Uncovering 300 Years Of Church History

In 2011, Green’s Farms Congregational Church celebrated its 300th anniversary.

The other day, operations director Claire England sent me a copy of a souvenir brochure, produced for that occasion.

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?

An early map of Green’s Farms. Turkey Hill and Clapboard Hill are in the center. The 1st church site (now marked by Machamux boulder) is just below that. The 2nd site is marked “Colonial Church” (center left). “Third and Fourth” Churches are also noted at the top. Green’s Farms’ founding Bankside Farmers properties can be seen along Long Island Sound. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 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).

Lucy Rowe’s headstone.

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.

Part of the 1951 fundraising appeal.

There is much more of interest in the Green’s Farms Church’s 300-year historical brochure.

Here’s to its next 294 years!

14 responses to “Uncovering 300 Years Of Church History

  1. I love articles on our Colonial Past. You mentioned the Western Reserve in Ohio. This area is now know as the “Firelands” due to the fact that they were reparations for the British Burning of Connecticut Towns. Many of the Communities in that area of Ohio are named for Ct Towns and individuals.
    I.E. … Wakeman , Sherwood, Fairfield.

  2. I’ve always thought that the many of “Clapboard Hill” roads in New England were named for their specific topology, steep on one side with a more gentle slope on the other (resembling the result of overlapping boards on a house or boat), since churches tended to use bells for calls to congregate. – Chris Woods

  3. Is this brochure still available….having grown up attending this church would love to read the history of it.

  4. Bill Boyd (Staples 1966)

    Another great article Dan!

  5. Great job, as usual Dan. The “rest of the story”includes, as your fellow reporter would say includes -The Paul Revere Silver hidden from the British soldiers, by the deacons. The visit by Gerorge Washington, as well as the gift of a water pitcher gifted to the Greens Farm Church’s pastor by the President. This pitcher was donated back to the church by the descendants the of the pastor, after hundreds of years. And lastly despite war, hurricane and blizzards the church has convened for Sunday worship without interruption since its founding.

  6. Did you know….
    …. that church services were often five hours long or more? With that, there was a person assigned to sit in the back with a long stick and poke anyone falling asleep or misbehaving?
    …. that church pews were rented and assigned? There was an implicit social hierarchy in the assignment as well. We still have an example from 1874.
    …. that in addition to the religious role, the church was often also used as the school house, the repository of land and other records, and the location of the town meetings? It was usually the largest building in town and centrally located.

  7. Very interesting article – much thanks for it.

  8. The current minister is Jeff Rider and he is a wonderful man.

  9. Great post Dan, glad you ran this piece even if a bit late. Fascinating info

  10. Michaela MacColl

    It was my pleasure to write this brochure with Susan Schmidt and the late Allen Raymond. We drew heavily on Allen and his wife Barbara’s histories of the church. Allen’s generosity paid for the production. Thanks for drawing attention to what was a labor of love –not just for the Church but the Town!

    • There were so many members of the GFC and Westport communities that contributed their time and efforts to compiling the history of the church — Michaela, Allen, Peter Jennings, Diane Parrish, Morley Boyd, Jeff Rider, Bob Custer, to name a few. It’s a great reference, Dan, for future tricky Westport history questions!

  11. Great history lesson,Dan!!!Sandy

  12. I attended 2nd Grade there in 1955-56 as Greens Farms School was overcrowded. My teacher was Ruby Sperry and we were in the back room on the first floor. Other teachers were Ms, Healy, Lewis and Shapiro. Mrs Reynolds taught us music and Mrs. Fuller gym. Two school busses served the school, bus 7, a more modern bus owned by the Cuseo family, and bus 8, owned and frequently driven by Mr. Lockwood.

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