Barre's Brown Church
The Barre Historical Society recently received a significant gift from W. Robert Bentley. In addition to his membership in the Society and its Nominating Committee, Mr. Bentley is also a Trustee and Treasurer of the First Parish Church Committee.
Mr. Bentley presented the Society with two brass sconces which were once used to illuminate the narthex of the former First Parish (Unitarian) Church in Barre, perhaps more commonly known as “The Brown Church,” due to the fact that the building was sided in dark brown wooden shingles. After closing due to decreased membership in the early 1960s, the church was razed in the fall of 1969. The two sconces are part of a set of ten known to exist. The other eight fixtures were donated to the Oakham Congregational Church by the First Parish Church in 1968, and are currently on display and used regularly in the Oakham church sanctuary. The Barre Historical Society is currently making plans to display its two sconces in its Greek Revival headquarters building on Barre Common. Also on display in the Oakham church is an elaborate two-tiered, twelve-arm chandelier, which was also a gift to that house of worship by the Barre Unitarians. The chandelier and its matching sconces, which also feature elegant fluted cut-glass shades, were manufactured by the Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Company of Meriden, Connecticut, known for its ubiquitous high-quality brass lighting fixtures. It is not known precisely when these lamps were made, though they were originally fueled by gas. It is thought they were installed in the Barre church in the late 1850s or early 1860s, as that’s when Bradley & Hubbard was making its commercial switch from whale oil to gas-powered institutional lighting fixtures. It is not known when the Unitarian church’s sconces and chandelier were converted to electricity. Barre’s “Brown Church” had its beginnings as “half” of what was the original First Parish Church of Barre. That First Parish Church was the town’s second “First Parish” house of worship (the actual “first” First Parish Church building existed elsewhere on Barre Common – it was built in 1742 and torn down in 1788). This second Barre church was regarded in its day as the largest and grandest in Worcester County, and was constructed in 1788 in what is now Barre’s North Park (facing the present Rte. 122 on the site where the town’s World War II and Korea monument is currently located).
To further confuse the matter, this second First Parish Church is sometimes referred to as The Second Church (without the word “Parish” interposed, as there was never a second Parish, only a second – and ultimately third – church serving the First Parish). And for historical purposes here, the use of the word “Parish” is of Unitarian derivation – not Catholic, not Congregationalist, not Universalist – those denominations all defined their Barre parishes differently. Understood?
The new church became an instant landmark, dwarfing all surrounding structures and exuding a commanding, stately presence that has not been seen in Barre since. Not only a place of worship, in keeping with the custom of the times, the new edifice was also Barre’s center of government and community life, at a period in history before the separation of church and state was mandated. Thus, civic pride – along with religious significance – required the biggest and best symbol of both that the town, in the fourteenth year of its incorporation, could afford to build.
That changed in the early 1830s, when the Commonwealth required the construction of a separate “town meeting house” (now the Barre Town Hall) and an end to the practice of churches also functioning as the seats of local government. Until then, it was not unusual to have a church’s minister also serve as Town Moderator. Municipal taxation revenue had maintained the large and magnificent First Parish Church, and now that source of income was suddenly gone.
Exactly when regular services were halted at the First Parish Church is unclear, though it is surmised that formal worship there ceased between 1835 and 1840. The church’s highly regarded and beloved minister, the Rev. James Thompson, remained “on the books” as the now-closed church’s pastor until his death in 1845. Someone, after all, had to preach to the faithful, marry the betrothed and bury the dead.
At the same time the church’s fiscal crisis was taking hold, a schism also occurred among the church’s membership. On one side were the Unitarians, led by Barre businessmen Charles Brimblecom and Willard Broad, and on the other were the Evangelical Congregationalists, led by another Barre businessman, Seth Caldwell. The two factions agreed to an amicable parting of the ways, and both groups formally abandoned the second First Parish Church building in 1847 – but not before carefully dividing the church’s many furnishings, possessions and accoutrements -- among them the town clock and Paul Revere bell, which marked time and occasions in the lofty church spire. These items, along with the church silver, were claimed by the Unitarians.
The First Parish Church’s building was sold at public auction in 1847 for $680. Its façade and most of its sanctuary structure were moved from North Park to the corner of Broad and School streets (the current location of P&F Garage, formerly Beard Motors), becoming known as “The Colonnade” due to the many classic columns that graced the building’s curving portico when it was a house of worship. The tall and imposing steeple was intentionally destroyed, along with the remainder of what was the grandest church in the county. The Colonnade became home to a variety of businesses, including stores, a hat manufacturing establishment, the local Barre Gazette newspaper and, ironically, a saloon. The Colonnade was itself consumed by fire in 1862. Thus, the second First Parish Church was no more.
The Congregationalists first built another church at the corner of Union and West streets (now the site of the Henry Woods Municipal Office Building), but poor construction and a rapid growth in membership led them to vacate that brick facility and build another, more stately edifice on Park Street, which was dedicated in August, 1849. It still presides on the North side of Barre’s Common.
