The character of Westport drew John Branson and his wife Judyth here more than 20 years ago.
The characters of Westport kept them here.
In January 1991, Rev. Branson was called as rector of Christ & Holy Trinity Church. A native of New Hampshire and an ordained priest since 1974, with a degree from Yale Divinity School and experience at ministries in Hartford but now in Chatham, New Jersey, he was eager to return to New England.
Judyth — a psychotherapist — knew Westport psychologist Irwin Sollinger well. Through him, the Bransons met other Westporters.
The call seemed right. The decision to come to CHT was reinforced by the gracious welcome extended by folks like the Wolgast, Ackemann and Hammond families.
“We felt wonderfully cared for and embraced,” Branson recalls. “Similarly, we wanted to share that hospitality with as many people as we could. We entertained a lot, and we tried to bring people together.”
The new minister had big shoes to fill. Dana Forrest Kennedy had led Westport’s Episcopal church for 29 years, and was a revered figure in town.
But Kennedy was a traditionalist. Branson is less so.
“We want to be a church that embraces the diversity of people who call Westport home,” he says. Throughout his tenure, Christ & Holy Trinity has done that. Now — with its new, handsome Great Hall — CHT can take advantage of its downtown location and, as Branson says, “literally embrace the wider Westport.
“Not everyone may agree with our creed, or the principles of our church. But all are welcome to use it.”
CHT hosts over 50 12-step meetings a week. When Saugatuck Congregational Church — a few steps up the Post Road hill — burned in November, Christ & Holy Trinity offered its hall for the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.
Branson understands Westport intimately. From natural features like the beach to man-made ones like the Memorial Day parade, he is a huge fan of — and participant in — civic life.
Over the years he has watched programs like the Green’s Farms Congregational Church’s Kingdom Builders and the townwide clergy’s Interfaith Housing grow into secular organizations (Builders Beyond Borders and Homes With Hope, respectively). From ABC House and Project Return to many others, he says, “people in Westport are really committed to serving their neighbors in need.”
Branson defines “neighbor” broadly. It may be someone in the next pew, down the street, or in Bridgeport or Africa. He is proud that his congregation has “really come together as a family of faith.” But, he says, “as we face inward toward each other, we also need to turn outward toward the larger world.”
This Sunday (June 10), Branson will conduct his final service here. He and Judyth are retiring to Fearington Village, North Carolina — a wonderful town near Chapel Hill filled with lots of retired State Department people and Episcopal clergy.
The Bransons have just purchased their first home; they’ve always lived in church housing. They look forward to working on it, entertaining, and serving the church in some capacity.
“We’ll ease up on the throttle a bit,” Branson says. “And we’ll see where the spirit moves us.”
It will move them, from time to time, to Westport. Their daughter Jessica lives here. So John and Judyth will certainly not forget us.
As he prepares his final sermon, Branson reflects on his 21 years in Westport. He likens the town to “a net. The strands of people’s experiences and aptitudes run different directions, but they’re woven together in very rich ways. Those strands strengthen and buoy everyone, very profoundly.”
Westporters’ commitments — to arts, education, athletics — are offered “in time, talent and treasure. They hold many of us in ways we can be very grateful for.”
Rev. John Branson leaves Westport “with a great sense of gratitude, for so many blessings.”
That’s what the entire community says about him, too.