AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE WESTCHESTER CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
(the Second Church of Christ, Congregational, in Colchester, Connecticut)
By Nan Wasniewski & Carol Tiziani
The Westchester Congregational Church was organized by a group of Westchester area residents of the town of Colchester, by petition to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1726, which did grant said request, thereby creating the second ecclesiastical society of Colchester, in the west parish. Sixteen men and women signed the covenant on December 17, 1728, and a meetinghouse was raised in 1730, located near the present Westchester Center Cemetery (originally the church cemetery).
Need for the creation of a church in Westchester, breaking away from the Congregational Church in the center of Colchester was predicated by the difficulty of traveling by foot, horseback, or wagon, the several miles to the center of town for Westchester area residents to attend worship services. According to the earliest extant record book of the church, by 1739 the congregation had grown to 198 persons under the pastoral guidance of the Reverend Mr. Judah Lewis, the founding pastor of the church who died in that year and who is buried in the Westchester Center Cemetery. Records do not indicate what happened to the original church building, whether it burned or was abandoned, although evidence of a granite foundation has been discovered in the area. We understand that it was a very primitive structure with few amenities and sparse furnishings. It was a plain, unpainted wooden building with no steeple, approximately 40' x 30' x 20' in size.
The second church building was raised at the site of the present Church in 1791, but unfortunately was destroyed by fire in March 1847. Local tradition has it that the church sexton who had been terminated a few weeks before the fire had said that if he wasn't there to ring the bell, no one else would, either. The truth of the matter is more likely that a chimney fire was the cause of the blaze. The entire community, church members or not, participated in raising the new structure which is the same building where we worship today. It was dedicated on February 22, 1848. The Reverend S.D. Jewett's sermon on that Sunday is one of the few we have from the past. In it, Mr. Jewett gave a lengthy history of the church. It might also be noted that the business committee took out an insurance policy on the new building.
The 1848 building was renovated at least twice after it was built, once in the late 1800s and again prior to the 200th anniversary of the church in 1927. At that time a stretched canvas ceiling was installed and the original pulpit was set in place on a raised platform created from the original pew doors. The many years of the Reverend Mr. A. Wallace Canney's pastorate from 1920 until 1972 saw innumerable changes, mirroring the changes in the entire country, as we became a mobile society, and modern amenities such as electricity and plumbing reached out to the village, and communications through the media, opened huge new vistas for us. Church membership and activities fluctuated, dictated by events such as the great wars and the great depression. During these years many improvements were made to the building. Electricity replaced kerosene lights and oil heat replaced wood in the 1920s. In the 1970s the roof was re-shingled, the carpet replaced and duplicates of the original pew doors were built and installed. In the years since Mr. Dole has been our minister we have renovated the basement, creating Canney Hall, and added a state of the arts kitchen. The old, rotting steeple was replaced, and the old steeple restored and made into a gazebo, now the centerpiece of Raymond Park, which is the site of sunrise Easter services, weddings, games and picnics. The driveway has been rerouted and improved parking areas created.
The parsonage located across Cemetery Road from the meetinghouse was built around 1900, although for many years it was not occupied by a parson as the Reverend and Mrs. Canney made their home with Mrs. Canney's family in North Westchester. The parsonage became a valuable rental property for many years, and at times was used for extra Sunday School classes or meeting and storage areas for the Women's Fellowship. When Mr. Dole moved to Westchester in 1974 the parsonage was completely renovated and in 1987 a new porch and minister's office was added. The Dole family resided there for over twenty years until they purchased their own home a few miles from the church. It was briefly used again for Sunday School and Women's Fellowship projects, until it was refurbished for the Reverend Ms. Comeau, who took up residence there in March, 2003.
In the years when traveling was difficult the church provided not only a spiritual base for the area, but also a gathering place for many social events, open to all the community. This included not only the period before automobiles came into use, but also the war years when gasoline was rationed. At one time during the latter part of the 1800s into the mid-1900s there were two schools in Westchester, a secondary school in Westchester Center near the Church, and a primary school in North Westchester, as well as a general store, a post office and a railroad station. Traditionally Colchester's second selectman came from the Westchester area, and was generally a church member. Two small businesses and many family farms provided income for area residents. The community was quite self-sufficient, with the church as a focal point for spiritual and social activities. Interestingly, what did not happen in the years after the church was founded was that Westchester did not become a separate town, which was what usually happened when the General Assembly granted permission for the creation of a new parish. Probably an expected population growth did not occur and Westchester remained a part of Colchester. Various written histories, as well as church records, chronicle the activities of the years as faithfully as possible from sketchy records and fading memories.
Music has been an integral part of our worship services, whether hymns sung by the congregation, or special music presented by the choir. In the very early years when there was no organ, the hymns were sung a cappella, pitched by a pitch pipe. In 1868 the Ladies Benevolent Society purchased an organ for the church. This was a bellows operated instrument, operated by foot pedals. In succeeding years, we have had two electric organs. One was donated by Newton Brainard in the 1950s and the present organ was dedicated in 1991 in honor of the 20th anniversary of Mr. Dole's ordination to the ministry.
