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First Congregational Church of Sutton

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by John D. Brigham, Sr.

(& Updated by Alison Specter 2008)

  (at left: Carl Hutchinson Provides Historical Tour of Sanctuary on September 20, 2008)


The history of the First Congregational Church of Sutton is a full and interesting story covering almost 300 years. The church was organized in 1720 with 10 members, all male. The townspeople were taxed to raise the money for build­ing a Meeting House and for paying the salary of the minister. Later, when church and town affairs were separated, the pews were deeded to members and taxes were set on the pews for these expenses. Now, we members make pledges each year of the amount we wish to pay to support the church and its ministry.


This building we are in today is the third built by the First Congregational Church. The first one, built in 1720, was on the west side of the Common (the Town Hall side), the second one, built in 1751, was on the south side of the Common (near or in front of the red brick store), and the present one was built in 1829. The first two buildings were plain, with clear glass windows and simple wooden benches with backs. The second church burned in 1828 after a town meeting had been held in it that day. This present building cost $5,940 to build. Our first Church School addition cost about $45,000 in the mid—sixties.


There have been 29 ministers in these 289 years. The longest pastorate was 60 years, served by Rev. David Hall. Rev. Edmund Mills served after Rev. Hall for 35 years. Thus, our second and third ministers served our church and community for 95 years. Rev. Hiram Tracy, our fifth minister, served us twice, starting in 1835 for 15 years and 21 years later, for 1I4~ years.


Over the years our church has been blessed with many memorial gifts which have added to the beauty of the building itself and to the worship services held here. A few such gifts are: the two stained glass windows on either side of the pulpit, the stained glass windows around the sanctuary, the baptismal font, the hymn board, the organ, the piano, the hymnals, the silver candlesticks on the communion table, the communion services. There are so many, many more. The parsonage was left to the church for the use of its ministers and their fam­ilies by Silence Putnam in 1855.


In 1903, a memorial window, the Woman of Samaria, was placed to the left of the pulpit where the Plowman window now is. This was put there by the four sons of Simeon and Delia Stockwell. On September 21, 1938, the first hurricane in these parts descended upon the countryside. Like the steeples of 57 other sister churches, our beautiful Christopher-Wren spire toppled off at the belfry with a disastrous plunge downward. This hurricane also smashed the beautiful Stockwell memorial window. Nine months to the day, through the concerted efforts of dedicated men, the steeple was back in place. On the night it was floodlighted for the rededication, there were three other steeples reflected in the sky. No one has ever explained this.


In 1951+, the church was redecorated for the 250th anniversary of the town of Sutton. Besides a new paint job, the old pipe organ was removed. The location of the first organ was in the gallery but in 1892 it was moved to the southeast corner of the sanctuary. As time went on the old organ began to wear out and so was disposed of and a generous gift of an electronic organ with chimes and a baby grand piano were presented by Mrs. Ethel Lund.


The portraits of the ministers which had hung on the walls of the vestry for so many years were removed also. These are now in an album. During the redecoration, from May to September, church services were held in the Town Hall.


Due to the enlarged enrollment of the Church School, plans were started in 1957 to put an addition onto our church. In late 1963, a professional fund raising company was hired and a highly successful canvass was conducted. $50,000 was pledged to the building fund, to be paid over a three year period. The first shovelful of dirt was turned over on June 29, 1964. On March 28, 1965, Church School was held in the 12 new classrooms for the first time.


In 1969, the church participated in a Massachusetts Conference-wide three year mission project (pledging $8,100, netting $7015) which was proportionately more than some larger sister churches.


In May 1970, the 250th Anniversary of the church organization was celebrated with a week end of events. As many people as possible dressed in styles of yesteryear.


In 1970, it was necessary to add a fire detection system and lightening rods to keep the church building under full insurance protection.


A dedicated organist and member of our church, Grace Mills Jordan, had visions of a new pipe organ in this church. An account was started in a local bank with the amount of 50c~ that swelled to $12,188 with gifts from many members and friends and a fund raising project. Our present pipe organ was purchased from the Wick Organ Co. for the price of $23,152.49 and was dedicated November 1970. It has since been paid for and a maintenance fund is now up to a significant amount.


In 1974, a Prospect for Progress program was set up to: 1) pay off the church’s debt of $7,225; 2) to improve the water system; 3) to create, decorate and furnish a church parlor; 4) renovate and paint the vestry; 5) complete the church parking lot. With these accomplished, the Prospects for Progress was abolished. (The parlor was furnished by memorial gifts.)


