May this history recall to our minds and renew our gratitude for all the good and faithful people in our church’s past who have given much of themselves to its life and service. May it also remind us of the dedication and efforts of our forebears who pioneered the principles upon which our heritage of religious freedom and government were founded. We express our deep appreciation to Mrs. Louise Chapman Dibble for writing the church history contained herein. We also wish to thank all members and friends who have been involved in planning and carrying out the special events marking this anniversary year: Jeanne Russell (Chairman), Louise Dibble, Elizabeth Dorsch, Diantha Fahey, William Frost, Mabel Knittel, Trudy Lyon, Corinne Redway, Grace Rowland, William Smith, Helen Thurrott, Deborah Young, Robert Van Gorder.
HISTORY OF THE FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF WESTBROOK:
“Forward through the ages moves the Church of God.”
Forward the First Congregational Church has been moving for these many 250 years. As Sunday came in the first days of our settlement in the late 1600’s, we can visualize the families making their trek to the first Meeting House in the Saybrook colony. The road, a narrow, rough cart path, muddy in spring, dusty in summer and sometimes impassible in winter with huge snowdrifts, was not an easy route to travel for three miles or more, maybe on foot, on horseback or in an uncomfortable, crude wagon. Sunday was the day devoted solely to worship, and for those who had moved westward from Saybrook, attending Sunday service was a religious duty to be performed no matter how great the hardship. On the contrary, on delightful spring days, when the roadsides were lovely with the first soft green leaves, and later the native dogwood and the fragrant lemon-colored blossoms of spice bush lining the route, and summer with wild daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace, blue chicory and dandelions, then on the crisp fall days with goldenrod, asters and the brilliant autumn foliage gold, crimson and russet, even on cold blustery winter days, when a morning was bright with snow glistening in the sunlight, despite the difficulties of travel these beauties of nature were there for our forbears to enjoy.
As seventy-five or more years passed, the West Parish of Saybrook or “Pochoug” as it was then called, had become inhabited with about forty families of a little more than two hundred persons. This Parish then felt that it was sufficiently numerous and secure to separate from Saybrook. The Pequot power had been broken and the Indians were no longer a serious threat, since many had moved eastward to Niantick and others were friendly and gradually continued selling their lands to the white people. Westbrook, of course, was included in the lands sold by Chief Uncas and Sunk Squaw to Robert Chapman and Abraham Post et. al. to include all territory from Connecticut River to Hammonasset River, 12 miles along the shore and 8 miles inland.
“Accordingly, in the spring of 1724 the settlers of Pochoug petitioned the General Assembly to become a separate Parish. On May 14, 1724 they were granted the powers and privileges necessary to become the First Ecclesiastical Society of West Saybrook. On June 4, a committee consisting of Samuel Chapman, Abraham Post, James Stannard with William Bushnell as clerk was chosen to find a minister, and in August of that year the Society secured the services of Rev. William Worthington as our first pastor. In October 1725, the General Court gave permission to form a church and settle an orthodox minister, with the consent of the neighboring churches. On June 29, 1726 the organization of the First Ecclesiastical Society was effected.” Church Manual of 1898).
There were 14 charter members, 8 females and 6 males, who together with Rev. Worthington, who that day was ordained their pastor, formally subscribed to the Church Covenant. Those members were: Mr. Samuel Chapman and wife Margaret Griswold Chapman, Jared Spencer and wife Sarah Douglas Spencer, Thomas Spencer and wife Elizabeth S. Spencer, John Post, Abraham Post, James Post, Lydia Peabody Grenil (Mrs. Daniel), Mary Grenil Lay (Mrs. Robert) Mary Denison, Sarah Grenil Brooker (Mrs. John), and Mary Bushnell Waterhouse (Mrs. Joseph).
An amusing statement is often quoted that someone once remarked, “No wonder he church was strong to stand for 100 years — there were so many Posts supporting it.”
In the 1700’s there was not complete separation of church and state, hence permission of the General Assembly and the Court was necessary to legalize the formation of the Ecclesiastical Society and the church.
According to the General Assembly a very definite boundary was established between the East and West Parish and it was stated that if a farm were divided between parishes, the owner must pay his portion of tax to each society according to his holdings in each.
