Minnie Douglas Bennett
for the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of the building of the present meetinghouse
Revisions and Additions by
Bruce J. Crowther
Richard J. Ross
Earle T. Stewart
For the celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Church
This post is part of The History of the Original Congregational Church of Wrentham series. Previous posts can be found here.
In 1938 a fall hurricane lashed the community and crumbled the proud and stately church steeple. An emergency fund-raising drive was started by Mr. Shafer and complete reconstruction was effected within a twelve-month period, thanks to his zealous efforts.
Death came to Mr. Shafer on February 25, 1946, but this worthy churchman, with his righteous air of authority and dignity, will long be remembered for his valued contributions to both the Church and the Town of Wrentham. He was a master of rhetoric and the written word; and as a poet, editor, lecturer and historian, he was faithful both to earthly ties and the greater bond with God. His pastorate of 32 years suffered the burdens and deprivations of two World Wars and our country's worst economic depression; it also spanned the 225th, 235th and 250th anniversaries of the Church's founding, and the centennial of the present church edifice.
The fifteenth pastor, the Reverend Lionel A. Whiston, came to the Wrentham church on January 1, 1947, following along and eminent ministry at the Calvinistic Congregational Church, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Mr. Whiston is the son of a minister, a grandson and a great-grandson of lay preachers, and his sons Lionel, Jr. and William and grandson Charles, are ordained ministers. Mr. Whiston graduated from Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin, and from Boston University School of Theology. He was installed as pastor of the Original Congregational Church of Wrentham on June 4th of the same year, his son, Lionel, Jr., gave the charge.
In middle age Mr. Whiston forfeited position and security to accept the challenge to vitalize a rural parish. With courage, zeal and vision, he set about to lead his congregation along the road of accomplishment. A new organ was purchased and installed in 1948; and the first Vacation Bible School held, with Mrs. Mary E. Winter as dean. The Missionary Society became the World Service Committee, allocating the monies given for benevolences. Each year with pride and pleasure the committee generously contributed to the support of the Church's own beloved missionary representative, Miss Katherine Mix, R.N. of Wrentham, at Pierce Memorial Hospital in Wai, India.
Because of the great need for expansion, construction was started in 1950 on a new Parish House, built to some extent within the framework of the Hawes Chapel and dedicated free of debt on October 26, 1956. This well planned and beautifully appointed addition provided new classrooms for the Sunday School, a church parlor, an office and pastor's study. In 1954, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph E. Bullard gave a beautiful memorial book in memory of Harrison A. and Florence P. Bullard. In it are recorded memorial gifts given since that date.
Because of the growth of the Church and the ever-increasing work, it became necessary for Mr. Whiston to have assistance. In 1954, Miss Barbara Heinz was engaged as secretary, and in 1956, Mr. Robert J. Elliott, a theological student, was appointed to assist in the youth work of the Church. That same year saw the birth of the Pilgrim Fellowship. Following guidelines set up by Congregational headquarters, the Church's chapter of Christian Endeavor voted to become a part of the new youth program. After a summer of planning the first meeting was held on September 16. Mr. Elliott resigned in 1958. His successor that year was Leo Sandon, Jr., who became Assistant Pastor two years later. He began publication of the Church newsletter, The Spire, and conducted the first adult church school classes. Mrs. Sandon served as director of the Junior Choir. A new covenant, constitution, and by-laws were accepted at the annual meeting, January 6, 1955. These increased the number of Deacons from four to twelve, established a Board of Trustees and a Board of Deaconesses, and limited terms of office on standing committees. A cooperative kindergarten, serving the town as well as church members, was begun in 1956.
Again, in July 1957, through the loyalty and cooperation of a growing and generous congregation, a new project was undertaken -- the complete renovation and redecoration of the sanctuary and narthex. At the dedication services held January 26, 1958, members and friends of the Church marveled at the transformation -- the once bleak, ornate, and patched-up sanctuary had become a warm and beautiful place with new pulpit, pews, and windows, all in a colonial style reminiscent of that in which the meetinghouse was built.
In 1960, the Church purchased the adjacent house property from the Haehnel family and voted to name it the Whiston House in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Whiston's long service to the Church. The upstairs was renovated to serve as an apartment, the first floor to be used for meeting rooms and other church activities.
In 1961, as one of the last acts of a long and eventful pastorate, Mr. Whiston led the Church in becoming part of the new United Church of Christ, the national merger of the Congregational Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Later that year Mr. Whiston resigned the pulpit to take up a retreat ministry which took him and Mrs. Whiston to all parts of this country, Canada, and Bermuda. They moved into the Whiston House apartment, and a grateful congregation made him its Pastor Emeritus.
In the fall of 1961, the Reverend William B. Perry became Pastor. A graduate of Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, Mr. Perry came to the Church after a ten-year pastorate in Goffstown, New Hampshire.
As one of his first projects here, Mr. Perry undertook the furnishing of the Memorial Chapel. It was dedicated in 1962, completing the work on the parish house begun more than a decade before. A fire alarm system was installed in the church and parish house in 1966. That year also saw the establishment of the Church's first permanent investment fund with gifts from Mr. and Mrs. Fred E. Youngdahl.
George H. Bennett became the student assistant pastor in 1963, succeeding Leo Sandon. Mr. Bennett was ordained in the Church in 1965 and became Assistant Pastor at First Church in Springfield. He was succeeded by Robert T. Carlson, who served for two years. Mr. Carlson married Miss Elaine Perry of this parish.
The 1960's witnessed a growing ecumenical spirit among churches, and this was felt in Wrentham. The first joint service with Trinity Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church was held in 1966. Also, Mr. Perry frequently participated in the "Chapel of the Air" on the local radio station a project of the Attleboro Area Council of Churches.
In 1967, the Church celebrated its 275th anniversary with a homecoming service, a service of rededication, and a collation. Citations were presented to Miss Katherine Mix for her years of work as a medical missionary in India and to Mr. Whiston on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination. Mr. Whiston's first book, Are You Fun To Live With?, was published that year also.
The following year, upon the resignation of David Shih, the Church's last student assistant pastor, Miss Harriet Newman became the church's Director of Religious Education. She took over the youth work of the church, led adult education, and established a Rhythmic Choir and a children's drama group.
Mr. Perry resigned in 1968 to take a position as pastor in Palmer, Massachusetts. A vivacious and outgoing man, his spirit led the Church into areas of ecumenical cooperation, and he and his family established close ties with many of the congregation.
To be continued...