Living history: Brunswick church part of the town fabric for 300 years

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BRUNSWICK — In the 300 years since it was founded, First Parish Church has been in three places.

Yet the church’s history has always been central to the town, the founding of which in 1739 wouldn’t have been possible without the existence of the church.

“The church is not a building. The church is a group of people,” First Parish historian Elizabeth Newman said last week.

On Aug. 26, the institution will officially enter its fourth century of existence – a gateway that Newman said will usher in a continuing spiritual and civic commitment to Brunswick.

“It’s a wonderful community of like-minded people,” she said last week of the present-day congregation.

“It certainly builds around the fact that we’re Christians,” she said, but also noted the ways in which the institution contributed to the social, historical, civic – even municipal – terrain of Brunswick’s history.

In fact, the church was formed in 1717 to make the town possible, Newman explained: back then, towns could not be legally established without a church and a school.

Brunswick was incorporated 22 years after the church’s first service, which took place on the banks of the Androscoggin River before a congregation of colonial settlers.

“This was outdoors. There were probably hardly any buildings at that time. It was an unsettled area,” Newman said, noting also the presence of native populations who resisted the settlers’ attempts to claim the area.

Eventually, they found a brick-and-mortar location on upper Maine Street, identifiable by a cemetery that still exists opposite the intersection with Pleasant Hill Road.

If it looked more like a meeting house than a church, Newman said, it’s because it effectively was: the church served a dual function as Town Hall, and was even said to have been used as an armory during the Revolutionary War.

In 1787, it was where residents of the town voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

“You’ll be happy to know that the vote was in favor, 35-7,” Newman said.

Around the turn of the 19th century, another town institution came along: Bowdoin College, which asked First Parish to move close to the college campus at the top of Maine Street.

It did, into a non-assuming building that was eventually rebuilt as its existing neo-Gothic structure – a building so striking that visitors often think it’s a museum, Newman said.

“I’ve had a couple of people say to me, is this really a church? Do people really come here?” she recalled. “Because it looks like a monument, sitting in this rotary of traffic.”

That might also be because of the church’s history of welcoming famous parishioners and guests.

Many of those were Bowdoin students, who, at the time, were mandated by the college to attend services. They included the 14th president of the United States, Franklin Pierce; literary giants Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the local Civil War hero, Col. Joshua Chamberlain.

Then there was the wife of a Bowdoin professor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who, it is said, had the vision that inspired her history-making book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” while attending First Parish Church.

The event is marked with a plaque in the church pew where she sat. From there, one can look up at the altar where other famed speakers have since addressed the congregation: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and comedian-turned-civil rights activist Dick Gregory.

Today, First Parish Church has a congregation of 700 people, with about 300 who regularly attend.

Although no longer tethered to the town’s municipal functions, Newman said the function of the church has grown.

The institution and its congregants have helped establish social services and resources in the area: Oasis Health Services, Tedford Housing, the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, and the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s founded on religion, and people at First Parish are Christian; they do believe in Jesus Christ, and they do believe they want to do the work that Jesus did, which is helping people – taking care of the needy,” Newman said. “I think we try to move with the times. We’re very much engaged in the present day and moving into our fourth century.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached a 781-3661, ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

First Parish Church in Brunswick will enter its fourth century on Aug. 26.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or