Person of the Week
Clear as a Bell: Preserving a Landmark Church is Rachel Schemmerling's Calling
Rachel Schemmerling is co-chair of Preservation 2020, a fundraising campaign to restore The Congregational Church in Killingworth, a 200-year old landmark church. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Restoring and preserving a 200-year-old church is undoubtedly a formidable task. Volunteering for the job while managing a business, raising a teenager and a kindergartner, and battling multiple sclerosis is downright daunting.
Yet it is a challenge Rachel Schemmerling decided to take.
She is co-chair of the committee for Preservation 2020, a fundraising campaign that began in October 2018 to restore The Congregational Church in Killingworth. Located at 273 Route 81, the church marks its 200th year on May 31, 2020, and the committee hopes to celebrate the occasion with the unveiling of a newly restored structure.
Known as the “Church on the Hill,” the Congregational Church is also part of “the quintessential New England town,” Rachel points out.
“It is the symbol of all New England towns,” she says. “Every Lifetime movie you ever see, there’s always the Congregational Church on the hill with the snow coming down. That’s the New England thing, and that’s what we have.”
Undeterred by Physical Challenges
Rachel does the volunteer work with Preservation 2020 despite the everyday challenges of dealing with multiple sclerosis (MS). She was diagnosed with the condition six years ago.
“I have relapsing-remitting MS, which is a common form. It means that it comes and goes. Basically, there are things I deal with every day—symptoms that I have challenges with every day,” she explains.
But MS is not the only physical ailment she battles. She also has inflammatory arthritis, a genetic and painful condition that affects her large joints. Her arthritis also gives her discomfort, but she takes it all in stride.
“It makes me very stiff. I’m like the Tin Man,” she jokes.
Rachel deals with these symptoms even as she raises a 14-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter with Kurt, her husband of 18 years.
She also decided not to let her physical condition stop her from doing good for others.
“Everyone is going through something, whatever it is. When I was diagnosed [with MS], this ‘something’ is what inspired me to do more for others, because even though I’m challenged, I could see that everybody else is challenged with something as well,” she says.
“So, I always thought it was important to take on a cause that means something to me,” she adds.
Persevering with Preservation
She does the work for Preservation 2020 with co-chair Charles Smith, an active member of the church and a past Person of the Week. Two other members, Leslie Judge and Len Summa, are part of the committee, taking on the public relations and the financial work, respectively.
The committee identified repairs that are extensive and critical.
“We are focused on the sanctuary because it is the most debilitated at this point. It’s deteriorating,” Rachel explains.
Among other things, the committee plans to secure and restore the interior dome, repair and repaint the exterior molding and wood siding, replace the carillon, repair the church bell, repave the parking lot, and replace the carpeting and seating upholstery.
To accomplish the repairs and restoration, the committee needs to raise $350,000.
It has raised more than $100,000 and Rachel hopes to achieve the target with some state grants as well as the yearlong fundraising efforts lined up. The committee’s next fundraiser is the Autumnal Jazz event featuring live Brazilian music with the Bossa Bela Trio on Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 4 p.m. at the church.
Because much of the damage and wear on the church are hidden, the committee knew it needed to raise awareness on the urgent need for repairs. It hosted some of its events at the church to explain to members of the community where the repairs are badly needed.
“We just finished up a speaker series when we had a speaker once a month. It was in the sanctuary where people would come in and see the deterioration, see the damage,” Rachel explains.
She admits that the work with Preservation 2020 inspires her creativity and gets her excited about the fundraising series as well as the results she expects to see when the construction work is finally completed. The skillset she brings to her volunteer work comes from her education and professional job as a design consultant. She earned a bachelor’s degree in interior design from the University of New Haven and launched her own company, Timeless Interiors, in 2007.
Rachel also grew up in a 275-year-old Colonial-era home in Madison that was constantly under renovation. Early on, she learned the art of seamlessly merging the old with the new, transforming small spaces to make them appear expansive, and making a room both stylish and functional for the contemporary needs of families.
Her background also includes hotel management and running a bed and breakfast. These skills helped her organize some of the events for Preservation 2020.
The combination of Rachel’s talents—her skill in designing functional interior spaces, her ability to organize large-scale events, and her interest in historic houses and structures—made her uniquely qualified to take on the job of restoring and preserving The Congregational Church in Killingworth.
“I really did feel called to do this because everyone has their gifts and this was mine. The MS may have inspired me to get out there and give and to do more, regardless of my challenges…so when I saw that this church was hurting and it needed help, I thought ‘This is what I do. This is where I need to give my gifts.’ I was able to get contractors they’ve never heard of and people who specialize in historic preservation and get people in because of what I do and what I love,” she says.
She admits that while the job is challenging, she finds fulfillment working with the committee members and the community.
“The most fulfilling time for me is working with these fine people and I just enjoyed it so much. I love planning events. I love getting ideas and getting inspired,” she says.
As overwhelming as the responsibility is, she feels honored to do the work. To her, the job is as much preserving the structure as it is preserving history itself for future generations.
She echoes the words of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and says, “If we can’t value our history, we can’t move on with our future.”
For information about the Autumnal Jazz event on Oct. 20, call Rachel Schemmerling at 203-500-9500 or Charlie Smith at 860-663-1583.
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