A Brief History
“Church of the Broken Bell”
Dea. Clarence Kneeland
“On old Westminster Hill the early settlers
erected an edifice to the Worship of God…….”
“I was glad when they said unto me,
Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
A Brief History
Captain Sherebiah Butts and his seven sons built the Westminster Congregational Meetinghouse, with considerable assistance, no doubt, from other determined citizens of Westminster.
It is doubtful that these good folk of another day would recognize their own creation, should they step back into life today. Changes have been many and drastic during the past two hundred years. The building has been turned and burned, additions and modifications made both inside and outside.
Although slightly damaged by fire and hurricane, the original building still stands, a monument to its sturdy builders, and the lasting quality of their work
The Society is Born
In 1769, a group of Canterbury citizens petitioned the general court of the colony (now the General Assembly) for permission to be set off as a separate society to serve members in the western part of town who found the long trip to meeting at Canterbury Green a hardship in the winter months. This they did after one failure in a similar attempt in 1767. In October of 1769, the Assembly established a separate ecclesiastical society “to be known and called by the name of Westminster.
A hilltop site (one of the highest in the state) nears the center of the society, and at the crossroads was selected as the location of the new meetinghouse. Sherebiah Butts, captain of the local militia, was engaged as master builder and architect. He, along with his sons and other helpers proceeded to the work at hand with such promptness that the new church was ready for use in the middle of 1770.
On November 20, 1770, a counsel having been called from churches of several surrounding parishes, fifteen men from Westminster signed the covenant, which definitely established the new church. Excerpts from the covenant read as follows:
We profess to take the Holy Scriptures of the old and new testaments as the only ultimate rule of our faith and manners, and to believe all the doctrines therein revealed….
We avouch the Lord Jehovah, Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be our God and the God of our seed, and promise, by the help of divine grace to endeavor to walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
We agree that the terms of communion are, a profession of faith in Christ, (by which we mean a soundness in faith, or a belief of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel;) accompanied with sufficient knowledge of the Scriptures and a conversation becoming the gospel of Christ.
The brethren voted unanimously to give Mr. Elijah Fitch an invitation to take pastoral charge of the church. However, Mr. Fitch declined the offer. It was almost a year later, on November 12, 1771, that Mr. John Staples was given an invitation to become pastor of the new church. The church received an affirmative answer on March 8, 1772, and the Rev. John Staples was ordained as pastor on April 7, 1772. He served the church until his death on February 15, 1804, “in the 61st year of his life and the 32nd of his ministry. Ministers are not suffered to continue by reason of death.” So wrote a dutiful scribe of long ago. (Tradition has it that Mr. Staples died as a result of a cold allegedly caught when he forgot to wear his wig one winter evening when asked to call on a woman suffering with scarlet fever.)
The Years Roll By
The church common, a tract of about four acres was a gift of John Park for use as a meetinghouse site, burial ground and common. In 1790 the society voted that any who wished might build “convenient and decent horse sheds on the Meeting House Green near the meeting house in said Society.” Repairs were found necessary and made on several occasions between 1790 and 1800. In October of 1799 a committee was directed to make necessary repairs and a tax. “of one cent and five mills on the dollar be made on the last August list of the polls and Raitable estates in this Society.” At the same time, this committee was given power to “make such alteration in the seetment of the meetinghouse in said Society from time to time as they shall think proper.”
In 1803 the society voted to pay for “Building and painting the new gates at the burying yard near the Meeting House in said Society.”
It was about this time that a proposition was made that Westminster reunite with the first society of Canterbury. Nothing came of this movement. Instead, the Rev. Erastus Learned was engaged as pastor in 1804, with the annual salary of $333.34.
A Big Change For a Little Church
By 1835, the building, though only 65 years old, and though it had been repaired and painted several times, was in a bad state of disrepair, and considered out of style. On December 28, 1835, a committee reported that they considered it unwise to remodel the old church. They had no plan for a new building, but suggested that “from inquires made, it appears that we may build a new Church house in modern style, and of sufficient dimensions to accommodate a Society like ours for the sum of $2000 and the old House.” In spite of this report, it was decided to proceed with repairs to the old church instead of building a new one.
Records of this period are very sketchy, but most authorities feel that it was during this period that the major changes were effected to the inside and the outside of the church. Originally, what is now the front of the building faced eastward (Brooklyn Road).
A complete picture of the church before this all happened is given in a portion of the following address by the Late Deacon Albert C. Green, which was delivered in the meetinghouse on September 3, 1923.