On June 26, 1726 “Voted to proceed to the building of a meeting house 40 feet long, 38 feet wide and 18 foot joynts.” The foundation was laid in May 728 and by autumn of that year the first meeting house was used for public worship. The land on which the house stood was granted to the Church by the Proprietors’ Committee who had authority to dispose of unclaimed lands called “refuse lands.” The first church was a very humble structure with hard square pews and a pulpit of simple design erected high up front, with windows of imperfect glass. History records how almost month by month over two years they purchased building material as they could afford it. It was not until 1979 that a steeple and bell were added.
Once the Meeting House was finished perhaps you can imagine families strolling from all directions on Sunday morning toward their church on the hill — mother in her long full skirt, wearing her shawl and bonnet tied under her chine, father in knee breeched, frock coat and tri-corn hat. their sons and daughters accompanied them — perfect little copies of their parents. The folks might well walk several abreast on the narrow cart path of a road, or stroll in single file on the narrow footpath that followed parallel to the road. there were others who came on horseback with perhaps mother seated on a pillion behind father, or some may have come by horse and wagon.
This first church building, begun in 1728, lasted 100 years and we are told was not fully completed until 1795. It was said to be so sturdy that not even the gale of September 1818 warped its frame or disturbed its steeple. After 100 years the church was inadequate to fit the congregation so it was torn down and in 1829 the second one constructed. This second house of worship had the pulpit on the south side and the galleries on the remaining three sides. This church was white clapboard with a tower and rounded dome.
An amusing story is told of a happening in this second church, as related by a young lady about her father. It seems her relative had an uncanny gift of being adept at wiggling his ears He was (not on account of this gift) the tithing man of the church, and of course, he had never used his special talent in the sacred place until one Sunday he was publicly reprimanded by the minister “for not preserving greater gravity of the deportment and decorum” among the children seated on the pulpit steps. This tithing man had compassion for these young folks who had to stare for two hours at the vacant faces of stern elders, while over their heads literally went the war of words, words, words. The man took the rebuke without verbal reply except for the “eloquent and vociferous” wiggling of his ears. The minister hesitated a moment, the burst out laughing as did the congregation. This account is from a historical article written by Grace K.S. Stevens many years ago. How great it is to know that our forebears whom we always considered so devout and serious were also very human with a sense of humor.
During that period of church history there existed what wed would consider today, vicious segregation. To prevent any unseemly behavior, one gallery was allotted to men and one to women and the same separation was observed in the pews on the main floor.
Rev. W.H. Moore, brother of George Moore, who served as our Town Clerk for 53 yeas, delivered an address on the church history at the dedication of the fourth church in 1894. He recalled that the first church bell of 563 pounds served in the second church and when he was a boy in Westbrook the bell was in the care of Frederick, Joseph and Alfred Spencer, all brothers who became successful sea captains. They rang it at noon to call the town to dinner and at 9:00 at night to tell boys to stop their play and men to stop talking and go home to rest for the coming day. The bell gave notice of death and struck the ages of the deceased and also was tolled as the funeral procession moved to the graveyard. Rev. Mr. Moore saw the demolition o the e second church and heard the crash as the roof slid off and the great steeple fell to earth. A Mr. William Bushnell tore down this structure. The very long, blue wooden weather vane is still in the possession of a church member who soon hopes to find a suitable location for it in the present church.
While the second church was being constructed services were held in the red school house which stood on the site where later the first town Hall stood. This school had once been a conference house an was later removed to a spot beyond the railroad station when the site was needed for the Town Hall, (now a parking lot north of the rotary.)
The second church was constructed by Capt. Aaron Bushnell and Capt. Aaron Stevens. Exceptional credit was give to Rev. Sylvester Selden whose inspiration and leadership encouraged church members to undertake the building of a new house of worship. In gold lettering over the pulpit were the words, “Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary.” That church witnessed nine revivals, including 41 persons in the year 1836, under the Rev. Jeremiah Miller. During the period (1828-1860) 245 persons joined the church. These years, in the old records, are referred to as the “Palmy Period.”
After 32 years there was again need for expansion and the second church was torn down. Once more the members worshiped in the little red schoolhouse. The third church with pulpit on the north side, without galleries, was built in 1860. This building had a conference room at the rear and above it a ladies’ parlor. The belfry housed a heavier bell and a graceful, slender steeple pointed heavenward. This when completed was a beautiful colonial building inside and out. A remodeling took place in 1887 to make room behind the pulpit for a small gallery for the choir and a pipe organ. At that time, the church was largely refurnished.
