Friday, December 14, 2018

For whom the bell tolls: Windham’s first church congregation turns 275

By Lorraine Glowczak

Those who live or work on Windham Center Road near the intersection of Pope Road may hear a lot of ringing in their ears on Friday, December 14 between the hours of 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. If this is the case for you, be reassured that you most likely do not have tinnitus (serious case of ringing or buzzing in the ear). What you will be experiencing, instead, is the chime of the church bell from the belfry of Windham Hill United Church of Christ (WHUCC) as they celebrate their 275th anniversary.

“We will begin ringing the bell 23 times at 9 a.m. this Friday,” began WHUCC Historian, Laurel Parker. “And we will continue to ring the bell 23 times on the top of the hour every hour until 8 p.m., at which time the bell will ring 22 times – adding up to a total of 275 rings.” to a press release submitted to and published in The Windham Eagle in June 2014, WHUCC, presently located at 140 Windham Center Road, has historical significance to the Town of Windham as it was the founding church for the town. In New England, during the 17th and 18th century, the law mandated that states enforce religious devotion. All towns were required to establish a church and support a minister by levying taxes. Over the next century, the congregation met in a few different locations throughout the Windham area. In 1834, the church that now stands in its present location was constructed and has remained there over the last two centuries. 

When that church was built, it gained a bell that also contains historical significance. “It [the bell] has been a part of our church since it was built in 1834-35,” explained Pastor of WHUCC, Sally Colegrove, in a previous interview. “The bell comes from a foundry in the Boston area out of one of the workshops of Paul Revere. The bell rings every Sunday but is also rung on special occasions for the community with the hope of peace. It was rung at the end of the Civil War, World War I, World War II and on 9/11.”

Parker further explained that whenever there is a call to ring bells across America for other momentous and time-honored events, the bell at WHUCC will always be heard ringing in unison with other bells across the nation. “Of course, the bell always rings every Sunday morning at 9:20 for the call to worship,” Parker said, referring to the 9:30 a.m. weekly service.

The Windham Eagle newspaper’s very own historian and writer, Walter Lunt, offered a bit of background history on Windham’s first church in his bi-weekly history series that was published in the March 24, 2017 edition.

“Windham Congregational Church [as it was named at the time] has occupied at least three separate locations, all on high points of land. Whether for protection, circumstance or perhaps a closer talk with thee, the church buildings were constructed on two separate hills (each named Anderson) and on Windham Hill……. local historians record the full or partial construction of no fewer than five churches between 1743 and 1834. In addition to their pioneering spirit, Windham’s early settlers needed certain essentials to achieve their goal of carving a prosperous township out of a barren wilderness: shelter, food, clothing and (yes, an essential) spiritual nourishment.”

Lunt also stated, “Attempts to construct a church atop Anderson Hill, off present-day River Road, were hindered by hostilities related to the French and Indian Wars. The partially framed edifice was torn down and the timbers used to help construct a fort to protect the early families. Under the pastoral guidance of Rev. John Wight, a 1729 graduate of Harvard College and the township’s first minister, the first services were conducted inside the fort. Early records indicate Rev. Wight was highly respected and remembered for his dedication and loyalty to the needs of the infant settlement - a devotion that impaired his health. Wight died in the fort, leaving behind a congregation that grew from seven to 25 members during his tenure.”

Approximately 200 members strong today with Rev. Colegrove at the helm for the past 15 years, the congregation officially changed its name from The First Congregational Church of Windham to what we know it today as Windham Hill United Church of Christ in January 1972.

With such a rich Windham heritage and history, the ringing of the bell is a celebration that not all communities can own. “As I sit in the pews every Sunday morning, what amazes me the most as a historian is the fact that this congregation began before George Washington was President,” stated Parker.

WHUCC raises funds and participates in numerous social and charitable causes on local, national and worldwide levels. This includes support for the Windham food pantry, the free Monday Meals program for seniors and others, E-waste collection and the international Heifer Project, which distributes live animals to third-world countries – to name just a few organizations that benefit from their missionary outreach. a look back on the church’s history, the original clerk’s book of the congregation that began in 1743, is available online and can offer a valuable source. Visit:

“But you must always keep the original/paper source safe, if possible,” warned Parker. “Although we believe digital access will remain an obtainable resource forever – we must remember that we once thought of that with the floppy disk. Now, anything that has been placed on a floppy disk is not easily accessible.” 

As for the ringing of the bell on Friday, December 14, Parker joked that those in the congregation who have offered to ring the bell this Friday will face a certain challenge. “It’s a heavy bell and I’m certain those who will be pulling on the 1-inch thick rope for a very heavy bell with 23 or 22 repetitions will surely be exhausted when they are done.”

Happy Birthday, Windham Hill United Church of Christ. Thank you for providing the historical and spiritual roots to Windham. Based upon the rules of 17th century New England, the town would not be here without you.

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