The exact date I cannot give you, but sometime between the years 1830 and 1840, this building was turned around, and the interior changed. The old church, as I remember it, was much simpler in appearance than at the present time. There was no portico, no pillars, and no steeple. Let me try to picture it to you:--The long way of the church was east and west; with doors and windows at each end. A long aisle ran through the middle from one door to the other. The pulpit was in the middle of the north side,--and was high, being reached by about eight steps, or stairs. There was a guardrail up the stairs and around the pulpit. The rail was hung with some red material. A sounding board was suspended above the pulpit,--about eight feet in diameter. I remember this sounding board was paneled, and finished to resemble cherry or mahogany. The pews were finished in the same way. The choir was directly opposite the pulpit on the south side…The seating space in the old church was arranged in square pews. I recollect that these pews had an open space about the height where children could look out. This arrangement was, I think, unique,--as I never saw or read of any such open space in any church of square pews. There was a gallery around the east, south and west sides. I cannot remember the arrangement of the stairs leading to it…, In the southeast corner of the Gallery was a section for Negroes, and none were allowed anywhere else. There were no stoves, except the foot stoves brought by the people, and the floor had no carpet, or covering of any sort. The fall before the repairs were made, lumber and shingles were brought from Bangor, Maine, and stored in the sheds…When the repairs were begun, the church was raised on jacks, until a cannon ball could be placed under the center. Sticks for levers were attached to the corners of the church, and these the men pushed on, in turning it. This task occupied several days…The cannon ball was left in the center of the church, underneath, where it is today, to the best of my belief. When the church was in the position in which it now stands, the doors and windows in the north end were closed—as one can still see, by looking at the back of the building. After these repairs, the pews were put in as you see them today,--except that there were pew doors. After many years, these were taken off and stored in the gallery, and finally burned. Later on, the pews were removed at the back of the church, to make room for the stoves. The pulpit pews were also taken away…After the steeple was put on, a bell was given by Mr. Seth Staples of New York City. He was a lawyer, and the son of the first pastor of the church. The bell is in the key of A and weighs 700 pounds. The raising of the bell was another wonderful occasion in the parish. Mr. Peter Spicer, who was quite mechanical, was engaged to do the work. He was assisted by the greater part of the parish people. Tackle and block was used, and the work required some hours…At this time, the entrance to the burial ground was on the east side. Just beyond the south wall was a row of wagon sheds, as well as on the west side of the Green, as now. There were a great many of them.
The Years to the Present
Records for many years are sketchy or missing entirely. It is very likely that many records were lost in the fire which burned the parsonage to the ground on November 23, 1924. This was the first of several misfortunes to befall the Westminster Society during the next few years. On New Year’s morning in 1937, an incendiary fire did considerable damage to one corner of the building. Then the memorable hurricane of September 1938 toppled the bell and part of the belfry into the vestibule of the ancient building. It seemed almost like the death knell of the old meeting house. Attendance had dwindled, and the Westminster church had been forced to share a pastor with the First Church.
The five remaining regular members heard of a pastor in the neighboring town of Brooklyn, who had lost his church in the same storm which had done much damage to their own sanctuary. They extended a call to the Rev. Philip Jerome Cleveland, who accepted the call and thus began a new era for the old society. The boundless energy of the new pastor, coupled with his own enthusiasm, soon brought new members to the congregation. The bell was re-hung by a group of townsmen in November 1945. Rev. Mr. Cleveland, a talented writer, as well as a musician, artist, and preacher, wrote the story of his struggles, and the successful culmination. It was published in the Christian Herald, and chosen for republication in the Reader’s Digest, under the title, “The Church of the Broken Bell,” a title which the church adopted later as part of its official name. With the publicity gained through the article in the Digest, things began to improve at Westminster Church, and worshipers came regularly from many towns around the state, some as far as New Haven and Hartford.
Interest and attendance continued to grow, even after Mr. Cleveland resigned his pastorate in 1958. Many improvements have been made in the past few years. The old wood-burning stoves were replaced by a new electric heating system, which was dedicated on March 14, 1966. In the years since then, a complete new system of recessed lighting has been installed in the sanctuary, the entire building has been redecorated, both inside and outside, and a new roof put on one-half of the building.
One of the most important and most gratifying changes has been the building of a new parsonage and Christian Education building on the church common. This new parsonage was built by Mr. Albert Lindell, a local craftsman, and was dedicated November 16, 1969.
Though the changes and alterations have been many, and in some cases, quite extensive, our church still retains much of its old colonial atmosphere. It is the third oldest Congregational meetinghouse in Connecticut, and contains an example of the hanging balcony, which is a very rare type. Having no apparent source of support except four steel rods coming down from the ceiling, they are actually supported by huge timbers underneath, which come out from the sides of the building, and extend across the full width and length of the church. Just one more example of our New England ancestors’ ingenuity and shrewdness.
In front of the church, just across the driveway, is a stone pillar, which was formerly used as a whipping-post. In the cemetery adjoining the church common, there are graves of 25 Revolutionary War soldiers. In fact, every American war is represented there from the French and Indian War to the Vietnam conflict, except for the Korean conflict.
Still another unusual feature of the Westminster Church is the Eastern Orthodox cross atop the rebuilt steeple. It was the gift of a local Russian farmer, Mr. Daniel Agayoff, who wanted to leave a gift to an American church that would remind him of his homeland.
