Friday, March 24, 2017

Then and now: The remarkable history of Windham’s first church by Walter Lunt

This is the third installment of a series on the history and unique heritage of Windham, then and now.

Over its nearly 275 year history, Windham Congregational Church 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. The denomination holds a distinctive place in the town’s rich history and proud heritage. 

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. 

Two of the original 63 land grants were set aside for religious purposes. Under conditions set by the governing body of Massachusetts in the mid-1730s, the Proprietors had to “. . . erect a convenient meeting-house (church) for the publick worship of God,” and provide a lot of land for a “. . . learned orthodox minister.” 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.

It would be nearly ten years before another minister would lead the parish. In the meantime, hostilities with the French and Indians had ended. Rev. Peter Thatcher Smith, also a Harvard alumnus, was ordained in September, 1762. He preached in the fort until his dismissal in 1790. During Smith’s pastor-ship, two attempts were made to construct “. . . a decent place for the worship of God.”  Both were taken down for unknown reasons. Finally in 1795, a meeting house described as, “. . . a very fine edifice for the times,” was built on what was then known as Peter Anderson’s Hill; near the present-day intersection of Webb and Chute Roads.

The impressive structure was 50 feet long, 40 feet wide, and two stories high. Upon entering, the visitors’ attention would first be drawn to the elaborately decorated pulpit, perched high above floor level, replete with color and pageantry. The lofty lectern was draped with scarlet cloth, a velvet cushion to support a thick, tattered Bible, and tassels dangling from all four corners. Above the minister’s head, an elaborately carved panel was suspended from the ceiling. Known as a “sounding board,” it acted as an early amplifier, projecting the preacher’s words over the full extent of the sanctuary and beyond.

The front hallway featured a glass display case in which the town clerk posted the names of those planning to marry. Called a “publishment box,” it was said to have attracted much attention from the locals.

Like other churches of the period, no means of heating was allowed within its walls. At best, a slab of
soapstone, heated from home, or a so-called “foot stove” was the only means of warming comfort allowed, even in the depths of winter.

The building served Windham’s Congregational community for almost 40 years, until 1834 when construction began on a new church on Windham Hill. The abandoned building was then used for various public purposes until 1861 when it was partially de-constructed and moved over snowy roads by several teams of oxen to a location on the west side of River Road near the Westbrook line; and then converted into a large barn (pictured here some time before 1959). Many features of the old, formidable church remained, including portions of the original post and beam construction, a wide door and hardware formed by an early blacksmith. Several families used the old, renovated structure well into the 20th century. In 1959 it was razed, the ancient timbers sold and the property cleared to make way for power lines.

The newest, and sometimes referred to as the 5th Congregational Church building, was completed in 1835. It was described as “. . . a convenient, well-finished church, with steeple and bell, being the first bell on any church in Windham.” Current church historian Laurel Parker says the bell was cast in Boston by a former apprentice of Paul Revere. The new meeting house was of post and beam construction with Greek Revival, Federal and Gothic features. The steeple is Italianate. A new spire and a weathervane were added in 1885. Long admired for its unique architectural features, the iconic, early New England building earned the church an appearance in a 1935 edition of National Geographic Magazine. A carillon, played from the organ, was installed in 1964 with speakers in the belfry. in the construction of the new church was Rev. Jonathon Lee Hale (the 7th settled minister), who did not live to see its completion. One of his successors, Rev. Luther Wiswall, is credited with attaining the church’s greatest prosperity to date. He served for 40 years in the mid-19th century, leaving his home next door to the parish. It would become the parsonage of the First Congregational Church of Windham. The front hall closet once served as a Windham post office. 

Among the many artifacts of the church’s storied history is a pair of eyeglasses worn by Rev. Wiswall.
In 1972, the church was re-named Windham Hill United Church of Christ, Congregational. The church is currently ministered by Rev. Sally Colegrove and is supported by over 200 parishioners.

Church leaders honor the church’s history, acknowledging the past and recognizing long time members during Founders’ Day - celebrated yearly. Members of the Sunday School recently painted a time-line of church history in the Faith Education Hallway of Fellowship Hall, located behind the church.

Windham Hill U.C.C. raises funds and participates in numerous social and charitable causes, local and worldwide; including support for the Windham food pantry, the Root Cellar of Portland, which helps the homeless, Food & Fellowship for seniors and others, gift boxes for service members and local families, especially during holidays, E-waste collection and the international Heifer Project, which distributes live animals to third-world countries.

The original clerk’s book of Windham Congregational, begun in 1743, and now available online is a rich source of early church history. Visit:

1 comment:

  1. My name is Tom Lothrop and the church moved from Anderson's Hill to the River Road and converted to a barn was owned by my parents, Cummings and Elizabeth Lothrop. Previous owners were the Roberts. I was told that our barn was the first church completed in Windham; the first three, while being constructed, were burned by the Indians. The church, now a barn, was a dairy farm in my early years (1944 to 1957) which my father operated. Many, many kittens were born in that barn over the years and also many barn swallows. Had up to 17 head of Jersey cows at one point My mother managed the local 4-H club. Then Oakhurst instituted their bulk storage requirement and my father could not afford the $10,000 that it was going to cost to install the bulk storage tank at the farm. So he sold all the cows and went to work in in the woods - logging - pulp and logs. Then in 1958 the farmhouse and barn were sold to CMP to make room for another set of power lines alongside existing ones. We moved to North Windham at that time. In 1959 when the house (which was old as well; built in the 1780's) and the barn were demolished, I remember that the barn did not come down easily; even though the barn looked pretty decrepit at that point, the post and beam construction with the wooden pegs for nails held up well. Ultimately they had to bring in the largest Caterpillar bulldozer to take it down.


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