The religious life of the church prospered as it witnessed 7 revivals adding from 11 to 23 on each occasion and, in all, a total of 216 members were admitted on profession of faith.
A story is told of a chorister of the above-mentioned church. This man’s singing voice was definitely basso-profundo. However, he had the habit of falling asleep during the very long, ponderous sermons. Regularly, his friends were accustomed to awaken him just before the hymns. He was always dressed in black Sunday best, but his friends knew that underneath was bright red underwear. On one Sunday while “Bill” was sleeping soundly, his fellow choristers rolled the legs of his loose trousers above his knees. When the hymn was announced, Bill’s friends shook him furiously, pulled him to his feet, placed his book in his hand and held his attention as the tuning forks gave the key and the hymn was lined out. It was not only bill’s mighty voice that demanded the attention of the congregation! The women in the gallery faltered in their singing, children giggled and members in the pew were shocked at the sight. The minister, the Rev. William Hyde, tried, for a moment, to check the tide of merriment, but gave in to the situation and promptly dismissed the congregation.
Misfortune holds no respect for people or churches and tragedy struck on Christmas Eve 1892, when a disastrous fire demolished the beautiful third church edifice. Today some descendants of members of that church cherish bells made from the one which was broken as it fell from the belfry. Church members accepted their loss sadly but stoically and immediately set to work to build a new Meeting House. A building committee consisting of George C. Moore, Charles L. Clark, Richard H. Stevens was appointed to secure plans “with desirable qualities in lines of utility, convenience and durability within the financial means at hand.” (from Dedication Program of May 9, 1894). Suitable plans were presented to the Ecclesiastical Society, accepted and the cornerstone was laid in July 1894. The architect was G. Warren Cole of the firm of Cole and Chandler of Boston and New London, who was to superintend the construction. However, Mr. Cole died shortly after the laying of the cornerstone. This placed a greater burden on the Building Committee. Mr. William Jones, father of Mrs. William Costen of Old Saybrook, Conn. was the builder, under supervision of architect J.E. Chandler of Boston.
The funds for the building were provided by church members, former residents of the community, descendants of former inhabitants as well as by generous contributions from our summer friends who resided at the seashore. The original sum allotted to the building committee was $13,705. In addition, much material assistance was rendered in special and personal gifts as reported by Amos A. Wilcox, Treasurer; the bell from a gift of $500 by Fred and Thomas Fiske in memory of their grandfather, Captain Perry and brother John Fiske; the tower clock $400 by Mrs. Adelaide Bushnell of Brooklyn, N.Y. with $200 by the manufacturer Seth Thomas; the pulpit by Miss Mary Scranton.
The colored glass contract amounting to $642 was provided as follows: by efforts of F.B. Fiske and wife and patronage of a seaside sale at their cottage the sum of $360 for the south windows. The inscription on the inspiring center one reads, “For the promise is unto you and your children.” Mrs. Tweedy of Norwich gave $100 for the west windows; contributions of $150 from the County churches purchased the beautiful Fellowship window with doves of peace, bearing the inscription, “One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” Some years ago this window was repaired in memory of William I. Lewis. All the windows were provided by the above contributors, except the east corridor and pastor’s study windows, which were purchased by the committee funds. It seems amazing in our day of very high prices that 82 years ago a value of $40,000 was estimated. Of course, this glass is practically irreplaceable since this type of glass is no longer being produced. In the report, the building committee thanked all contributors and especially those whose monetary gifts were of “royal magnificence.” Special appreciation was extended to “Rev. William Sanford, worthy pastor, whose personality and leadership contributed very largely to this successful undertaking.”
For those who have seen our church only since its renovation, in its original state the sanctuary was durable with golden oak pews and golden oak wainscoting. There was a small choir loft with gracefully curved brass topped railing an small brass trimmed door, with red velvet hangings below the rail and beautifully turned spindles reaching down to the floor.
