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Who owns this church?

Appleton Historical Society works to clear up deed question
By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 26, 2020
Photo by: Christine Simmonds The Historical Society in Appleton is looking for the deed to this property.

Appleton — The town of Appleton did a strange thing at its town meeting in March 1971, according to The Camden Herald.

The following is recorded for posterity in the article by Nancy Brown:

“Voters approved conveyance of the Union Church to the Appleton Historical Society when the property is acquired by the town by a tax lien process. The Society will begin a program of restoration and preservation when it is owner of the property.”

This is a small part of her larger story on the town meeting business that year, but it raises interesting questions.

Appleton Historical Society President Fred Bucklin approached the town Select Board in July of 2020 to discuss the situation. He noted at that meeting that the town had taken this vote according to the society’s research into town minutes and the town report from 1971 and 1972. However, when the historical society went looking for the deed to the property, it found it does not have it.

He went to the town to see if the Select Board could provide a deed to the property. The board has found, however, that it also does not have the deed to the church property on record.

Select Board Chair John Fenner said, based on what he has seen, the town never did own the property. The situation also raises the question of how the town could foreclose on a church for a tax lien when churches are exempt from taxes.

It is in question as well, if the town does not own it and the historical society does not own it, who does?

The Historical Society has long maintained the property and used it. In legal terms it has done this notoriously and openly, and so far its possession of the property has not been challenged.

Preliminary research at the Registry of Deeds has not turned up any tax liens or other documents to shed light on the issue.

A few local families had been in contact with town leaders noting that they have “deeds” to individual church pews. In the 19th century, it was a practice in some churches for families to buy their own pew to sit in during church services.

Bucklin said that when you buy a church pew in this way, however, it does not convey ownership of real estate. It is only the right to put your family name on a particular pew.

Currently, the church steeple has been removed and is on the lawn next to it awaiting completion of repairs and restoration. Bucklin had been fundraising for this project. He said a number of factors have slowed that project including the pandemic and the need for more funding.

He said the deed issue could also hold up the project.

If no other owner is found in the more in-depth deed search that is planned, there are legal remedies that may allow the Historical Society to take what town officials refer to as adverse possession of the church. The idea is that the society has possessed and maintained the building for so many years that it has established a legitimate claim to the property. However, such legal processes may also require funds from the organization.

Selectmen spoke at length with Bucklin about this in July, but took no action, and Fenner does not see any need for the Select Board to act on it at this time. The ball is in the Historical Society’s court.

It was noted in the 1971 article that at the same town meeting the town elected an entirely new board of selectmen. It is possible the new board stopped the acquisition of the church or decided not to turn it over to the Historical Society.

Asked at the July 2020 meeting how he learned of this situation, Bucklin said he had been informed by former selectman Donald Burke.

Meanwhile, the church is back to serving in its original function. The Rev. Nathan Tinsley has been holding services for his New Testament Church there. Bucklin said the church has been renting the property from the Historical Society.

A sign outside the church advertises its current tenant. (Photo by: Christine Simmonds)
The Camden Herald on March 18, 1971, reported on the town meeting that may have decided the fate of the church and The Historical Society. (Courtesy of: The Camden Public Library)
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