First Congregational Church
Searsport, Maine

 

 

 

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History of the First Congregational Church
of Searsport, Maine

 

At the turn of the century in 1800, the lands on the west bank of the Penobscot River were virtually a wilderness. Yet even in this wilderness, the hardy settlers felt the need of Christian guidance in the tradition of Puritan New England. As early as 1797 "meetings" were held throughout the township. By 1813 a small group of people organized a parish to "bless the community with religious privileges." Their minister was Christopher Lawton, sent to them by the Maine Missionary Society, who conducted services at Searsport Harbor, Mt. Ephraim, and Sandy Point.

A meeting house for the new parish was constructed in 1819 at the Harbor, where it stands today. But with the growth of ship building and supporting businesses at the village near Halfway Creek, a new and larger meeting house was built on what was to be called Town House Hill and dedicated "to the service of Almighty God," on March 5, 1834.

In 1825 Stephen Thurston was called to minister to the First Congregational Church. A recent graduate of the new Bangor Theological Seminary, he served the longest of all the ministers of the church - from 1825 to 1864. Successful and dramatic revivals in 1826, 1840, and 1852 brought a great number of people into the church. By the 1850's, church membership ranked us among the first six in the state.

The town responded nobly to the Civil War by sending its sons off to the battlefields. Many did not return alive, including the minister's son-in-law, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery. "These are some of the sacrifices"' said Thurston, "which this town is called upon to make to the Molock of American Slavery!"

During the great days of ship building and sea commerce, many of Searsport's captains were members of the parish, so many that, as one historian observed, the church became almost a "Mariner's Lodge," and the parson frequently prayed for those "who go down to the sea in ships, to do business in great waters."

Although the church property has remained much the same during the years since 1834, there have been some significant changes. Needing rooms for Sunday School and meetings, the Church built the Vestry down the street from the church in 1841 Two years later a high school was opened on the second floor with instruction in "the Latin, Greek and French languages, and in all other branches of literature usually taught in academies."

In the summer of 1902, the church was extensively renovated. The building was raised, the balcony was removed, memorial windows were installed, and new wall and ceiling covering added. Three years late, in 1905, a new pipe organ was installed.

The 1930's were lean years. With the country in depression, the parish tried to conserve scarce funds by closing the church during the winter months and holding services in the Vestry. Services in the sanctuary were resumed, appropriately enough, at Easter, a striking symbol of resurrection and rejuvenation.

The central chandelier and side lights in the sanctuary were replaced with modem lighting set into the ceiling in the 1940's, and in 1962, the steeple rebuilt. In 1988, it was again necessary to repair the steeple which was leaning dangerously toward the sanctuary.

Early in 1994, a new, modern Vestry was completed, which soon become a community center for the region, hosting over two-hundred non-church events a year. When an ice storm knocked out power in the area in 1998, it served as a shelter, housing dozens and feeding up to a hundred people a night.

Following the pastorate of John Fitzpatrick in 1947, ministers, for the most part, were men finishing their studies at the Bangor Theological. Twice during these years, pastors were ordained women, and once a husband & wife team. The church returned to a full-time ministry in 1989 when James Barclay assumed the pastorate. The present minister is the Rev. Dr .Arlin T. Larson.

We look forward to our bicentennial in 2015 with confidence and renewed vigor. "These times," said Emerson, "are the best of times, if we but know how to use them."