The original pipes of the pipe organ given by the Ladies’ Society you see today, since they were preserved at the time of the 1970 renovation. In addition, the Ladies’ Society provided “carpeting, chandeliers of beautiful design with globes of etched glass, blinds, as well as divers adornments of excellent taste.” (quote from Dedication Program.) These gifts totaled $2,085. The floor space of the chancel was 2 feet less in depth than the present and the pulpit was located in the center. Two short sets of stairs to the chancel separated below by a semi-circular dais was the location of the marble top communion table fortunately saved from the fire along with the chairs which we have now upholstered in red velvet. Likewise saved, were the communion set, and the tankards, gift of Nancy Stannard Adams, which are on display in the cabinet in the east vestibule.
What is now Fellowship Hall was a smaller lecture room for which blinds were furnished by the Sabbath School and chandelier by Christian Endeavor Society. The lecture room was furnished with maple cane seated chairs which, when they were in need of repair some years ago, regretfully were sold. Oak wainscoting encircled the outer wall of the room and continued into the ladies’ parlor at the rear. A sizable kitchen and pastor’s study completed the floor plan. Some twenty years ago the present kitchen and rest room facilities were enlarged.
When our church is filled beyond capacity, the Renovation Committee of 1970 is very mindful of the sliding overhead door that used to open the lecture room to the sanctuary. This door is now firmly encased within the wall between Fellowship Hall and the Sanctuary, a move taken by the committee to provide a more soundproof wall, because Sunday School use of the room during church service naturally might cause a distraction.
A quote from the Building Committee report of the fourth church says, “It is a pleasure to place in the hands of the pastor of this church the keys of this new building for religious worship, entirely free of debt from the construction of which no man has been unjustly defrauded.”
The Rev. Elias B. Sanford, in a brief address expressed congratulations to all who had generously and faithfully contributed to the success of the construction of the fourth church. Before the keys were placed in the hands of the Prudential Committee, a set of resolutions, previously adopted by the society, thanking the pastor, the building committee and all the generous benefactors, was read by Carlos H. Chapman, clerk of the Society.
During the course of its history, the church has had 24 resident ministers including our present pastor, Rev. Robert Van Gorder. Their contributions to the church and community have been noteworthy and varied. We have spoken of our first minister, Rev. Worthington, whose parsonage was west of the old cemetery. He was a beloved minister who led his parishioners wisely, not only in constructing their first building but in establishing a wise, basic religious philosophy. He was greatly missed after his 30 years of service. He rests in the “Old Burying Ground” directly west across the street from the church he founded. His successor, Rev. John Devotion, who came in 1757 served the church for 45 years until his death in1802. he was noted for his ponderous sermons, some two hours in length, but he was kind and just and commanded great respect and admiration. One of his significant accomplishments was tutoring our famed David Bushnell that he might enter Yale where he graduated in 1775. Rev. Devotion married Phoebe, the daughter of Major John Murdock. The latter built a beautiful home for his daughter located on the right as you enter West Pond Meadow Road. This served as the parsonage and we are told had exquisite paneling, carved design on corner cupboards and was elegant in all details. This house, later known as the Ben Hubbard home, was consumed by fire about 1945.
Rev. Hyde, who served from 1838-1854 was significant in community leadership, in fact some of his parishioners claimed that he preached “good politics.” He was a leader in organizing our first preparatory school, The Academy, and was the first chairman of the Board of Trustees. During Rev. Hyde’s pastorate there was a serious division of the congregation on the subject of slavery. A few people owned slaves and another select few were vehemently opposed to the practice. After much bitter dissension over the question of the Abolition Movement, on February 7, 1846 a formal request for letters of dismission was presented, signed by 9 members: namely, Edward B. Lay, Josiah C. Dibble, Horace Butler, William Dibble, William Wright, Sarah Butler, Louisa Dibble, James A. Chapman and Harriet Chapman. Many meetings were held with a duly appointed committee to try to negotiate a reconciliation but to no avail. The letters of dismission were granted and in March of 1846 the Second Ecclesiastical Society of Westbrook was formed. They purchased land and built a meeting house which stands next to the Post Office. This church was active for about ten years, but in 1856 ten members constituting the Second Congregational Church upon petition were unanimously readmitted to the First Congregational Church. By then, Rev. Hyde had departed and his successor, Rev. Cheever, pastor from 1855-1856, moderated the meeting which accepted the former members.
Rev. Loper (1858-1862) was instrumental in urging his church members to enlarge their facilities and during his stay our most beautiful colonial church with graceful pointed steeple was constructed.