The Unitarians, under the aegis of Barre Savings Bank (and Barre Library Association) President Charles Brimblecom and Selectman Willard Broad, set about constructing their own church on the East side of Barre’s North Park, on land donated for the purpose by Mr. Broad (this property is currently a parking lot). As the remnants of the second First Parish Church were being relocated to their new home, the Unitarians claimed one more item from their recent ecclesiastical past – the name of their house of worship. Thus, the brand-new “brown church” would officially become Barre’s third First Parish Church, and would remain so until its demise.
The Unitarian church building was 79 feet long and 44 feet wide. The tower (into which was set the aforementioned clock and Revere bell) rose to a height of 66 feet, with the spire adding another 65 feet in height. Atop the steeple was a gilded finial and weathervane. The entire height of the structure, from the ground to the finial, was 145 feet. Construction was carefully supervised by a committee led by Willard Broad – who also supplied a majority of the building materials from his vast timber holdings in Maine and New Brunswick. The building was dedicated in June, 1849, just two months before the Congregational Church.
Despite its magnificent and considered construction and interior ornamentation (including the aforementioned chandelier and wall sconces, along with superior carvings and woodwork), the new First Parish Church did not escape its share of disaster. In 1930, the steeple was struck by lightning, destroying it along with a significant portion of the church itself. Some non-Unitarian humorists joked that this was the first time God had been inside the church. Much debate and fundraising ensued, with a difficult and costly decision finally reached to reconstruct the spire, which was completed to great fanfare in 1935. By some miracle, the town clock and Revere bell escaped the lightning’s wrath unscathed, and both were celebrated during the steeple’s re-dedication.
That joy was short-lived, however, when the entire Northeastern United States was devastated by the Hurricane of 1938.
The church’s steeple again came crashing down, its violent collapse also dashing any hopes of its third reincarnation – enough seemed to be enough (and perhaps God was indeed sending a message), for those who had been disinclined to reconstruct the steeple in 1935. This time, however, because the spire came to ground away from the building, the structure itself was relatively unharmed. The town clock did not fare so well, and was shattered beyond repair. Church member John Bartholomew had carefully tended the clock for more than 42 years, and his widow provided the funds to purchase a new clock which was dedicated in the abbreviated and revamped church tower in 1940. The Revere bell, a survivor of the storm, continued to mark the hours.
Toward the end of the 1950s, church attendance dwindled and the costs associated with maintaining such an elaborate building became too great a burden for its membership. By the dawn of the Kennedy administration in 1961, the church had closed; though attempts were made to first re-open it as a non-denominational “Community Church, then as a town “Teen Center.” Both concepts failed, and the building itself became more degraded with each new idea for its survival.
While it still had time, the First Parish Church Board of Trustees began to divest themselves of the church’s valuable assets. The church organ was dismantled and sent to a church in Virginia, where it still serves its musical ministry. The pews were given a church in Billerica, and the aforementioned elegant lighting fixtures were bequeathed to the Oakham Congregational Church. Little by little, the church was emptied of its treasures and its memories.
One such treasure destined for salvation sadly did not survive. The magnificent rose window, a stained-glass Gothic-inspired masterpiece that filtered daylight over the altar through hundreds of brilliant crystal panels, succumbed to the wrecker’s ball in a series of miscommunications that were intended to save it. The contractor charged with demolishing the church did not get the word in time for the window – and all of the stained glass windows, which lined the sides of the church -- to be saved. Local artist Lois Mortell, herself a neighbor of the church, while she could not stop the windows from being lost, instead halted the demolition effort long enough to salvage pieces of the shattered treasures and make ornaments which were given to the Trustees. Some of these are currently on exhibit at the Barre Historical Society.
The First Parish Church and the land on which it sat were sold to neighboring businessman Richard Beard in early 1969. In September of that year, the building was razed, replaced by a parking lot. Now, the third First Parish Church joined its first and second incarnations in the memory of a community.
There are fragments of the Unitarian church’s legacy still extant, serving as reminders of what was once a proud and flourishing congregation and architectural heritage. There remains a Board of Trustees and a First Parish Church Committee, which still administers a treasury. The group regularly convenes and annually allocates scholarships and other benevolent funds for worthwhile local enterprises.
The most prominent continuation of the presence of the former First Parish Church is the existence of the town clock and Revere bell, now in the cupola of the Barre Town Hall. When the church was torn down in 1969, the last items removed from the church belfry were the clock and bell. These artifacts were put into storage in barns belonging to loyal church members.
When the Town of Barre was making plans to celebrate its bicentennial in 1974, church Trustees sought and received permission to have the clock and bell installed in the Town Hall cupola, where it proudly marked the occasion of the town’s 200th birthday. Tragedy struck again – and once more the clock and bell were spared – when the Town Hall was destroyed by fire in 1981. When the Town Hall was restored, the undamaged clock and bell were once again lifted into their positions of honor, where they still preside. The Trustees of the church still retain ownership of these relics, and diligently protect and maintain their integrity.
As mentioned previously, various other artifacts from the church have found new life and a mission beyond their former home. Their continuing use and enjoyment would no doubt please the many Unitarians whose stewardship of those items was so carefully tended over the years.
Lester W. Paquin
January 28, 2015