The Sunday School, founded in 1818, has been staffed through the years by committed volunteers. Instructing both children and adults, it has always been a training ground for an informed, knowledgeable congregation, whose base of Christian training is a strong and enduring foundation for our Church Family.
Since the 1800s there has been an organized women's group serving the church. The Ladies Benevolent Society is mentioned in early records. This name was shortened to the "Ladies Aid" at some point, and the Women's Fellowship was organized in 1974. For a time, the Ladies Aid, mostly older women, held a monthly luncheon meeting at members' homes, while the younger members of the Women's Fellowship met separately. The original Ladies Aid passed into history, but the younger and vital Fellowship continues to fulfill many needs of the church and community. These diligent women have raised money for the church, cared for ill and indigent, helped staff the Sunday School, encouraged and planned social activities, worked for missions at home and abroad, and a myriad of other tasks. They are an irreplaceable force in the life of the church.
An organized social group for young people of the church has seen various ups and downs in activities. Named the Pilgrim Fellowship in the 1950s, it was later renamed the Pilgrim Youth Fellowship, and then shortened to the Youth Fellowship. By whatever name, it serves as a social and educational group for the young people of the Church.
As a group we were fiercely patriotic, and records of the war years indicate our support of the nation, sending our boys to the front, and working at home to assist in civilian activities to help the war efforts in all wars in which the nation was involved in the history of our Church and Nation.
As the years passed we became more sophisticated, but always determined to maintain our independence, continuing as we had originally organized, as an independent Congregational Church, resisting an effort by some for us to become part the United Church of Christ.
When that denomination was created in 1957, the Westchester Congregational Church voted to become a member of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Connecticut Fellowship of Congregational Christian Churches, both being organizations which were continuations of the original Congregational denomination.
Guiding our affairs autonomously, we created various committees to lead us. The Deacons have always been strong and revered leaders of the Church and continue their charge of stewardship of our spiritual life. In addition, the Prudential Committee guides our business affairs, with help from various other committees such as the mission/outreach, fundraising, maintenance, and so forth.
In recent years, under the guidance of the Reverend Mr. Fred (Ted) Dole, who served as Interim Minister from 1972 to 1974 and who became the permanent minister in 1974, the church has grown significantly as young families have moved into the area and as families from other parts of town and surrounding towns have found a welcome and spiritual fulfillment in our house of worship. The Reverend Mr. Dole is revered throughout the area for his dedication to ecumenical activities and in his service as Chaplain to the Colchester Hayward Volunteer Fire Department. Mr. Dole's retirement in 2003 has marked an unusual 31 years of commitment to one congregation. The vitality of the church at this time must be credited to his dedicated leadership and the strength of his Christian faith. At the Annual Meeting on January 19, 2003, the Church Membership voted to name Reverend Dole as Minister Emeritus of the Westchester Congregational Church.
Reverend Dole also provided guidance and mentoring to several individuals pursuing careers in the ministry. At the Annual Meeting on January 16, 1994, the Church membership voted unanimously to take two members "In Care of" the Westchester Congregational Church as a visible statement of this Church's recognition of their desire to enter the Christian Ministry. Mr. Duncan Green pursued a lay minister program through the National Association of Congregational Churches Committee (NACCC) and was commissioned as a Lay Minister in our Church on February 9, 1997. The Reverend Amy Perry served as a student intern, received her degree from the Yale University Divinity School and was ordained at the Westchester Congregational Church on June 1, 1997. Two other student interns from the Yale University Divinity School, the Reverend Claudia Muro, September 10, 2000 - September 16, 2001, and the Reverend Ms. Carolyn Johns, November 4, 2001 - May 19, 2002, also benefited from the tutelage of Reverend Dole. In November 2004, the Prudential Committee voted unanimously to take another of our members, Ms. Amanda Ladegard, "In Care of" the Westchester Congregational Church. At the Annual Meeting on January 16, 2005, the Church voted unanimously to take Amanda Ladegard "In Care of" the Westchester Congregational Church as a visible statement of this Church's recognition of her desire to be part of the Christian Ministry.
The next era in the Church was under the guidance of the Reverend Ms. Megan Comeau who was called as the Minister of this Church at the Special Meeting on January 12, 2003 and began her service on March 1, 2003. Reverend Comeau was installed on September 28, 2003, the first female minister of the Westchester Congregational Church, sharing her enthusiasm, sensitivity, deep faith, and devotion to the principles of Congregationalism that we revere.
The beginning of the year 2007 brings the Westchester Congregational Church to a new phase in our history. Pastor Megan Comeau has left this Church to continue her ministry in a new venue. She led her last worship service here on January 7, 2007. Following the service, she was honored at a very well attended coffee hour and was presented with a gift and many tokens of thanks and appreciation for her time as our Pastor. Since that time a Search Committee was formed to begin the search for a new, permanent minister. The Prudential Committee engaged the Reverend Bob Woodward to serve as interim minister until his resignation April 4, 2007.