Rev. Gordon F. Bailey (1895-1911) was not only a beloved pastor but his community service was outstanding. He was most helpful in planning for the library and, as chairman on the Board of Trustees, delivered the major address at the Dedication on November 7, 1904. Many prominent citizens and donors were mentioned in his address, but he gave special credit to Herbert M. Baldwin, prominent member of our church and Town Treasurer, for negotiating to get the site for the Library from the Ecclesiastical Society. The Congregational parsonage stood on the green and the building and the land, known as the green, had been a gift to the church from Mrs. Nancy Lay. The site and parsonage were acquired. The house was moved east to where it now stands, west of the new ambulance building. In return, the church received for a parsonage the old John Moore tavern and land, the present site of the First Federal Savings and loan. That parsonage was sold and torn down about 1964 to provide a location for the bank, and at that time our present parsonage was built on Old Salt Works Road.
There followed Rev. William English, Rev. Commodore Watkins and Rev. Gomer Lewis under whom the church prospered. Then our church had a new experience with a young pastor, Rev. Lawrence W. Berry who served from 1927-1931. He was very popular with young people and in 1928 and 1929 enrolled more than 30 young folks as new members. However, his philosophy of church function differed radically from that of the elders of the church. The deacons called a special meeting and announced that they felt that the conditions of the church were such that the present pastor’s services should be concluded. According to the opinion of the deacons, Rev. Berry had socialistic leanings and was always preaching about the downtrodden poor as being oppressed by the rich. Another point was Rev. berry’s resolution to allow people of any denomination to be granted membership without fulfilling the usual church requirements. Owing to the extreme feeling aroused, friends of the pastor, the clerk of the church, the treasurer and superintendent of Sunday School resigned. A meeting of the church on July 27, 1931 voted to terminate the contract of Rev. Berry. The Westbrook Church made newspaper headlines as the affair was aired publicly and it was announced that 13 church members were a committee to set about reorganizing the church. During the next thirty years, due to the aftermath of the Depression there followed a very difficult period for our church.
A much older man, Rev. A. Lancaster, was engaged to succeed Rev. Berry and the church organization was united harmoniously again during his 20 year stay.
Rev. John D. Lang came in 1950 to take over the pastorate. He was a pleasant, gentle man who was well-liked. However, ill health came upon him and he passed away in 1957 without fully achieving the goals he had set. Rev. Frank Caughey, fresh from Divinity School came to Westbrook. He had previously served a tour of duty in the Army. He inherited a church in strained financial circumstances and plagued by lack of interest and poor attendance. Discouraged with slow progress and the apathy of the congregation, he left after three years. He returned to the army as chaplain and expects to retire in 1976.
There is an old saying, “It’s a long road that has no turning.” After a period of about thirty years of little progress, there was a “turning in the road,” when Rev. William J. Zito and his wife, Jan, accepted our call to come to our church in 1960. He was young, ambitious, vigorous, of exceptional musical talent, a dynamic leader who, over a ten-year period (1960-1970), literally accomplished wonders. He found us a church without enthusiasm, sense of direction or even adequate funds. with his interest, initiative and willingness to work hard, and his likeable personality, he won our hearts and struck the spark that set us on an upward course. Besides our church, he was interested in all community affairs and encouraged many from other churches to participate with us in special programs. He was a member of the Library Board of Trustees and served as its Chairman. He was also a member of the Board of Education.
Our first exciting undertaking began when a resolution was passed on January 24, 1963 to build an addition to the fourth church. During the year 1964, we embarked on our “Adventure in Faith”, our slogan for our campaign to enlarge the parish hall, add needed classrooms, a church office, a new pastor’s study and a parlor. We also applied aluminum siding to change the exterior from weathered shingles to our “White Church on the Hill.” We sailed from port to port on our famous ship, “Adventure in Faith”, and at each port of call we accomplished some phase of our work. The response to the appeal through speeches, neighborhood coffee hours, discussion groups and a gala dinner surpassed our fondest dreams. The last tally by our treasurer, John Burdick, on the famous Sunday afternoon of pledging totaled $55,000.00.
On March 22, 1964, the dedication of our new facilities took place, complete with many new furnishings which were in large part memorial gifts from generous members. That day we sailed joyously into the home harbor, our “White Church on the Hill” with Captain, Pilots, Navigators and crew all proud and happy that our successful voyage had been pleasant from beginning to end, marked by enthusiasm, cooperation and accomplishment of all church members.
