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Cash-strapped church looks to sell its Tiffany

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - For almost 100 years, the multicolored image of St. John the Divine has gazed down from a stained-glass window in the choir loft of First Baptist Church.

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - For almost 100 years, the multicolored image of St. John the Divine has gazed down from a stained-glass window in the choir loft of First Baptist Church.

"When you see the sunlight coming through it on a Sunday morning, it's just spectacular," said church member Karen Davis, 59.

Now, the church may have to cash in on the value of the window - a Tiffany original.

Strapped for cash because of declining donations, attendance, and collection-plate revenues, church leaders voted recently to seek bids and sell the 9-foot-tall, 33-inch-wide window, using the proceeds to sustain the church and a wintertime homeless shelter it runs in its fellowship room.

Church leaders are torn by the prospect of losing the window, but believe it's the right thing to do if it keeps the church and shelter open. They're down to their last $8,000.

"No one wants to see this Tiffany go," said the Rev. Suzanne Andrews, the pastor. "But when it came down to the question of do we sell the Tiffany to keep our doors open for the ministry of God, then the decision became quite clear to all of us, that this Tiffany window - as beautiful as it is - is a material thing."

Churches of all denominations have been hit by the recession and have responded in various ways.

"Probably the largest thing churches have done is terminated positions, frozen salaries, reduced benefits, and some have even stopped making retirement benefit payments," said Phill Martin, deputy chief executive officer for the National Association of Church Business Administration.

"Most churches, like this one, are more concerned about maintaining their ministry and their involvement in the community than they are about their own specific needs about buildings and staff," Martin said.

But he said First Baptist Church's plan to sell the window is the most extreme measure he has heard about.

The cavernous, 19th-century stone building, whose 140-foot spire rises above the middle of Main Street in this southern Vermont town, is struggling with rising expenses and falling revenue. Last year, it cost $34,000 just to heat the place, and roof repairs are needed.

The 88-member congregation's attendance at Sunday services has dropped to about 35 people in recent years.

Hoping to cut costs, the church's trustees voted in February to make Andrews a part-time minister and to lay off sexton George Goulet, the only other full-time church staffer. Now, some of the homeless men who flock to the church to stay warm - the program runs from Thanksgiving to spring - clean the toilets and vacuum the red carpeting.

Last month, trustees voted 20-4 to take bids on the window. The decision was wrenching.

The Roman arch-style window shows St. John the Divine, a book in his left hand - presumably the Bible - and a blue sky and water behind him, in the distance. It is signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a scion of the New York jewelry house Tiffany & Co., which dominated the stained-glass business in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Parting with the window will be difficult for parishioners.

"I voted for it, but in my heart it's a memorial window in memory of some people who did a lot for this church," said trustee Sylvia Seitz, 76, of Guilford, Vt., who has attended the church since 1969. "It's more important to keep the church going, even without the window. But it leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

It's not the first church to use valuable stained-glass windows in lean times.

In Elizabeth, N.J., St. John's Episcopal Church recently agreed to sell three of its Tiffany-made windows to a collector to raise money for operations.

Removal can be tricky, and finding a buyer no easy thing.

"The value is in the eye of the beholder," said Donald Samick, a stained-glass window appraiser in Wyckoff, N.J., who worked on the New Jersey church's project. "If there are enough windows on the market, sometimes it's flooded and it drives down the price."

He estimated the value of the First Baptist window at $60,000 to $80,000.

For now, church leaders who had hoped to make at least $50,000 on the sale have two bids in hand - a New York window broker offering $75,000 and a California collector who bid $70,000.

Hopefully, they say, more bids will come. But they're hoping for some divine intervention in the form of a benefactor who might donate money or buy the window but leave it in place.

"Every day we are able to keep our doors open increases the chance of a miracle to happen," Andrews said. "As American Baptists, we believe in miracles."