NORTH SMITHFIELD – She’s seen the congregation through some major changes, from the launch of a food pantry, to the move to become an open and affirming church, but after 13 years at the pulpit, Rev. Eileen Morris has decided it’s time to move on.
Morris announced this week that she will retire from her role leading Slatersville Congregational Church in July, stepping away from a job as pastor that she’s held since 2007.
“It has been wonderful,” Morris said during a virtual sermon on Sunday, April 11.
Morris said that she knew from the moment she walked into the historic church building that it was the place she was meant to serve.
“I instantly felt that I had come home,” Morris said. “I’d been in lots of different churches in my life, but I had only felt this way one other time and that was being in my childhood church in Woodstock, Connecticut. I was sure that this was the church where God wanted me to be.”
The decade plus to follow would bring many changes and challenges, both for the congregation, and Morris personally.
Morris moved to town from Massachusetts with husband Robert Morris, who at the time was a partner at a law firm in Boston.
Robert was instrumental in one of the pastor’s first initiatives: the launch of a food pantry to serve the community. The congregation opened up shop in the basement of the church, and began providing bags of food to town residents in need four times a month, with the help of donations from local businesses. Now, the North Smithfield Food Pantry helps to feed about sixty families per month, thanks a dedicated group of parishioners, a service that continued even through the pandemic.
Morris led the village church to become a Stephen Ministry, an outreach effort to offer high-quality, one-to-one, Christ-centered care to people in the congregation and the community experiencing life difficulties. The church now has two Stephen Ministry leaders, and 10 trained Stephen Ministers, on call to provide counseling to anyone in need of help.
The church also launched a vacation bible school under Morris’s leadership, a free, one week summer program open to kids of all denominations.
And in 2019, Morris led Slatersville Congregational in the effort to become an Open and Affirming church, an official designation in the United Church of Christ that denotes full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary persons.
“We’ve done some pretty amazing things here,” Morris said this week. “This church is such a special and healthy place.”
The congregation has also helped the pastor through some tough times of her own.
In 2008, just one year after Morris came to Slatersville, Robert was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. During the seven year battle that followed, the progressive neurodegenerative disease would make life increasingly difficult for the couple, as Robert gradually lost the ability to initiate muscle movement.
Morris lived in the parsonage with her husband, a historic structure built in 1905, and as time stole her husband’s mobility, it was church members who stepped forward to install lifts, railings, bars and a ramp outside the house. Bob continued teaching bible studies, and when he lost his ability to drive, parishioners brought him to work, doctors appointments and hair cuts.
They organized an event in 2014 to raise money to find a cure for ALS with a town-wide version of the, “ice bucket challenge.”
Robert Morris died in 2015 at the age of 55.
The pastor noted that the congregation was also there when she lost both of her parents, just four months apart.
“You need to know that I have loved all my time with you, walking through life’s challenges with you, watching you grow, learning from all of you. ” Morris said to parishioners. “This has been an amazing place to be.”
Through the pandemic, the church has continued to offer weekly services online, and on Sunday, Morris noted that her hope is to begin outdoor sermons, and to possibly host at least one inside the sanctuary before she departs in July.
She said she will be moving to Boston, and hopes to travel, spend time with family in New Zealand, spend time with friends, and explore her hobby of cooking.
“I so look forward to having that gift of time,” she said. “Change is hard I know, but change can also be a really good thing.”
“This has been an amazing place to serve,” said Morris. “I can’t thank you enough for inviting me into your lives and into your hearts.”
The full Sunday service can be viewed here.