FOR BUILDING NEW PARISH HOUSE (1962-1964):
Building Committee Decorating Committee Building Fund Committee
Louise Dibble Bebe Rozhon Charles S. Sowder
Peter D’Errico William Sanderson Louise C. Dibble
Harvey Nourse Lucy Holbrook Peter D’Errico
Rev. William Zito Louise Wilcox Richard Wilcox
William Smith Mary Maynard Stuart Colby
Louise Wilcox Charles Rozhon Harvey Nourse
Ralph Florian Robert Kindt Catharine Burdick
John Burdick Janet Zito Dorothy Day
Bernice Lagan Louise Dibble Grace K. Stevens
Peter D’Errico Adline Beveridge
Rev. William Zito Bebe Rozhon
Louise & Henry Wilcox
Being of seafaring stock, we were not content to have our ship lie at anchor for long. Soon we had embarked upon a second voyage — this the Renovation of the Sanctuary. Again with the same spirit the church charted a new course and in April of 1970 we held the service to dedicate the Sanctuary as you see it today. The white interior wainscoting and pews are a contrast to the former dark golden oak. The choir gallery and chancel were enlarged and the pulpit was moved to the side. We were inspired to undertake this costly venture by a $5,000.00 bequest from the William Gray estate. New furnishings, carpeting, reupholstering, again were possible largely because of memorial gifts. Co-Chairmen of the Sanctuary Renovation Committee were Bebe Rozhon and William Sanderson. Other members were: Louise Wilcox, Evelyn Eastland, Louise Dibble, Paul Renton, Mary Jane Gallo, ex-officio, Rev. William Zito.
We were elated as we proceeded with this great improvement to our church — but in January, we were in great despair when our pastor, Reverend Zito informed us that he felt it best to move on. He believed his work had been done and he must reach out to accept a new challenge in a larger church in Watertown, Connecticut. Thus on January 25, 1970, we bade farewell to our beloved Bill, Jan and family who had taken us through the most progressive period of our church in the twentieth century. However, he left us strong, our feet firmly on the ground and with a nucleus of church members who were able to carry us on successfully. Discouraged we were, yet determined to be courageous to meet this new challenge.
A pulpit supply committee of thirteen was immediately formed to secure a new pastor. Our committee meetings were many and long, as piles of dossiers fell to the floor at our secretary’s feet, while we listened to countless summations. Next, it was visitation and the return to act upon our findings. Great were the divisions of opinion until that Sunday when we visited the Congregational Church in Hamden, Mass. We listened to a sermon by Rev. Robert Van Gorder. We visited his spacious study, attractive with furnishings and plants — and spent a delightful hour getting acquainted with the Reverend and his wife, Joy, in their parsonage home. The committee returned that evening and, for once, there was a unanimous decision — Yes, we would issue a call to Rev. Van Gorder to come to our church. It is not history, it is present happening — the wonderful sermons, sympathetic attention to the sick and elderly, a kindly manner with gentle but persistent leadership to influence us to extend our Christian service beyond ourselves to community, country and foreign lands. Our pastor’s stay thus far, has been marked by exceptionally good church attendance, reception of many new members, community service, ecumenical participation, and regular after-church coffee hours of enjoyable fellowship. Joy who came with him, his wife and teammate in all affairs, is just what the perfect minister’s wife should be. We are fond of our pastor and his family and, as the writer has said at many meetings, Bob brought to our church “Joy” literally and figuratively. At this writing we miss the Van Gorders who are enjoying three months of a sabbatical leave — the first ever granted a minister in this church.
We have considered our meeting house, our pastors and some of our accomplishments. Our history has not always had clear sailing, as we have mentioned, we have encountered some stormy seas. There was the fire of 1892, some unfortunate happenings with ministers, and the Hurricane of 1938 was but another tragic happening, when part of the roof blew off, the tower toppled and water damaged the sanctuary. This unfortunate incident came when we were not in one of our “Palmy Periods” as oldsters used to refer to good times. We were poor then. However, with volunteer help, generous donations from the community as well as church members, we recovered and the church was sailing smoothly again. Luckily, we could use the lecture room section for services during the reconstruction days.