The parking lot project plus beautification of the grounds was aided by receiving a $4,000 grant from the Eva Gebhard Gourgaud Foundation of New York City and Woodstock, Vermont, which was procured through the efforts of our minister, Rev. Arthur K. Pope.


One of the outstanding projects in 1975 was a church directory which included the photographs and listing of church members and friends, thus enabling everyone a chance to recognize their neighbor.


The parsonage was painted in 1976 after a fund drive earned enough to cover the cost. A much needed lavatory was installed on the first floor of the parsonage.


In 1976, the Christian Education Committee appointed a Christian Education Director to take the place of a Church School Superintendent. It has been very successful.


Appropriate recognition was taken in 1976 to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States of America. A special service was held Sunday, July 4, which consisted of: a memorial service at the grave site of Rev. David Hall, our second minister who served this church 1729-1789; a dedication of a spire clock, given in memory of his parents, Frank Alanson Lombard and Alice Ward Lombard, by Edwin H. Lombard and wife, Beth Baker Lombard; and then to the sanctuary f or a bicentennial sermon. Many of the congregation was dressed in costumes representing 200 years.


In 1980, our church celebrated the 150th anniversary of our meeting house during 1980 in two ways.  Firstly, we pledged ourselves to major restoration and redecoration work throughout the building and grounds, and, secondly, we rededicated ourselves to living the covenant first signed at the initial service of dedication of our meeting house on February 24, 1830.


On Mother’s Day in 1987, we broke ground for another addition to our church facility. The new building houses church offices, a living room, a craft room/kitchenette, a choir/music room, three classrooms, and badly needed storage space. The colonial styled addition was completed in late Fall of that year and will be funded by gifts made over a three year period to a special building fund.


In 2000, the Lombard steeple clock is replaced for a cost $3,000.00.   In 2003, the Wick Pipe Organ is restored and an Allen digital console is added.  The price of this project is $100,000.00.  In 2004, the church roof re-shingled for $34,365.00 of which $15,000.00 was donated by the Fuller Foundation and $1,000.00 from the Margaret Sherman Trust.


In 2005, Deacon James Brigham, Sr. receives a phone call from Judith Henn Schindler.  Her parents John and Dorothy Henn had passed away and Judy wanted to give the church an estate gift in their memory.  The Henn Family had been active with the church through the 1940s to the 1970s until they’d moved away.  Judy considered options and decided to contribute the necessary funds to refurbish all of the memorial cut glass windows in the sanctuary.  The project is completed in 2007 at a cost of $130,000.00 and a dedication service is held on June 24 .


Through the dedicated effort of our church families, we have built upon the foundations of what others before us have made possible. We ask our Lord to bless and guide our footsteps through the future of our church. Our future depends on us, for we, the people, are the church.


1938 Hurricane and the First Congregational Church of Sutton


The 1938 hurricane was the most intense tropical cyclone to strike the United States Atlantic coastline north of North Carolina. Along the Atlantic coast of the United States (north of Florida) - only Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954) - were more intense at landfall. Every record for wind speed, tidal surge, and barometric pressure in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island - can be traced to this single event.  


In terms of fatalities and property damage - the 1938 hurricane stands as one of the worst disasters in North American history. In a matter of hours, 688 people were killed, 4500 were injured, and more than 75,000 buildings were damaged.   In Worcester County, 57 church steeples fell including the First Church steeple.  The states of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, suffered their worst natural disaster in recorded history. The tidal wave like storm-surge that hit Long Island and Rhode Island was so severe - that earthquake instruments 3,000-miles away recorded it on seismographs. As a final cruelty - the residents of the North Atlantic states had little or no warning that this extreme meteorological event was unfolding before them.


First Church Steeple (pictured above)

by Daniel S. Smith


For one hundred and eight years, the present building of the First Congregational Church of Sutton stood unmolested until late Wednesday afternoon on September 21, 1938, when the first hurricane in these parts since the “Big Slow” descended upon the countryside.  


Soon after lunch a south wind began to blow and increased as the afternoon progressed. At that time there were no warning agencies to warn the public of expected weather conditions.


By the middle of the afternoon the wind had increased to hurricane velocity and reached the Sutton area about three o’clock in afternoon and caused all kinds of damage. Buildings were torn apart, trees, especia1ly pine and fir, were snapped, like matchwood. The main path of the storm was from the South along the Eastern Conn. and. R. I. Sea shores up through the central section of Mass, and up through the middle of Vermont to the Canadian Border.


At about four p.m. the steeple of the First Congregational Church was blown off just above the bell deck, and landed midway between the Church Building and Boston Road in the middle of the driveway.


