Green's Farms Church at 300: Testament to time, faith
British troops attempted to demoralize a small congregation of worshippers in the Green's Farms section of Westport in July 1779 in a raid that burned their second meeting house to the ground and with it 15 homes and 11 barns in the surrounding area.
But the Red Coats failed in their overall goal to take the heart out of the community. Green's Farms Congregational Church continued to thrive as it had for the 68 years before Loyalist Gen. William Tryon's troops torched the town. And on Sunday, the congregation will celebrate its 300th anniversary. In fact, since its inception on June 12, 1711, parishioners of the historic church have not missed a Sunday service, according to Diane Parrish, one of four co-chairmen of the 300th anniversary committee.
"Through wars, storms, fires and even the absence of a physical church structure, the people of Green's Farms Church have not missed a Sunday of worship in 300 years," Parrish said. For the 10 years they were without a meeting house, from 1779 through 1789, services were held in private homes, including Daniel Burr's house on Long Lots Road.
The legacy of many of those involved in the church's early history also is intertwined with the history of the town, and so the church's celebration is really the town's as well, said the Rev. Jeffrey Rider, who has served as senior minister since 2003.
"This is truly the story of the founding of Westport. It often gets overlooked. People so often focus on the separation of church and state. We forget that church and state were one and the same," Rider said.
"The churches were the government in New England in the 1700s and 1600s when this New World was being discovered," said Allen Raymond, the historian for the church as well as for the town of Westport. Raymond said churches collected taxes and it was mandatory for people to attend church services.
"It was compulsory. You were fined if you didn't go," said Michaela McColl, a parishioner and children's book author, who is writing a book on the history of Green's Farms Congregational Church.
It was that mandate coupled with the distance that parishioners had to travel each Sunday that led to establishment of the Green's Farms Congregational Church, Raymond said. "Green's Farms was a spin-off of the Fairfield Congregational Church," he said.
The Bankside farmers, as the early Westport settlers were called, lived up to eight miles from the Fairfield meeting house. "They had to go by horse and buggy," Raymond said, adding that the trip could take four to six hours round trip.
"This anniversary brings home to me how much earlier generations sacrificed to maintain that tradition, and I have it so easy. I just have to get in my car and drive here," Parrish said.
Settlers wanted to build a church closer to home. In petitioning the state for its own parish, the settlers were effectively requesting the right to self-govern, Rider said. "We don't call this a sanctuary. We call it a meeting house. Yes, it was a place of worship but it was also a seat of government," he said.
The first parish meeting was held in a small square meeting house at the foot of Morningside Drive and Green's Farms Road on June 12, 1711. The congregation quickly outgrew that structure and built a second meeting house in 1736 at what is now the corner of Green's Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector, across the road from the old Colonial Cemetery.
After the British burned that one, the congregation selected its third and current site at 71 Hillandale Road. Built in 1789, that building was also destroyed by fire in 1852. It was rebuilt in the same place. The current, and fourth meeting house, is the longest-surviving of the church's sanctuaries, Rider said.
The current structure has not gone unscathed. It was severely damaged in 1950 when a hurricane toppled the steeple and it crashed into the building.
"It was a blessing in disguise," McColl said, because it led to an increase in church members, whose numbers had dwindled after World War II. Boaters had used the steeple as a navigational tool. After it fell, donations poured in for renovations, and so did new members.
"We're blessed with a vibrant community that's growing," said Rider. The congregation currently numbers 630 members, and the average age is declining, he said. "We're growing older, but we're also growing younger, which is a wonderful thing," Rider said. "We are one of the top 100 churches in our denomination, United Church of Christ, throughout the country in officiating baptisms," he said.
Sunday's milestone ceremony will feature silver chalices for communion that date to the 1760s. They might have been lost to British looting were it not for the quick action of the church's deacon, Dr. Ebenezer Jesup and his wife Abigail.
"When the British attacked, the deacon and his wife had the presence of mind to wrap it up and dump the silver down their well," McColl said.
For more information about the Green's Farms Congregational Church's 300th anniversary service at 10 a.m. Sunday or its related art show and documentary premiere, visit www.greensfarmschurch.org.
THREE CENTURIES OF FAITH
Following are historical highlights from the 300-year history of the Green's Farms Congregational Church:
- The Rev. Daniel Chapman was chosen to be the congregation's first minister for a salary of 70 pounds a year and one year's worth of firewood.
- George Washington may not have slept there, but he visited the congregation in 1775 and admired the second meeting house.
- Music commissioned for the 300th anniversary and played in concerts this spring, will be performed during Sunday's 10 a.m. celebration service.
- Theme for the 300th anniversary celebration is "Remember, Rejoice, Renew."
- Parishioner and professional artist Justin Wiest created a plaque honoring the church's ministers from 1913 to the present. The original plaque, listing ministers from 1711 through 1913, was made by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore.
- An art show, "Creations: An Inspirational Journey through Art," will be held Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m., featuring the work of about 30 local artists, all of them members of the congregation, including paintings, sculpture, photography and textiles.
- The premiere of a documentary film, "Remember, Rejoice, Renew: Celebrating 300 Years of Green's Farms Church" will follow the art exhibit at 8 p.m.