Perhaps at this point it might be interesting to give some consideration to church philosophy — then and now. An old Church Manual of 1842 states the very rigid rules which church members were to obey. For example, young people under age might be taken into church membership by the half-covenant method with a provisional membership under which they could not take communion until they were of legal age.
The regulations told members what to do as, for example after the Covenant and the Exhortation (rules of behavior after accepting the covenant) in fine print is the following: “This covenant should be often renewed in your closets, and especially before communion.” Also, members were expected to attend a Thursday evening prayer meeting and lecture to prepare for communion on Sunday. Members were “exhorted” thus regarding the prayer meeting. “As this is designed expressly for the members of this church, no small excuse should prevent anyone from attending.”
The Manual concludes with eleven questions for self-examination such as “(1) Do you maintain family prayer? (2) Do you daily read your Bible and pray in secret? (3) Do you love all the duties of the Christian, and endeavor faithfully to perform them? (4) Are you making progress in the divine life?”
Under Resolutions were written the following: “(1) I will guard against any unholy passion or feeling. (2) I will cherish the influences of the holy spirit, and avoid everything that would tend to drive it away.”
Our present beliefs and profession of keeping the faith are written in the more simple language of our time. However, the greater simplicity of our approach to religious belief and duty is no less sincere. We admit our frailties more openly, and seem more forgiving of those who stray from the fold, while we try to adapt our Christian way of life to our fast moving, complex society fraught with more and greater problems than our forbears experienced in their little Pochoug of 1726.
The community life of our church and the participation of members in many organizations has a history of exceptional accomplishment. The first Board of Deacons consisted of one man, Deacon Abraham Post, who served alone for six years. In those days Deacons could serve for life and by 1842 there had been but 13 who had served as Deacons in 116 years. Now the terms are limited to 3 years and the board has increased to a membership of 12,, 6 ladies and 6 men. This group is responsible for the spiritual life of the church, pastoral duties, church services including music. Recently , a music committee has been appointed and assumes that responsibility . In the early days of the church, a music master was hired with a group of choristers to line out hymns for congregation repetition. Today we enjoy a fine choir with concerts and special music of various kinds under the supervision of our choir director, William Frost. We fondly remember Paul Renton who for many years served so faithfully without remuneration.
A Board of Trustees supervises the maintenance of all church property, building and funds. The annual budget has increased from the unbelievable figure in 1917 of $1,634.00 to $46,741.00 in 1976. The salary of the minister has greatly increased from a salary of $875.00 in 1921. The organist and sexton now receive per month what was in early days the yearly salary. In 1818 the first Sabbath School was formed, one of the first in the State. It was organized under the jurisdiction of the church and convened in summer sessions only for the first twenty-five years. In 1869 the entire supervision was in the hands of Sunday School officers and remained so until 1975 when once again it was placed under the church authority with the guidance of the Christian Education Committee.
In 1848 Doctor James Murdock, a native of Westbrook, contributed 77 volumes for the first parsonage library, and later contributed funds to enlarge it. This collection was available for the use of the general public and was finally transferred to the third church building. The library had grown to nearly 3,000 volumes when it was destroyed in the fire of 1892. A small, well-organized library financed by Miss Eloisa Stannard later in the early 1900’s occupied the place of the present storage closet off Fellowship hall. The remnants of this library disappeared during the renovation process. Recently, in 1974 an effort was made to initiate a church library and, at present, there is a modest collection.
The Ladies’ Congregational Society was organized on January 11, 1854 at the home of Mrs. Frederick Spencer, wife of Captain Fred. It was first called the Ladies’ Benevolent Society whose purpose was to make needed improvements for the home church, although outside benevolence received some attention. In 1857 the name became the Ladies’ Sewing Society until 1866 when it took its present name, Ladies’ Congregational Society of Westbrook. In its first 44 years the society had earned and spent well over $10,000. Since that time many more thousands have been earned and spent and its present yearly budget amounts to $2,400. In the darkest days when our church funds were at their lowest ebb, this Society kept our “ship afloat.”
A Missionary Society was organized in 1842 and this was an auxiliary of the New Haven Board of Missions. Today the functions of that group are performed by the Outreach Committee whose many philanthropic projects opened upwards of $1,500 per year.