The church building was moved inches on the foundation, but no attempt was ever made to twist the building back to its original position on the foundation.  One reason being the wooden pin construction made the twist tighten the framework, and to try to move the building would have loosened the wooden pins.


Another casualty of the church building was the destruction of the wooden outbuilding which was used for the outside toilet.


The outbuilding was demolished and the loose boards and timbers blew around the back of the church and destroyed the beautiful stained glass window which was at the left of the pulpit known as the Stockwell Window.  The window was a beautiful picture of Jesus and the woman at the well done in magnificent colors.


Along with the destruction of the steeple and window were plaster cracks in the ceiling and walls and the pews on the north side of the church were pulled away from the wall by about 1 inch, but this was remedied by jacking them back in place and securing them with steel angle irons.


The following Sunday morning church services were held in the town hall across the common and continued until the proper tests were completed to assure that the church building was safe for occupancy. 


Meetings were held at once to decide what could be done to repair the building. All this happened in the depression years and money was not easily raised at that time. With that thought in mind, a certain group in the church favored capping over the bell deck and to leave the steeple off the church.


A New York architect was contacted to estimate the cost of plans and specifications to replace the steeple and when his figures were around six thousand dollars it was abandoned. However we had capable carpenters in town and I felt we could work out something locally and I spoke very strongly for the steeple. As a result I (Daniel S Smith) was voted chairman of the committee to repair the church. The following committee was chosen by the church: Mildred Hutchinson, Minnie B Stowe, Anton G Kesseli, Robert Morris, and John E.Gifford.


The committee had a number of meetings and went to work immediately.  In our town was a very experienced carpenter by the name of Vernon Johnson, who lived on Singletary Ave, less than half a mile from the church, and father or a large family.  Mr. Johnson had a son Wilfred, who had talent in mechanical drawing. Mr. Johnson and his son Wilfred were able to pick over the remains of the fallen steeple and make exact measurements to duplicate the original steeple. From these Measurements and many of the old boards and timbers of the old steeple Wilfred Johnson drew up workable plans and specifications for an exact duplicate of the old steeple. A copy of these plans is now with the church historian. For his services he charged the church three hundred dollars, one hundred fifty of which he donated to the church as his contribution to the cost of the steeple.


Having the plans and specifications we located a contractor in East Douglas, Irving R. Fisher, who gave us a price of $2,650.00 to replace the steeple as per specifications. Mr. Fisher was able to quote the low price as he had already obtained the required insurance etc. for steeple work and for the period of time require was covered for the project.


He had just completed the restoration of the steeple on the East Douglas Cong. Church which was destroyed by the same hurricane.  The mast of the old steeple was a 60 foot solid pine timber. A tour of the many saw mills and nearby forests proved that such a timber was not available after the hurricane, so we changed the specification to 3” plank laminated, to obtain the required length and size. The change proved to make a stronger mast and would allow more sway without breaking.


In the summer of 1939 the contractor constructed the mast on the ground in the driveway in front of the church before taking it apart and reassembling it on top of the bell deck, as it now stands. One of the men who worked for Fisher was an experienced ship builder who understood the construction of masts on sailing ships.


When building the steeple, one of the workers evidently dropped a spark from a cigarette and caused a small fire about half way up the steeple. One of our firemen, working at the Gifford house next door to the church, Mr. William Peltier spotted the small blaze and ran across the common to the fire station, then in the basement of the Town Hall, he grabbed a soda and acid extinguisher and climbed the staging of the steeple and put out the fire.


The acid and soda mixture ran down the front and side of the church damaging the paint. As a result the insurance company called in and made a settlement which paid the greater part of the expense of painting the entire church. The church financed the small balance.


Mr. Frank Lombard a former resident of Sutton, and a former missionary, advised the committee that the window would be replaced in the future.


The basement had to be remodeled at the same time as the outside toilet had been destroyed and the basement floor was weak and rotted in places. The basement door at the northwest corner was made available for use, before this time it had been used only for wood and coal deliveries.


Cupboards were removed from the south side of the coal bin and part of the storage space was remodeled to form a ladies room and a men’s room, directly in front of the stairway down to the basement. The septic system was placed on the north side of the church, and necessitated piping water from the parsonage supply across the road from the church to furnish the needed water. The new septic was too close to the old shallow well which was on the north side between the church and Boston Road.


The weather vane, which was destroyed, was another item to replace. The Chairman took this task as his own project, straightened the old casting enough to have a solid aluminum casting made identical to the old one, and a new aluminum tail assembly made identical to the original.  Polishing was done, and a cast iron holding device was made at Rosemont Tool Co. The completed weather vane was carried up the staging of the steeple, and placed on the steel rod atop the steeple by Ellery Smith, Edward King and Daniel Smith. The first time we tightened the cast iron holding device too tight and cracked it so had to return it to Rosemont Tool to make a new one and returned to the top to make the final adjustments. What a view from the top of the steeple.