The Challenge of the Third Century
We can well be proud of the record of service and accomplishments which is ours today in the past history of the Westminster Congregational Church. But even as we salute those whose labors have brought forth the fruits that we enjoy today, we acknowledge humbly before God our own obligation to do our part that these fruits may be multiplied and increased, that many others may share the benefits which come to those who strive to do His will in their everyday lives.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the work of J. Frederick Kelly in his volumes of Early Connecticut Meetinghouses.
The Story of the Cross
on Westminster Church
A. Earl MacLeod
Some years ago while the Rev. Philip J. Cleveland was the Church’s pastor, a local resident by the name of Daniel Agaoff informed Mr. Cleveland of his desire to do something for the Church. He requested permission to present the congregation with a cross to be put atop its structure. Without inquiring as to the type of cross Mr. Cleveland assured Mr. Agaoff that the Church would be honored to accept such a donation.
Quite some time had passed when a heavy box was delivered to the Church from a brass foundry in Waterbury, Connecticut. Upon opening the box, a cross was disclosed with an additional bar slanted across its vertical beam. It was a Russian Orthodox cross that Mr. Agaoff had donated.
When the members of the Church saw the cross and were informed that it was to be placed atop the belfry and uproar ensued, threatening to split the small congregation. As head deacon and after much prayer I went before the congregation and proposed to write to various church leaders and historians in the Congregational Church regarding this matter. With the pastor offering an additional name, the congregation agreed to accept whatever opinion the letters brought. I sent the letters and prayed.
I was very much surprised and gratified at the answers I received. All six responses were in favor of accepting Mr. Agaoff’s gift, given as it was from the heart. After the members heard the written reports, they were in complete support of having the cross placed atop the belfry.
Most importantly, we learned the significance of the additional bar. Tradition has it that when one of the early saints was to be crucified for his faith, he requested of his executioners that he be hung upside down, feeling that he was unworthy to die like his Lord. This is the reason for the slanted additional bar. It is the bar of unworthiness. We who know the whole story are proud to worship our God under such a cross.
November 2, 1770
Whereas by the Providence of God we the subscribers are now in a distinct ecclesiastical society from the church to which we lately belonged and being desirous of forming a church state that we may enjoy the usual privileges of the churches of Jesus Christ; sensible of our own imperfections, imploring and relying upon the Spirit and grace of Christ for the faithful performance hereof, we do convenant and agree as followeth:
We profess to take the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the only ultimate rule of our faith and manners and to believe all the doctrines therein revealed; and in subordination hereto, the confession of faith commonly called the Westminster Confession, which we look upon to be agreeable to the Word of God.
We avouch the Lord Jehovah, Father, Son and holy Ghost to be our God and the God of our seed, and promise, by the help of divine grace, to endeavor to walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
We promise to submit ourselves to the watch and discipline of Christ’s church agreeable to the Scriptures, as a Congregational Church according to the Cambridge Platform.
We agree that the terms of communion are, a profession of faith in Christ, (by which we mean a soundness in faith, or a belief of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel) accompanied with sufficient knowledge of the Scriptures and a conversation becoming the gospel of Christ.
We engage to pray with and instruct our families and all under our care in the knowledge of God’s word and the principles of Christianity, and to watch over ourselves and each other in love.
We agree to hold communion and fellowship with the sister churches of Christ in this land and, if any difficulties should arise amongst us, we will call in their assistance, if need be for mutual help and to lend our assistance to others when it is requested.
This is My Father’s House
Dea. Clarance Kneeland
(Written November, 1970)
This is my Father’s house, A light upon the hill.
It’s been shining here two hundred years;
Praise God; ‘Tis shining still.
This is my Father’s house, ‘Twas build so long ago
By godly men who lived here then,
And tried His will to do.
This is my Father’s, He meets His children here.
The sin-sick soul can be made whole;
Just call and He is near.
This is my Father’s house, His care has kept it whole.
Though fire and storm have done some harm,
It still has missed the shoal.
This is my Father’s house; it’s mission cannot fail.
If we stand true, He’ll bring us through
We know He must prevail.
This is my Father’s house; Today it’s in my care.
I must be strong and carry on
Until I’ve done my share.
This is my Father’s house, a holy blessed place,
Where I may come just as I am,
And know my Savior’s grace.
This is my Father’s house; He lets me labor here,
Each talent I must multiply
That many more may share.
Is this your Father’s house? You too can be His child,
Cleanse your heart from sin, let Jesus in;
He’ll keep it undefiled.
This is our Father’s house. To us the torch is flung.
Now you and I must hold it high,
Till our last song is sung.
Clarence Kneeland was a deacon at Westminster for many years. His love of the Lord and devotion to the Lord’s work is noted in the very spirit of this and numerous other poems he wrote