In 1890 YOUNG PEOPLE’S SOCIETY OF CHRISTIAN ENDEAVOR was organized which met on Sunday evenings in Fellowship Hall for a brief religious service, followed by entertainment and a social hour. Your writer recalls with amusement the piano duets she used to play with her friend, Louise Wilcox. Those Sunday evening affairs were also interesting for the “Dating Game possibilities.” In recent years we have the “Young People’s Fellowship” which has purposeful programs and enjoyable social events such as “Retreat Weekends.”
During the pastorate of Reverend William Zito, Mrs. Zito in 1963 organized the younger women into “Women’s Fellowship.” This organization gave opportunities for younger women, who were occupied during the day at work or at home, a chance to participate in meaningful evening meetings. The main purpose has been and continues to be, fellowship and service, on the local, state, national and international levels. This group has grown from an original society of 10 women to a potential of nearly 50 members.
A Couples’ Club meets occasionally for sociability for people of all ages. A Men’s Club which includes men of our church, or any men in town who wish to attend, holds regular meetings fall through spring with interesting social programs and church suppers which help finance worthy church projects.
The Church Cabinet is a vital council composed of representatives from each of the church organizations. This group is the forum where representatives are made aware of all the various activities. A very important task of the cabinet is planning for the future. Another useful means of communication was the introduction about 1965 of the “Bell Buoy.” To preserve our historical data and record our current progress we have a church historian, Jeanne Russell.
In keeping with the modern trend women in our church are beginning to hold official positions which formerly were offered only to men. A few years ago your writer was the first lady chairman of the Board of Trustees and was followed the next term by Mrs. William nelson. Since the recent growth of our church, the Board of Deacons was increased to 12, 6 of whom are now ladies, and for the past two years Mrs. Mary Maynard was the first chairwoman of the board. In 1974 June Griffin was chairman of the church fair. Our church treasurer is Mrs. Helen Barnett. Our first lady church treasure was Ann Sanderson.
The big event of the year is the Annual Church Fair, when members of all ages work to raise funds which are such a necessary addition to our income. In the early 1900’s a fair, an attractive little summer bazaar, took place on the front lawn of the church with a net gain of a few hundred dollars. Now the more extensive event has moved to the Town Hall grounds with annual profit of nearly $6,000. Of course, our Christian Enlistment Program is another united and successful effort which each year assures the continuing upkeep and progress of our church.
During the Bicentennial Year and the 250th anniversary of our Church, we experienced a unique and gratifying occasion — the return to our Church of the old pewter Communion Service — a flagon, two chalices and two communion plates. This service had been loaned to Mrs. Mary Bushnell Wilbern, a native Bushnell of Westbrook, who took the set to her little church in Cherokee, Iowa, when she moved there in the middle 1800’s. The service later traveled with her to her next church in Sibley, Iowa, and in later years was finally returned to the Wilbern family. In church on Sunday, July 4, 1976 we were delighted to meet Mrs. Jeannette Wilbern McIntyre and ninety-four year old Mrs. Stella Wilbern Fox, descendants of Mary Bushnell, who conscientiously returned the old Communion Service to its original church after 100 years. We were proud to let the donors see the Service beautifully displayed in a cabinet provided by their cousin, Maude A. Wilcox.
At last comes the conclusion of an account of some of the happenings in our church and the changes that have occurred during our 250 years of history. Significant dates have been appropriately observed such as 1826, our first 100 years, and 1926 the 200th anniversary which was marked by a 3 day program with an outdoor pageant, a concert and religious services. This celebration was attended by all Townspeople as well as State, Church and Political dignitaries. To mark our 250th year, we have had a concert by the Wesleyan Choir, a Sunday School Historical presentation, a special music program by the Junior Choir and the Sunday School, and in June a 250th Birthday Party, especially for the children. Coming events are: A family dinner in September with an Historical program, in October a Sunday to honor our oldest Church members and another nostalgic Sunday with service as of old with excerpts from the old-fashioned type sermon with special guests our former ministers and their families. Many church members have already made their period costumes and they were most appreciated in the tableau on the church float which was made for the special Bicentennial Town Parade.
The First Congregational Church is justly proud of its past and we hope by our deeds and Good Christina living we are laying up “treasures in heaven” as we continue to move forward serving God and our fellow man.
Written by Louise C. Dibble, 1976