The religious sentiment of Willimantic is now represented by six churches, viz., Congregational, Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Protestant Episcopal and Spiritualist. These have all been built up here since the year 1827. Up to the close of that year there was no church nearer than Windham Centre, nor any stated meetings except such as were held in a school house or in private houses. In the year mentioned a few persons here applied to the directors of the Connecticut Domestic Missionary Society for a minister. In response, Dennis Platt, who was just completing his theological course at New Haven, was sent to them. Mr. Platt-states that this was designed as an experiment “to test the question whether an Evangelical church could be% established in a manufacturing village.” Mr. Platt’s first appointment was extended to twelve weeks. Then a society of ladies in Tolland county agreed to sustain Mr. Platt three months longer. So, it appears, a ministry was sustained for six months with no charge to the people, except that a few individuals gave him his board.
January 22d, 1828, an ecclesiastical council was called, of which Doctor Samuel Nott, of Franklin, was chosen moderator, and this council organized the First Congregational church of Willimantic. The sixteen persons who were thus formed into a church were Deacon Charles Lee, John Brown, Eliphalet Brown, Azariah Balcam, Nathaniel Robinson, Sr., Sybil Brown, Olive Brown, Phebe Robinson, Anniss Brown, Lucy Howes, Lydia Balcam, Alathea Littlefield, Beulah Littlefield, Anna Robinson, Seth Jillson and Joseph H. Brown. Of these, twelve were former members of the church of Windham, two of the church of Scotland, and two others were not previously connected anywhere. By additions the membership of the church was increased in 1829 to forty-five. The first four or five years were very prosperous in spiritual things to the infant church; four years from its organization it numbered about one hundred members. A church edifice was immediately erected, and was dedicated October-17th, 1828, Doctor Joel Hawes preaching the sermon. This was the first house of -worship in the place. The expense of building it was a burden from which those who undertook it delivered themselves only after a determined struggle. The present society was formed soon after. the church was built. During its first ten years the church received an average amount of one hundred dollars annually from the Connecticut Domestic Missionary Society toward meeting its running expenses. The church was at first consociated with Tolland county churches, but in 1831, for greater convenience, it united with the consociation of Windham county. In 1843 the house of worship was considerably enlarged. In May, 1857, the congregation began to use the Congregational Hymn and Tune Book in its musical services.
Reverend Dennis Platt remained as a stated supply from August, 1827, to the autumn of 1829. He was followed by Reverend Ralph S. Campton, who served as stated supply from May, 1830, to April, 1832. Nearly three years followed with no ‘ regular minister, when Reverend Philo Judson was installed pastor, December 18th, 1834. He was dismissed March 21st, 1839. His successor was Reverend Andrew Sharpe, who was ordained here September 23d, 1840. His pastorate continued for a longer term than any that had preceded him. He was dismissed June 12th, 1849. Samuel G. Willard was ordained as pastor November 5th of the same year. He enjoyed a long pastorate, closing his labors with his dismission, which took effect September 2d, 1868. His successor was Reverend Horace Winslow, who was installed April 28th, 1869.
On the acceptance of the call of Reverend Horace Winslow, the question of a new house of worship was earnestly advocated, and on February 24th, 1869, the society resolved to proceed to the work, and accordingly appointed a building committee composed of John Tracy, Allen Lincoln, William C. Jillson and the pastor elect. In July of that year the corner stone was laid, and in one year from that time the main edifice was dedicated to the worship of God. The expenses of this enterprise were provided for in various ways. To begin with, the society had from subscriptions and the sale of the old house $19,578. This fund was steadily increased by special efforts, so that when the main portion of the building was completed the debt was only a little over $9,000. In May, 1871, the chapel was completed and dedicated to the service of God. In about a year from that time it was proposed to pay off the whole debt of the society, which amounted then to $12,600. This amount was raised by the 1st of October, 1872. The whole cost of church, grounds, chapel, furniture, organ and all, amounted to $46,700, and it had all been paid, so that the society was free from debt. A service of praise and gratulation was held in view of the auspicious financial condition. Since then money has been raised and the chapel and adjoining rooms have been painted, carpeted and seated. The size of the main edifice on the ground is one hundred by sixtythree feet, and the chapel addition and adjoining room is ninety by thirty-six feet.