Then came the repairs to the sanctuary. The ceiling was cracked in many places as were the sidewalls, especially the wall to the left behind the pulpit.  Mr. Anton G, Kesseli a co—owner of Kesseli & Morse of Worcester, a member of the committee had access to the finest construction material to be obtained, and through his knowledge and acquaintance with the leading contractors in the area was able to borrow staging and planks for the complete restoration at cost to the church.


The active Men’s Club of the church assembled the staging, put the planks in place and moved them about so the work men could complete the plastering and painting of the entire interior. After the work was done the Men’s Club also cleaned up the debris and carried it away, saving the church a great deal of money.


The broken window at the left of the pulpit was filled in and papered the same as the rest of the church after the patching was d done.


Another interesting feature of the entire proposition arose when the church attempted to borrow money for the project from the Millbury Savings Bank. A deed to the property was required~ and a survey had to be made. As a. result the survey showed that the town owned the land under about half of the church lobby including the front steps.  In other words part of the church building was on town owned land.   It took a vote of the town and finally a vote of the state legislature to clear the title.  This was done in the following years and is now resolved.

The borrowing situation was handled by the church officials at the time, signing the note for the church to borrow.


Word was received that a grant could be obtained from The United Church of Christ organization for some of the damage.  After making application it was learned that 99 year lease was required to accept such a grant. Being an independent people at the Congregational Church, the offer was refused, and the entire project was funded by the church people. The total coat of the entire project including the steeple was in the neighborhood of sixty five hundred dollars.


Nine months to the day, the steeple was back in place just as it had been originally. Flood lights were added for the rededication and three steeples were reflected in the sky. Cloud formations are offered as an explanation of this sight.


The Broken Bell

 by John D. Brigham, Sr.

The Bell in the Congregational Church Tower - April 9, 1865! The date of the surrender of Lee to Grant at the court house in Appomattox, Virginia. The news spread at astonishing speed (considering the facilities of the time) and every where, particularly in New England the rejoicing was unanimous.  In many of the towns the church bell was the instrument of public call for any good reason, and it was so in Sutton. Not satisfied with pulling the rope that hung in the balcony, the men climbed the tower and standing beside the bell, pushed the great ringer wheel, swinging it to its full orbit. It was a glorious sound (how be it, a little hard on the ears) and they took turns making it peal out to the far countryside. When one man was weary there was another to quickly take his place and the ringing went on and on. Any citizen who wondered “why” found a quick answer from someone going by, and so the people gave vent to their joy and thanksgiving.


There must have been some good natured competition among the ringers. Letting the bell swing with its own 1600 pound weight made a grand sound, but a push on the wheel added a further force to the clapper and thus the peal was increased. After some time at this one strong hand gave the wheel an extra heavy push and after that a very slight difference in the sound came. As this ringing continued the strange sound increased, until it wasn’t fun anymore ~ feelings of the ringers was tinged with apprehension. The ringing stopped and the men descended.

The real test came on Sunday next, a sunny spring day. As the people gathered for services they noticed a definite change in the sound of the bell, and after much grave discussion it was decided that close examination was called for. This disclosed that the bell had been really broken.


The Sunday ringing was ordered stopped, and so the months and years came and went there was much talk about the bell and discussion of what further action should be taken concerning it. Finally it was agreed that so valuable a piece should not hang their idle, and after full arrangements were made the bell was gently lowered to the common and hauled to the depot at Millbury. The Meneely Bell Company of West Troy, New York, would recast it and send it back to continue its melodious call for Sunday services and any other events of the town.

So it happened that in the spring of 1884 notice was received from the railroad that the bell had arrived and should be removed to its rightful place. Six span of oxen were brought and the bell placed on a storm ~ boat. The spring had left the road soft enough for easy passage and the trip to the Sutton common went easily enough. Next was faced the problem of how to raise it to its proper place in the town. A retired sea captain, Further Little, lived nearby and from his stock of boat gear brought rope and tackle, and a rig was built outside the steeple, high enough the bell room to bring it to the proper height. Finally all was ready the six span of oxen were hitched to the line and the call for action came from the drivers. But the footing in the common was not as the road and after many attempts it was finally admitted that the twelve had more than they could handle. Many ideas were suggested and tried but they all ended in failure.


