BEACON FALLS — Rev. James Van Pelt looked around as he stood in the sanctuary of the Beacon Falls Congregational Church last week remembering what it used to be like.
The sanctuary wasn’t always the place it is now, Van Pelt said. When he started preaching at the church in 1988 the sanctuary was a little underwhelming.
“When I came here there were awful drapes at the windows. There were no cushions on the pews. There was no carpeting. This whole sanctuary, I thought, was a terrible mess when I came here,” Van Pelt said.
During his time with the church, Van Pelt has seen the sanctuary, and the church as a whole, grow and change.
“We made it like this. And then this was home to me,” Van Pelt said.
Now, after 30 years, Van Pelt is getting ready to say goodbye.
Van Pelt is retiring at the end of this month and his sermon on Sunday will be his last in the church.
“It is kind of a hard spot to be in. I am retiring. In my mind I don’t want to retire, but I have to face the facts. I am 87 years old. Most people retire at 65. It is time I learn to relax and enjoy my life,” Van Pelt said.
Although he has been a minister for nearly 60 years, Van Pelt’s path to Beacon Falls was not a straight one.
In fact, when he was young, Van Pelt didn’t want to be a minister.
Van Pelt said the first time he considered and rejected the idea was during junior high school at a religious retreat.
“There were about 400 kids in the audience. This evangelist said, ‘One of you people is going to be a minister.’ It looked like he was pointing at me and I said, ‘No way do I want to be a minister,’” Van Pelt recalled.
Van Pelt didn’t give it much thought again until he joined the Navy in 1953.
“I was out on a ship in the Caribbean one night. It was really hot, so I laid out on the deck and this voice seemed to say, ‘You said you didn’t want to be a minister, but I am telling you that you are going to be a minister,’” Van Pelt said.
After that, Van Pelt soon began studying at the Boston University School of Theology.
After his graduation in 1960, Van Pelt moved back to his home state of Indiana where he became a Methodist pastor in Terre Haute, Ind. However, a disagreement with a bishop of the Methodist church encouraged him to move on, Van Pelt said.
After he left Indiana, Van Pelt preached all over the country, including in Brooklyn, N.Y. and San Pedro, Calif. In the 1980s, Van Pelt found himself in Cranston, R.I. where he was approached by members of the United Church of Christ of Beacon Falls — as the Beacon Falls Congregational Church was known back then — who were looking for a new pastor.
“They brought me down here to Beacon Falls and I preached here. They said, ‘OK, you’re the guy,’” Van Pelt said.
After moving around a lot, Van Pelt said he finally found a community and a church he wanted to stay at in Beacon Falls.
“I love this town. The people here are phenomenal. They have completely endorsed my ministry. I feel more at home here than any place I have ever been,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt has seen a lot of changes in 30 years in town, including the opening of Woodland Regional High School and the beautifying of Main Street with the addition of Veteran’s Park.
The church has also changed throughout the years, and still is. The church is undergoing significant renovations and an elevator is expected to be added to the sanctuary before Van Pelt leaves.
“We made the whole church much more visible and attractive to people. It has just gone on from there,” Van Pelt said. “It is coming to conclusion for me.”
Looking back on his three decades in Beacon Falls, Van Pelt said some of his fondest memories are of the people.
“The people have just totally embraced me. I feel loved by the people in this church. They have supported my ministry. They like the way I preach. I have gathered a lot of wonderful people around me,” Van Pelt said. “It has turned out fantastic. It is hard to describe it any other way.”
The feeling is mutual.
Liza Whitehead has been a parishioner and volunteer with the church for 20 years, and has worked as the church’s secretary since 2010. Whitehead said she joined the church and has been involved for so long because of Van Pelt.
“It really was the pastor. When you come to visit this church, I would say a majority of new members say it was his sermons and his worship service that got them to say they would like to join this church,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead said she has enjoyed her time at the church, listening to and working for Van Pelt.
“He is like a father to me. He is more than just my boss, he is my pastor. He has a real, warm pastoral style,” Whitehead said. “I now have fear of who my new boss is going to be because they have big shoes to fill.”
Although she finds it hard to say goodbye, Whitehead is part of the pastoral search committee that is getting the church ready for its future.
Whitehead said the first step is to find a temporary replacement minister, known as an “intentional interim,” that specializes in coming in on a special, short-term basis.
“After 30 years we need to kind of grieve. We’ve had the same guy in the pulpit for so long,” Whitehead said.
Once the interim minister is in place, the committee will begin the search for a permanent minister, Whitehead said. The search can take up to two years, she said.
As he prepares to leave, Van Pelt hopes he is remembered as someone who cared for the people of the church.
“I cared about the people. I cared about what they were going through. Everything mattered to me and I tried to minister the best I possibly could in every situation,” Van Pelt said.
When he leaves Beacon Falls, Van Pelt said he’s moving to Greenfield, Mass. where he plans to spend time with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I have a couple acres up there. I think I will plant a garden,” Van Pelt said.