Reverend Horace Winslow was dismissed April 28th, 1881. He was succeeded by Reverend Samuel R. Free, who served the church as a stated supply from November 6th, 1881, to May, 1888. He was followed by Reverend Andrew J. Sullivan, who was installed as pastor in September, 1888.
The first Baptist church of Willimantic was organized in the house of Reverend Chester Tilden, the first pastor, and under whose labors it was gathered. Its constituent members were Mr. W. M. Barrows, Miss Esther Smith, Charles Thompson, Samuel Barrows, William Barrows, Elisha Whiting, Eliphalet Martin, Rescome Coggshall, George Byrne, Mahelable F. Barrows, Betsey Barrows, Dura Whiting, Armina Martin, Susan Coggshall, Lydia Smith, Esther Smith, Hannah White, Laura Balcam, Clarinda Parker and Mary Lawrence. The church was organized October 20th, 1827. At first the school houses were used for meetings, but a spirit of opposition arose and they were debarred this privilege. With aid from abroad they succeeded in building a meeting house on the site at present occupied. The site was purchased of Alfred Howes, and Messrs. Reed, Hardin and Fenton, of Mansfield, were contracted with to erect the church. The building, being completed, was dedicated May 27th, 1829. A Sabbath school was immediately organized. Samuel Barrows, Jr., and Eliphalet Martin were elected deacons. The following ministers have served the church from the beginning to the present time: Chester Tilden, 1827-31; Alfred Gates, January to April, 1831; Alva Gregory, 1831-34; Benajah Cook, 1834-40; John B. Guild, 1840-45; L. W. Wheeler, 1845-477; Thomas Dowling, 1847-49; Henry Bromley, 1850-51; Cyrus Miner, 1851-62; Henry R. Knapp, 1853-54; Edward Bell, 1854-57; Jabez S. Swan, 1867-59; E. D. Bentley, 1859-66; E. S. Wheeler, 1866-67; G. R. Darrow, 1868-69; P. S. Evans, 1869-73; W. A. Fenn, 1873-78; George W. Holman, 1879-87; M. G. Coker, 1888 to the present time. The following are the present officers: A. H. Fuller, William B. Hawkins, J. Ellison, E. S. Sumner, deacons; William N. Potter, secretary; J. Hawkins, treasurer. The membership has reached about four hundred. The church is a neat and commodious building, which, with the lot it stands upon, is valued at twenty-five thousand dollars. Connected with the church is a vigorous Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor and a large and flourishing Sunday school.
At an obscure date-probably about 1825-a Methodist family, Jonathan Fuller, his wife and two daughters, lived in a house then standing near the present stone bridge over the Willimantic, they being the only family of that denomination in the place. They held family class meetings for some time before anyone else joined them. Mr. Fuller was formerly a Cong-reg-a-‘ tionalist, but had become a Methodist and was appointed the first class leader in 1828. He brought the first minister of the Methodist Episcopal church into Willimantic. This was the Reverend Gardner, who, about 1826, came and preached in the West school house. From this time forward preaching was had in the school houses with some approach to regularity, by ministers of some of the neighboring circuits. The first Methodist meeting house was finished in- September, 1829, and it stood on the spot now occupied by the Atwood Block on Main street, opposite Railroad street. About the same time the church was organized with between thirty and forty members, mostly females, and Reverend Horace Moulton became its pastor. The site of the house of worship was purchased for $125, and the building cost $700. This building was afterward removed to Church street, and is now (1889) standing near the new Methodist church on that street.
