Strong roots and loyalty lift Shelton church

The ties to the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd run deep for Genevieve Crasilli, who has spent 91 years affiliated with the parish on Coram Avenue in Shelton.

Crasilli was christened and married at the church, and over the years she ran the youth group, sang in the choir and helped out in the kitchen.

Giving back to the church was something her mother, Adeline Powell, instilled in her from an early age. “It’s your church,” she would tell her daughter.

Crasilli remembers walking about three miles each way to church, and also recalls that her mother made sure that any friends who stayed overnight would also attend church the next day.

“They went to church with us,” Crasilli said. “Our friends were welcome to anything that went on at the church.”

'A very welcoming community'

That quality isn’t lost on the Rev. Ballard Dorsee, priest in charge at the church for the past 15 years.

“It’s a very welcoming community,” said Dorsee, who conducts services at the church on Wednesdays and Sundays.

On a recent Wednesday, he shared a light lunch with several church members and friends, including Crasilli, her son Bill Crasilli, Carol Durrschmidt, George Hilton, and Claire Norris.

Many years ago, Genevieve Crasilli was Durrschmidt’s Sunday school teacher. “Everybody’s connected,” Bill Crasilli said.

Durrschmidt’s grandmother belonged to the church’s first congregation that broke off from St. James Episcopal Church in Derby in 1897.

“They wanted their own church,” said Durrschmidt, and built Good Shepherd church at today’s 182 Coram Avenue location.

The 1957 fire

But misfortune struck in 1957 when the building burned to the ground. The fire, caused by faulty electrical wiring, left just the outer stone wall standing, said Dorsee, and also spared the pulpit and the altar.

Crasilli recalls the reaction of the congregation. “The first thing we did was to say, ‘Something has to be done. Let’s do it.’”

The church was rebuilt within two years, and memorial painted glass windows have been installed over the years since then. A few pieces of the original Tiffany widows have been preserved in the sanctuary wall.

‘A lay-oriented parish’

“This is a very interesting parish,” Dorsee said. “It is a lay-oriented parish. The programs and ministry are run by the laity. I’m just along for the ride. These are really very delightful people.”

The present warden, Richard Alcutt, leads the lay ministry, said Dorsee, who describes the ministry as “individual and corporate, led by one person and many people.”

“The laity is strong,” said Hilton, a retired Methodist minister who preaches at the church from time to time. “The life of this place is dependent on the lay people. There’s quite a vitality here.”

Norris, a 50-year member, is chairman of the altar guild, which oversees preparation of the sacraments and sets up the crèche at Christmastime.

Church members also wrap scores of gifts that are distributed to students in need in the school system. Parishioner Roberta Lengyl, a school nurse, is in charge of the distribution.

“As the need arises, people come together,” Dorsee said.

A 'down-to-earth' approach

“There’s an openness here that you might not find in other churches,” said Hilton, who was attracted to the parish by its “down-to-earth but scholarly preaching.”

“We have a gift, and that gift is Jesus Christ,” Dorsee said. “His spirit makes itself known in the congregation. It reinforces that gift in the midst of a broken world.”

Dorsee conducts a healing service each week on Wednesdays at noon, which is part of a Eucharist service. The service includes the laying-on-of-hands.

Healing has played a central part in the lives of parishioners who have recovered from “things that look debilitating,” said Dorsee, and it has played a part in his own life when he was close to death several times.

“At age 21, I had equine encephalitis and I was wounded during the Korean War,” he said. In 2011, he suffered a burst aneurysm, but received life-saving treatment at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport.

Dorsee is a member of the Order of St. Luke the Physician and has conducted healing services in all the parishes he has served.

Congregation challenges

Dorsee describes Good Shepherd as “a regular, irregular church.” It’s part of the Episcopal Diocese, and is the only Episcopal church in Shelton’s downtown area.

As with other churches in older, urban neighborhoods, it faces the challenge of attracting a congregation from all over Shelton and from other nearby communities such as Ansonia, Derby, Seymour, and Stratford.

In contrast, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Huntington Center draws most members from its immediate area. “All the residents from Huntington feed into it,” Dorsee said.

The Coram Avenue neighborhood is more transient, with more apartment dwellers and people who move out of town more frequently, Norris said.

The church is financed through its endowment, gifts and offerings and through the Good Stuff thrift store located in the former rectory.

The thrift shop is an outreach service, Dorsee said, serving people in financial difficulty and stocked with donations from the community.

The thrift shop is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Positive community impact

The Good Shepherd congregation is small, with 35 to 40 people attending on Sundays.

As with many churches, there’s a declining membership and fewer attending from the younger generation, Dorsee said.

“If the parishioners would invite their children and grandchildren, we’d have to build an addition,” he quipped.

But the Church of the Good Shepherd still has an impact on its members and the Shelton community.

A recent series of meetings, Adult Spiritual Discussions, focused on biblical questions, and the annual Cookie Express Christmas Fair in November remains a popular event.

‘This place was packed with people from all over the community,” Dorsee said.

For longtime church members like Durrschmidt, the church is a central part of their lives. “I feel at home here,” she said.