In 2011, Green’s Farms Congregational Church celebrated its 300th anniversary.
I’m amazed I didn’t see it earlier. It’s filled with astonishing stories, intriguing sidelights, and tons of fun facts.
I’m sorry it’s taken me 6 years to get around to reporting on this. But after 3 centuries, that’s not so bad.
Here are a few things I learned:
† In colonial days, communities were led by their churches. The term “1st selectman” — for our town’s leader — dates back to the days when the secular leader of the church was “selected first.” Even after Westport was incorporated in 1835, Green’s Farms Congregational members served as 1st selectmen. In 1997, Diane Goss Farrell — a Green’s Farms congregant — was elected 1st Selectwoman.
† Before services were announced by a drum or bell, early settlers were called to worship by the beating of 2 thin strips of board, from a high hill.
So, the brochure asked, was Clapboard Hill named for the excellent quality of building wood that was harvested there, or for its great location that allowed worshipers to hear the clapping of the boards?
† In 1742, Reverend Daniel Chapman — who had served as minister since the church’s founding 31 years earlier — was dismissed. The reason: He “hath led for several years an Eregular [sic] life …in being sundry times overtaken in drinking to excess.”
150 years later, then-Reverend Benjamin Relyea noted: “In those times, when it was an act of discourtesy in making pastoral calls to refuse to partake of something from the array of decanters which always stood upon the sideboard, the only wonder is that any minister ever went home sober.”
†After the British burned the 2nd Green’s Farms Church (located near the current commuter parking lot, at the corner of what’s now the Sherwood Island Connector and Greens Farms Road), services were held in private homes for 10 years.
Meanwhile, the new American government compensated our local church for its losses during the war with land in the Ohio wilderness, known as the “Western Reserve.” The church later sold its Ohio lands, to raise money for the new meeting house (on Hillandale Road, site of the current building).
† The original Bankside Farmers — founders of Green’s Farms parish — owned slaves. A century later, many freed slaves lived in Green’s Farms as respected residents. When slavery was finally abolished in Connecticut in 1848, the “last of the slaves” — Charles Rowe — was church sexton. He lived on Hyde Lane, near where Long Lots School is now. He and his wife Lucy are buried in the Green’s Farms Upper Cemetery (adjacent to the current church.)
The church’s original burial ground still stands, on the corner of Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. The oldest gravestone belongs to Andros Couch, who died in 1730 at 57. Also buried there are the church’s 1st 3 ministers, who served for a total of 110 years; several sea captains, including Franklin Sherwood, and Dr. Ebenezer Jesup — a surgeon in George Washington’s army — along with his 3 wives.
† In 1911, the church celebrated its 200th anniversary by commissioning a bas-relief plaque honoring past ministers. The artist was Gutzon Borglum — the same man who carved Mt. Rushmore. He seldom did small commissions — but friends in the congregation asked him for this one.
† On November 25, 1950, the 100-year-old steeple crashed down during a hurricane. The weight of the bell carried it through the roof of the meeting house, into the Sunday School.
At the time, declining membership had already created doubts about the church’s future. Services attracted as few as 27 people, with the collection seldom reaching $5.
Insurance covered part of the steeple damage, and a subscription campaign raised the rest. Many non-members — calling the steeple a “landmark” and a “beacon” for sailors — contributed. That drive helped save the church. By 1957, membership had grown so large that 2 Sunday services were needed.
There is much more of interest in the Green’s Farms Church’s 300-year historical brochure.
Here’s to its next 294 years!