The church was in 1829 made a Sabbath appointment on the Tolland circuit, which was then known as a ” six weeks’ circuit.” Some of the difficulties which met the church in its early struggles are suggested by the following passage from the records “Judge Hurlburt lent the means to pay the debts of the church, and at times one or two men were required to keep off rowdies, who whistled, stamped and hallooed and put cayenne pepper on the stove.” The present church edifice was begun in the summer of 1850, during the ministry of Reverend Jonathan Cady. It was dedicated in March, 1851, with a .sermon by Reverend Doctor Stephen Olin. Its cost was about $7,000. The pew rents were applied to liquidate the debt, and the ministry was supported by subscription. The debt was further reduced by keeping boarders at the Willimantic camp meeting, which began in 1860, and the indebtedness was finally removed under the pastorate of George W. Brewster in 1864. The church was remodeled and very much improved, and a parsonage was built on Prospect street, under the pastorate of Edgar F. Clark, in 1868 and 1869. It was enlarged in 1882 at a cost of $7,000. In 1886 a handsome pipe organ was placed in it. The membership of the church in 1889 is 360. The successive pastors of this church have been: Horace Moulton and Daniel Fletcher, 182S; H. Moulton, H. Ramsdell and P. Townsend, 1829; E. Beebe and George May, 1830; J. E. Raisley, 1831; Hebron Vincent, 1832; K. Ward, 1833; Mosely Dwight, 1834; Philetus Green, 1836; S. Leonard, 1837; H. Horbush, 1837; K.-Ward, 1838; Reuben Ransom, 1839;, Pardon T. Kenney, 1840; A. C. Wheat, 1842; F. W. Bill, 1843; Charles Noble, 1844; John Cooper, 1845; Daniel Dorchester, 1847; A. Robinson, 1848; Jonathan Cady, 1850; N. P. Alderman, 1852; George W. Rogers, 1854; Charles Morse, 1855; William Purington, 1857; John Levesy, 1859; William Kellen, 1860; E. B. Bradford, 1862; George W. Brewster, 1864; Edgar F. Clark, 1867, George E. Reed, 1870; Charles S. McReading, 1872; Shadrach Leader, 1873; George W. Miller, 1874; S. J. Carroll, 1875; William T. Worth, 1878; A. S. Church, 1879; S. McBurney, 1881; D. P. Leavitt, 1883; Eben Tirrell, 1886; C. W. Holden, 1887. The dates given in the foregoing list denote the beginning of each pastorate.
The first colony of Irish Catholics came to locate in Willimantic in the summer of 1847. But few representatives of that nation were then living here, and the little band of twenty foreigners, with but little of this world’s goods to encumber them, was visited with much curiosity, and their coming was the subject of considerable excitement. They came at the instance of the Windham Manufacturing Company, who sent for five persons, but their call was responded to by four times that number. The greater part of them, however, were employed by the company, while the balance readily found work at the other factories in the village. This was the opening wedge of Irish labor, which has grown by frequent accessions to be one of the most powerful elements in the industry of this community.
The first mass celebrated in this village was in the kitchen in the basement of the Lathrop house, on the corner of Washington and Main streets, at which Reverend Father Brady, of Middletown, officiated. The first public Catholic service was held in Franklin Hall, in the fall of 1849, by the same pastor, and was witnessed by a large number of our citizens. Services in this hall, and at Brainerd Hall, were kept up at intervals of one or -two months, Reverend Father McCab, of Danielsonville, having charge during a part of the time up to 1858, when the Baptist society, being about to build a new church, sold their old edifice to the Catholics, and it was moved to Jackson street. At that time there were eight families of communicants residing in the village, and to show the pecuniary circumstances of the society it is only necessary to state that an attachment, for a debt of ,only a few dollars, was served on their` building before the mover’s blocks were taken from it. The first pastor was Reverend H. I. Riley; the second, Reverend Daniel Mullen, later of St. Mary’s church, Norwich. In May, 1863, the present much beloved pastor, Reverend Florimonde De Bruycker, assumed the charge of this society, and under his ministrations the church has been most signally prospered. For the first few years but -one service was held each Sunday, the-pastor’s charge embracing Baltic, Stafford and Coventry; but with the building of churches and the settlement of resident pastors in the two first named villages, he has been enabled for many years to devote his time principally to this people.
