BURRILLVILLE – In the 1980s hit movie Back to the Future, a clock tower sits at the center of town in Hill Valley, Ca., unable to keep time after being struck by lighting decades earlier in the fictional time-travel story.
But a historic time keeper mounted above a church at the center of Harrisville for more than 130 years keeps on ticking – and it’s certainly not just by chance.
Every Sunday for 41 years, Ken Hopkins has climbed to the top the First Universalist Church, using an antique mechanism to manually wind the clock, a landmark that has stood over the village of Harrisville since 1886.
Hopkins is the janitor at the historic church, and even as parish attendance has dwindled, he has kept to his duties, climbing the roughly 60-foot structure week after week.
According to his sister, Betty Mencucci, it’s an important job that has helped to honor the rich history of the building.
“The First Universalist Church is an important landmark in Harrisville and the clock keeps time for the village,” said Mencucci. “There’s a lot of history attached to that church.”
Mencucci is a member of the Burrillville Historic and Preservation Society, a group working with former parishioners of First Universalist to restore the 132-year-old structure. Two years ago, due to declining attendance, the congregation ran out of money. Remaining members of the church, with support from BHPS, have undertaken the project of preserving the building.
The church was originally built by Albert Sweet, a dairy farmer who owned more than 1,000 acres of land in Burrillville. His farm, “Sweet’s Hill” once ran from what is now East Avenue into much of the current Black Hut Management Area.
Sweet spearheaded an effort to build a Victorian-style church in the small village, contracting a firm in Boston to design the clock, accompanied by a large bell below.
The clock has kept time for those passing through the village of Harrisville ever since.
But with that time eventually came change and by the 1930s, a local mill owner had a different vision for Harrisville.
Austin T. Levy preferred a colonial style, and the church was one of many structures built or remodeled by the investor as he designed a village surrounding the Stillwater Mill Company. During the height of the depression, Levy built the Town Hall, the Assembly Theatre, and former Jesse M Smith Library, which is now known as the Town Annex.
He also reconstructed both Berean Baptist and the Universalist Church in 1933, designing buildings more in keeping with the village’s new look. Both the clock and the bell would remain, but in the opposite order.
“He built everything out of brick,” noted Mencucci. “That’s part of the architecture and the identity of the village. It just adds to it.”
The church stopped holding regular masses in 2016, but Mencucci says she wasn’t the only person “horrified” at the idea of tearing it down.
“The whole community seems to be of the same mind about it,” she said. “If we just walk away, the building will go to ruin.”
Efforts to save the church began, with fundraisers including an annual chicken dinner at Addieville Farm – which raised $4,000 this year – yard sales, and a trip to Foxwoods.
The group also obtained a $20,000 grant from the Levy Foundation for restoration work.
The money was used in part to restore the clock face, which had faded through the years and was missing numbers.
Valley Restoration, LLC from Torrington, Conn. completed the work this week.
Workers had to use two ladders to get to the top of the building, then tie ropes around their waists, hanging while they added copper flashing to the building and repaired defective wood.
The crew also scraped and repainted the steeple, and repaired a small leak.
“It’s expensive to go up there and do that type of steeple work,” said Mencucci.
And the challenge of how to continue to preserve, maintain and use the church still remains. The congregation still gathers for a Christmas service once a year, lighting candles in the building’s historic chandelier.
“It is truly a magnificent sight,” Mencucci said.
The church also holds an Easter service, and the preservationist has started to create a museum honoring Levy in basement. Over the summer, guests to the town visited the church to talk politics in town-hall style forums.
“People come by and they say ‘It’s so beautiful in here,'” said Mencucci.
The group went to Preserve RI for suggestions on how to use the structure and was told it could be turned into condominiums, an idea that didn’t sit well with the preservation-minded group.
“If we let it go to another use, the village would lose its identity,” said Mencucci. “We’re still trying to work out uses.”
Through the winter, the volunteer group must find a way to pay to heat the structure, as the plaster inside could get ruined if frozen.
“It costs money to maintain it,” said Mencucci. “We monitor the temperature all the time.”
Work still needed to complete the church restoration includes improvements to the windows, shutters, columns and paint. For that, the group has applied for a grant from the Champlin Foundation, and they expect to hear back on the status by the end of this month.
“They seemed overjoyed at the project,” Mencucci said of the potential financers. “If we get it, I’m going to hire the same company that did the steeple to restore the rest of the building. It will look really nice.”
Hopkins, of course, will keep on winding up above, making adjustments as needed to the time.
“It’s pretty high,” Mencucci said of the historic time piece. “When you drive through there, you look up and see the clock. You don’t want to see the wrong time.”
The effort, she feels, is worth it.
“If we let the building go to ruin, then Levy’s vision is gone as well,” Mencucci said.
Those who would like to donate to the effort to maintain the building can write a check to First Universalist Church and mail it to the Burrillville Historic Preservation Society at P.O. Box 93, Pascoag, RI 02895.