About this time the high school and the “lower school”, nearby, released the students for recess and the excitement on the common quickly drew the boys and girls to the scene of the action. Seeing them one of the men got a good idea - why not have the young folks pull with the oxen? Lines were attached and a shout brought virtually every student to the scene. A bit of organization followed and when the command to “pull” was given, all worked together and the bell began to rise. This brought a cheer from all the onlookers, anxiously watching, and further strengthened the pullers. With a creek of tight rope through old pulleys the bell finally was lifted to the proper height and the guide ropes, manned by experienced workmen, pulled it into the proper section of the tower. Not long after that the bell was set in its proper place, with new ropes and guides installed, and it’s clear strong voice was again heard in the town.


Many persons had been involved in this rebuilding enterprise, whose named have been lost to us. But there are still some people in towns who remember their “pulling part” in the bell’s replacement, and this is written that future generations will not forget.


Singing Rote vs. Note


It is impossible to overestimate the excitement, the animosity, and the contention which arose in the New England colonies from these discussions over "singing by rule" or "singing by rote." Many prominent clergymen wrote essays and tracts upon the subject; of these essays "The Reasonableness of Regular Singing," also a "Joco-serious Dialogue on Singing," by Reverend Mr. Symmes; "Cases of Conscience," compiled by several ministers; "The Accomplished Singer," by Cotton Mather, were the most important. "Singing Lectures" also were given in many parts of New England by various prominent ministers. So high was party feud that a "Pacificatory  Letter" was necessary, which was probably written by Cotton Mather, and which soothed the troubled waters. The people who thought the "old way was the best" were entirely satisfied when they were convinced that the oldest way of all was, of course, by note and not by rote.  (The Sabbath in Puritan New England, pg. 209, By Alice Morse Earle)


Extracts from the records of various colonial churches will show how soon the respective communities yielded to the march of improvement and "seated the taught singers" together, thus forming choirs. In 1762 the church at Rowley, Massachusetts, voted "that those who have learned the art of Singing may have liberty to sit in the front gallery."  In Sutton, in 1791, the Company of Singers was allowed to sit together, and $13 was voted to pay for "larning to sing by Rule."


1879 Antique Album Quilt


This very special quilt is a gift from Barbara Quandt and Eleanor Olson of Charlton, Mass. to the First Congregational Church of Sutton, Mass. It was made for their ancestor Mrs. Lucy Elizabeth Merriam Case of Atlanta, Georgia (formerly of Sutton) who was teaching freedmen after the Civil War.  Mrs. Case’s family genealogy can be traced back through the Jonathan King branch to William King who came to Mass, from London, England in 1635.


The quilt was made by women who were members of this church and some of them were members of the Ladies Social and Benevolent Society of this church. The names were written on the quilt by one person. Some names were of those who made the quilt and some were honorary. Notable names inscribed are: Mrs. N. A. Benedict— wife of the Rev. Benedict and President of the L. B. S. in 1879, Mrs. Hiram A. Tracy— wife of the Rev. Tracy and L. B. S. member, Deacon Sumner King— Mrs. Case’s 2nd cousin and Sarah Marie Mills— grand­daughter of the Rev. Edmund Mills. Some of the names are repeated more than once.  This is due to the way the quilt blocks were placed so that some partial blocks are on the edges. The fabric in each block may have been owned by each person whose name appears on it as this was the custom with an album quilt.


The Hikers


The Story of the First Labor Day Breakfast

Standing around the watering trough in the center of town one afternoon was uneventful at the moment but what was decided there made history.


Dora Gerber jokingly said that if we would “hike” to her home in Eight Lots District on the Oxford line she would serve us a chicken dinner.  We took her up on it.  The second “hike” was to the Brigham Farm at the Northbridge line.  From those two hikes taken over thirty-five years ago, the six “Hikers” met once a month at a member’s home and made bed quilts. 


At the 250th Anniversary of the Town of Sutton in 1954, this Hiker Group, with much good help, served breakfast in our State Reservation of Purgatory to 500 hungry people. This has been an annual event and the attendance has more than doubled.  Through the years efforts have brought in a substantial amount of money, given to the First Congregational Church of which we are all active members.  Fire victims have been recipients of handmade quilts and money when disasters struck.


We have not forgotten our trysting place – the watering through and have kept it in bloom during the summer and green during the winter.


These were The Hikers:

Miss Alta MacLaren

Grace Brigham (Mrs. John D.)

Ruth Holbrook (Mrs. Milton L.)

Eunice King (Mrs. Arthur E.)

Maud MacLaren (Mrs. Harold L.)

Mamie Thompson (Mrs. George)

Dora Gerber (Mrs. Nelson, Sr.)