The old church was enlarged, refitted and repaired, but the addition of a large number of French Canadian Catholics to the population, and steady increase from other sources, rendered the old building wholly inadequate for the needs of the congregation, and in 1872 steps were taken toward the erection of a new building. The work was pushed vigorously forward, and in May, 1873, the old church was removed to Valley street and on its site the foundation walls for the. new were commenced. On Sunday, August 17th, the corner stone was laid amid imposing ceremonies, Bishop McFarland being present, and Reverend Father Walsh, of St. Peter’s church, Hartford, delivering an eloquent sermon. The contributions received on that day amounted to $3,000. The church, having been completed, was dedicated November 26th, 1874. The style is Gothic, with nave and aisles, and a clear story supported by clustered columns and arcade arches. From the basement walls, which are formed of very handsome granite, the church is built of. brick. The size on the ground is 156 by 64 feet; the height of side walls, 24 feet, and height from floor to peak of roof, 66 feet. A graceful tower on the northwest corner is surmounted with a spire, the cross on the top of which is 172 feet above the curbstone. The audience room has fourteen double gothic memorial windows of cathedral stained glass, and other parts of the edifice have- thirty-five smaller windows. The building is an elegant one in all its details of finish and furnishing, and has a seating capacity of one thousand five hundred. The church is known as St. Joseph’s church.
The first Episcopalian service in Willimantic of which we have any knowledge was held a little over twenty-five years ago. A mission was started soon after by the late Dr. Hallam, and by him conducted for several years. The mission was held in several different halls and its work was prosperous. The last hall occupied was Dunham Hall, belonging to the Linen Company. Reverend Lemuel H. Wells, now of Tacoma, Washington, was the first permanent missionary rector. – During his incumbency effort was made to obtain a building, and under his leadership it was carried to a successful termination. A building which was no longer required by the parish at Central `Tillage was donated to this locality and the people here bore the cost of taking it down and removing it to this place. Here it was rebuilt and improved and ornamented. This was done in the year 1883. Previous to this time services were sustained by different rectors of the archdeaconry located at contiguous points. The resident rectors have been: Lemuel H. Wells from December, 1882, to May, 1883; R. C. Searing from June, 1883, to March, 1886, and H. B. Jefferson from May 1st, 1886, to the present time. The lot on which the church stands was donated by the late Mrs. Eunice R. Heap. The part of the lot on which the parsonage stands was obtained of the same estate. The parsonage, built and owned by the diocese, was completed in the fall of 1887, on the church lot corner of Valley and Walnut streets, and sufficient land remains on the plot for a site for a larger edifice at some future time.
The number of baptisms under the auspices of this church has reached one hundred and seventy-four. The present number of communicants is sixty-eight. A Sunday school has been maintained since the mission was established. The present number in it is about seventy, with an average attendance of forty to fifty. The church building is valued at $2,000, the lot at $2,000 and the parsonage at $3,200. With reference to the benefactress of this church, whose name has been mentioned, a local paper has the following tribute
” Mrs. Eunice R., relict of the late Geo. P. Heap, and an old resident of this village, died at her home on Main street Saturday morning at the advanced age of 86 years. Mrs. Heap was born in East Hampton, the youngest of a family of nine children, all of whom are now dead, and was the daughter of Dr. John Richmond. Early in life she married Dr. Smith, a student in her father’s office, by whom she had one child, Prudence, who became the wife of the late Daniel Lord. After the death of Dr. Smith she wedded David Kellogg and subsequently was, united to the late George R. Heap. She was a woman of strong individuality, sterling integrity, always just and of unalterable decision. She was not illiberal and gave where she was inclined. The Episcopal church is indebted to her for the free gift of the lot on which the parsonage is to stand.”
Spiritualists have been organized and actively at work here for something like thirty years. A building was erected on Bank street in 1867 and dedicated in February, 1868. This stands nearly opposite the rear of the Hooker House. It is a substantial, plain structure, containing vestry and audience rooms and is capable of –seating three to four hundred persons. It is called Excelsior Hall. The society is regularly incorporated under the title of the ” First Spiritualist Society of Willimantic.” Its living membership at the present time is about forty. During all these years lectures have been maintained on – Sundays with more or less regularity. A Sunday school, called the ” Children’s Progressive Lyceum,” was organized before the house was built and has been maintained ever since, its present number being about forty. These Sunday lectures are by different lecturers, ladies and gentlemen, none resident, and some are mediums while some are not. Lectures have been had nearly every Sunday during the past year, about one thousand dollars being expended in the meantime for that purpose.
