Rutland Herald – May 20, 1997
New Roof Rises From the Heart

By Yvonne Daley
Herald Staff

Bennington – When Rick Wright nails pieces of slate onto a roof, he likes to think of his work as having some sort of permanence or, at the least, as lasting longer than his time on earth.

Thus, when his daughter Corrigan, 12, suggested last summer that Wright donate a slate roof to one of the approximately 70 southern churches that have been burned by arsonists since 1995, he immediately liked the idea.

“It seemed like a nice statement to make, given that slate is so long lasting and that it comes from the earth,” the roofer said Monday as he and another daughter, Elizabeth 18, set out for Orangeburg, S.C.

There, they and employee Daniel Watley will hammer 73,000 pieces of stale onto the rebuilt Butler Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which burned down in suspicious fire on March 30, 1996.

Marion Mack, a contractor who is heading the effort to rebuild the chapel, said, “We’re just elated to be getting this slate roof. There’s no way in the world we could think of having such a nice roof without this offer. It’s going to be kind of unique having a slate roof from Vermont in this part of the country.”

The Rev. Patrick Mellerson, pastor of the Butler Chapel, will nail the first slate onto the roof Tuesday afternoon.

“I told my congregation last week that this roof symbolizes how we have gone form tragedy to triumph,” Mellerson said in a telephone interview Monday. “We are really honored, blessed and grateful for someone to chose us, a rural church that was not well-known and didn’t have a lot of resources. It’s a blessing, a miracle in itself.”

Mellerson said seven high school students have been charged with setting the fire, which allegedly began when a fight broke out after the group broke into the church to party. He said the young people had previously set the altar and other parts of the church on fire, and written “KKK” on the building.

“They wanted us to leave this community. They kept trashing the church. The message was that they wanted African Americans to move out of here,” he said.

Mellerson said that the congregation was devastated by the fire, which destroyed the 4-year-old church.

“For three months, we heard nothing. There was no publicity. No one seemed to care, “ he said. “But after going to Washington last year and talking to the President and Janet Reno, we finally got an investigation from the FBI.”

Mellerson said volunteers have rebuilt the frame of the church and the parish has become stronger that ever since the fire. He expects blacks who had been worshipping in neighboring churches to come back to his parish, in part drawn by the new building.

“When I heard about the slate roof, I thought there are certain blessings that God gives peoples that you just can’t explain. This is one of those. With that roof, we’re going to have a building like no other around here,” Mellerson said.

Wright, 38, the son of former Vermont House Speaker Ralph Wright, operates a small slate-roofing business called Vermont SlateWright, headquartered in Bennington.

“I’ve had a lot of gifts in my life and one of them has been finding this work. It’s taken me all over the country and, through it, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and managed to put food on my table for my family,” Wright said.

He said he chose the Butler Chapel in part because it was located in a rural community and had received little national attention or support.

Wright estimated the cost of the slate and labor at about $110,000. The sea-green slate is quarried by John Hill of Greenstone Slate in Poultney, who defrayed some of his cost to help Wright’s effort.

Barbara Levin of Dorset, one of Wright’s customers, also made a donation to help with expenses. “When they start burning churches down, we’re all in trouble. But this is not a political statement, “Wright said. “It’s just a gift that kind of celebrates working with your hands, helping one another, of thanking all the people who have helped me in my life.”