One of the hallmarks of the small parish at North Guilford's St. John's Episcopal Church is its ability to make everyone feel welcome. It's a quality that instantly resonated with the church's new vicar, Reverend Maureen Peitler-Lederman, who was formally installed with a celebration worship service on
"I love it here. It feels like home," says Maureen. "I grew up in northern New Milford, which is a lot like North Guilford, and I knew this church, because I used to come here to visit the rector, who was my mentor, when I was ordained."
The Yale Divinity School graduate was ordained 10 years and stayed in Yale's New Haven neighborhood for the first decade of her priesthood. Maureen served with St. Thomas Episcopal Church, at which she was an associate parish rector and Day School chaplain. There, she came to be known as "Mother Mo," a name that her new parish has also embraced.
"Everyone has always called me Mo, since I was a kid," says Maureen, explaining that, as male priests in the Episcopal Church are often called "Father," she received a similar honor by becoming "Mother Mo."
Although she enjoyed her association with St. Thomas, when notice of the part-time opening for a new St. John's Vicar came her way, Maureen jumped at the chance to apply for the job. Maureen and her husband, Bill Lederman, live in Meriden with their two sons, Paddy, 7, and Nolan, 5.
"There was that feeling of home, and also knowing, as a mom, that part-time, for me, is what I was looking for. This parish put a lot of work into finding me and in the direction they want to go. They take fantastic ownership of this place. It's their home and they take care of it," says Maureen of the approximately 40-family parish population.
What Maureen brings to St. John's is her desire to support and celebrate the diversity of those worshiping here. In particular, "My passion is having a multi-generational church building," she says, noting she often brought teens and adults together at St. Thomas.
"I wanted to see the grown-ups involved with the teens and really connected. They really appreciated how much richer their lives were. There's a misconception about teens only wanting to hang around with other teens. It's the opposite-they love to connect with someone who's not a teen."
To build interest in all who come to St. John's, Maureen's also getting creative.
"We're creating a lot of fun events and different ways for people to find their way to church," she says.
In October, St. John's became home to Hogwarts for its Harry Potter Reading Group.
"We had a Hogwarts Halloween party, with owls and a Sorting Hat ceremony," Maureen says. "It was nice turnout and the grown-ups had so much fun, too. Even people who weren't part of the reading group came out to see it."
A part of North Guilford for more than 240 years, St. John's is best known these days for its annual outdoor Chicken Barbecue Dinner, which turned 50 this year. Maureen says the sense of community created by the dinner is something St. John's is working to foster year-round. Its public Blessing of the Animals was held this fall and, on Saturday, Dec. 15, the public is invited to enjoy St. John's third annual Live Nativity, with local farm animals acting manger scene parts (the event starts at
5 p.m., with cookies and cocoa included).
"It's about letting people know we're here, where our values lie, in building community and fun and caring for each other," says Maureen.
That care for the community is fueling a parish conversation about how St. John's spacious hall, built off the back of the 200 year-old church building, can become more of a community center for North Guilford-and, given recent turns by storms Irene and Sandy, perhaps even a storm recovery center through which locals can gather and regroup.
Maureen's been with St. John's since February 2012 and in that time, she's found she's not the only one taken with the perfect beauty of this little country church. In October, a Hollywood film crew arrived with actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., to film scenes in the sanctuary, which played the part of Frederick Douglass's church and will be seen in the new movie Something Whispered.
"It was a very fun day," says Maureen, adding she was amazed to receive a scout's phone call asking for use of the period building, but not surprised that others would appreciate the tidy white church on the hill.
"I just love the intimacy of it. When you walk in here on a Sunday and there are 35 families, it's filled."
St. John's Episcopal Church is located at 129 Ledge Hill Road in North Guilford; for more information visit www.stjohnsguilford.org.