Mission Hall is the name applied to a meeting of a religious character which is regularly maintained in a hall in Willimantic Savings Institute building. The hall is capable of seating perhaps one hundred and fifty to two hundred people. The tone of the society is severely orthodox, including anti-masonic and anti-tobacco sentiments. The movement was started about four or five years ago, being headed by Mr. John A. Conant, and it has some forty or fifty attendants upon religious services which are held every Sunday.
One of the institutions for which Willimantic is noted throughout a wide circle of country is the annual camp meeting held here. This attracts many thousand visitors from all parts of the land. From small beginnings this has become a movement of considerable magnitude. The first land for a camp ground was purchased in 1860 by leading Methodists and conveyed the following year to the trustees of the Willimantic Camp Meeting Association, which meanwhile had been duly formed and organized on a legal basis. Other purchases were subsequently made so that now the ground comprises about thirty acres on a sloping hillside, covered- with natural growth and commanding an extensive view, with an audience circle capable of seating five thousand people, streets regularly laid out, tents, cottages, boarding house and every convenience for accommodating the great multitude who annually enjoy its esthetic and spiritual privileges. Camp meeting, as the years go by, has been gradually assuming a quiet season, much in contrast with the hurly-burly and boisterous demonstrations of years ago. And it must be said that on this account it commands the respect and favor of the order loving community in a degree corresponding to this change. No longer are the grounds the rendezvous of reckless and pleasure-bent people who care nothing for religion, but they are now the scene of undisturbed devotional services and are productive of much good. Perhaps no better idea can be given of the working of this institution than to quote some extracts from the report of the camp meeting of 1887, which is before us. The report is made up under date of Wednesday, August 31st:
” The annual meeting of the Willimantic Camp Meeting Association was held last Wednesday afternoon and resulted in the choice of the following officers: President, the Reverend Edward Edson, of Willimantic; vice-president, the Reverend J. H. James, of Rockville; secretary, the Reverend C. A. Stenhouse,. of Thompsonville; treasurer, Huber Clark, Esq., of Willimantic; trustee for five years, C. H. Parker, Esq., of Rockville; executive committee for three years, R. N. Stanley, Esq., David Gordon, of Hazardville, and the Reverend Eben Tirrell, of Niantic.
” Thursday opened-bright and beautiful, and by ten o’clock the grove was in a suitable condition for an out-door meeting, and the congregation sang a hymn of praise to God for the sunshine. Reverend Henry Tuckley, of Providence, preached the morning sermon. During the sermon a large company gathered from every direction, and the afternoon service opened with something like an old-time audience. The veteran Harry Wilson was present and led the singing, which put new life into this . branch of the service. The Reverend E. M. Taylor preached an eloquent sermon. In the evening, Reverend E. Tirrell, of Niantic, preached to a large and attentive audience.
” At the business meeting on Wednesday, the question of holding services on Sunday next year was fully discussed, and opinions both for and against were expressed. A motion to modify arrangements so as to prevent carriages coming on or going from the grounds on Sunday, and to stop sales on Sunday, even of boarding tickets, etc., met with favor, but was finally tabled until to-day by common consent. The matter was taken up again at the business meeting Friday afternoon, and it was voted to hold the camp meeting over Sunday next year as usual, but with restrictions. The gates will be closed against all teams. The restaurant will be closed, and no persons will be allowed to buy boarding tickets on that day. Estimated by attendance or by conversions, ‘this has been one of the most remarkable meetings on a ground already noted for remarkable meetings. Several prominent preachers say that the preaching this year has excelled in variety, spirituality and results. One who has seen great camp meetings west of the Allegheny mountains says he never saw a Sunday afternoon service followed by such a number of seekers after salvation as were in the anxious seats Sunday afternoon.
“Many of the campers were making preparations for departure during the day, and the camp wore an aspect of coming desertion which always carries with it an element of sadness. Friends were parting with friends, brethren with brethren, some never to meet again on the shores of time. The meeting has been a very quiet and orderly one throughout, and will be one long remembered by those who have had the good fortune to be among the regular attendants.”
Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889