti. The couple has a daughter, Bailey, 22, who is a student pursuing a Master’s degree in counseling at Liberty University in Virginia.
When they moved to Shelton, the Schifs joined Huntington United Methodist Church and Schif gradually became more involved.
“As an usher, I decided to join the choir,” he said. “I found this joy and felt a pull to do more. The pastor asked me to do a sermon. I’m a computer guy on a keyboard in the background. I’m not doing presentations.”
But giving a sermon came naturally to Schif.
“For my first sermon I had the notes, but once I started rolling I didn’t look at them,” he recalled. “After the service, I’m like, ‘thank you God once again. You’re there all the time.'”
Then Patti attended a conference on women of faith and saw a raffle at one table for a free course at Liberty University.
“She put my name in. I didn’t win, but took the course and received a T-shirt — it was the most expensive T-shirt I ever had,” Schif joked.
Schif decided to enroll in online courses to pursue a Master’s of Divinity. As a part-time student, it took six years to complete.
At church, he was asked to lead a Bible study and the youth group. After earning his degree, Huntington United Methodist Church made him assistant pastor to The Rev. Inkoo Chung, a role he filled from 2017 to 2021.
“The district superintendent gave me a call and asked if I wanted to be pastor at another church in Connecticut,” Schif said. “I prayed about it and I didn’t feel like it was where I was supposed to be. I declined. He said, ‘okay, I’ll ask you again next year.’ I said, ‘I hope you do.'”
Two weeks later, the superintendent called Schif again, this time to ask about UMC of Monroe.
“I said, ‘what do I do? What do I do?'” he recalled. “My feeling when I prayed was, ‘just love them,’ so I thought all I had to do is come here and love them.”
“I think it was a good decision,” York said of Schif becoming UMC of Monroe’s pastor, “and like Chuck said, there is a lot of depth of leadership, caring and support.”
“If this is God’s will, I’m going to keep saying yes,” Schif said.
‘The church in the woods’
Decades ago, York said Stepney United Methodist Church was given 76 acres on Cutlers Farm Road. Around 1930, the church had an agreement to rent the land out for farming. It was locked into the agreement until the late ’60s, when there was no else to pass the land onto for farming.
The church bought back the lease, enabling it to build UMC of Monroe on Cutlers Farm Road.
In 1973, the church had around 80 congregants.
Today, close to 50 members participate in Sunday services, which are also streamed online. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Schif said more people are starting to come to church in person.
“Now we’re seeing a couple that wants their daughter to be baptized,” he said, before showing a photo of the previous baptisms of Brian Sherwood and his son, Jacob, at Great Hollow Lake.
“He wanted to be immersed,” Schif said of Brian. “After COVID we’re starting to grow and keep the spirit alive. We continue to do Zoom and have recordings on the church’s YouTube channel.”
York said he believes the merging of the two churches over 50 years ago was vital to the survival of both.
“I don’t think the same could have happened in the two locations without the merger, especially with the pandemic,” York said of the shape UMC of Monroe is in today. “This congregation, just the collection of personalities and skill levels makes it a stronger congregation.”
In the booklet for the church’s 40th anniversary in 2013, Lay Leader Rose Aiello wrote, “the original spirit and passion still exists today — in different people and different ways.”
Aiello spoke of members’ continued involvement with Church World Service, Monroe Food Pantry, Mozambique, Covenant to Care, Council of Churches and many other missions over the years, as well as the “fun and fellowship of game nights, Ladies groups, Easter egg hunts and potluck lunches.”
“Every one of us has been called here to ‘the church in the woods’ at 515 Cutlers Farm Road in Monroe for a reason and this is our continuing story …” Aiello wrote.
United Methodist Church invites all to attend Sunday services at 10 a.m., which can also be seen with a Zoom link the church’s website and watched on its YouTube channel. A weekly Bible study can be joined on Zoom at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesdays. Those interested in joining the church can visit its office, open Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to noon.
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