Sunday School and Youth Group activities continued under the guidance of lay members of the congregation during this interim period. The Women's Fellowship, which has officially been inactive for several years, however many women and men in the church do what needs to be done to keep the church running smoothly and to continue our outreach in our local community, and frankly, across the world. We will continue to seek ways to build our financial strength through fundraising activities as well as donations.
We look forward to the continued growth of our church, drawing on the wisdom and strength of the ministers and the generations who have led us in the past, and the input of new faces, in both the pulpit and the congregation, who will bring new ideas and energy to our church community and strengthen our personal commitments to the Westchester Congregational Church.
Happily, in April of 2009 the Rev. Mr. Karl Ostberg answered our call to serve as our minister, and has led us from that time to the present. During this time, we have seen the creation of an "Angel Garden" in Raymond Park, the inspiration of Evelyn Taggart. The garden was dedicated on September, 2, 2010, and offers a place for meditation and remembrance for parents and families who have lost a child. Individuals may order an engraved stone honoring a lost child for $25.00. In May, 2013, an engraved stone was placed in the Angel Garden to honor those children lost in the Sandy Hook tragedy. Rev Ostberg retired on April 6, 2014. The Rev. Mr. Andy Berryhill was selected to serve as part time interim minister until a permanent minister was called to serve us at WCC.
After a series of supply and lay ministers, the Rev. Mr. Ronald Thompson was called to serve as Pastor of Westchester Congregational Church in August of 2015. Returning to his eastern Connecticut roots after many years in Florida, as well as other areas of the country, Pastor Ron brought a variety of lifetime experiences and his delightful young family to join our church family. Many new programs were initiated, and others expanded, thanks to Ron’s tireless efforts and significant involvement in the Colchester community. After three years, and many positive accomplishments at WCC, Ron felt a call to return to Florida.
In January, 2019, Westchester called the Rev. Mr. Ronald Lake to serve as Interim Minister at WCC while we once again search for a permanent, settled minister. Rev. Ron’s more than twenty years at a fellow NACCC church, Stonington Congregational will complement our traditions, as well as guide our church through our current journey.
Reverend Lake's leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic that began in March, 2020, has been invaluable to our church. We were able to utilize the technology of zoom services, which enabled our church to continue through times when many churches suspended services. While the building was closed for a while, weekly services and meetings were held online, which allowed for the church business to continue in a fairly normal way. Once the building reopened with safety precautions such as mask wearing and distancing, the zoom services also continued, which allowed people to continue with worship and to maintain a connection to the church family.
On December 20, 2020, following a two year search, and the recommendation by the Pastoral Search Committee, the church membership voted to call the Reverend Ronald Lake as the newest settled pastor of Westchester Congregational Church. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue with Reverend Lake's leadership. He has fit in very well with our parishioners, who have come to truly appreciate his calm demeanor, wisdom and experience, and of course, his great sense of humor, which is much appreciated during current times.
The WCC congregation continues outreach service to the community with participation in the "Wounded Warrior Project" whose mission is to honor and empower wounded warriors by helping injured service men and women with a variety of services to meet their needs. Several WCC members are active in the Colchester Community Lunch Program, (currently on hiatus during the pandemic) in conjunction with other area churches, which provides, prepares and serves lunches for persons in need of nourishing meals. For the past two years, the WCC church family has also actively participated in Operation Christmas Child, who through Semaritan's Purse, provides Christmas gift boxes to children in need throughout the world.
While the Women's Fellowship has not been formally reorganized, the women of the church, with help from many of the men, continue to organize a variety of fund raisers and outreach programs which help sustain the church financially and spiritually. A knitting group was recently born from the Carolyn Shaeffer Prayer Shawl Ministry. A handful of church parishioners began meeting once a week to knit and crochet prayer shawls and other items. Over the past couple of years, the group has expanded to include others from the community and nearby towns. We sometimes have twenty or more individuals present. While some work on personal projects, others have contributed their talents to make hats for newborns and people going through chemotherapy, as well as blankets and comfort dolls. In early 2020, more than 40,000 knitted and crocheted bird's nests were made by our group and countess others from across the United States. The nests were sent to Australia to aid baby animals who were abandoned after terrible wildfires. The group was able to continue to meet outside during the Covid-19 pandemic when weather permitted, and their hard work continues during colder months when we are not able to meet in person.
Christian Education, including Sunday School, Confirmation classes and Adult Bible study have continued to serve the congregation, led by church members. A number of our young people have had an opportunity to attend summer camp on Fisher's Island and in New Hampshire as a Congregational Christian camp for study and recreation for young people. We continue to enjoy the independence and self-governing freedom granted us by our ongoing membership in the North East Fellowship of Christian Congregational Churches. This is a privilege, long valued by our Pilgrim forefathers, which we continue to hold dear.
We continue to look forward to continued growth, service to the community and spiritual strength through the doctrines of the Congregational Church.