In 1630, 140 men and women boarded the Mary & John, one of the 17 Winthrop ships, and set sail for America with the intention of finding religious freedom in the New World. In 1635, these pilgrims, led by the Reverend John Warham, took a leap of faith and traveled from their established home in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to live in Windsor, Connecticut where they had heard tales of fertile land. Little did they know, they would begin a community rich in history that has been going strong for 389 years and counting: the First Church in Windsor.
Members of the oldest continuous congregational church in the United States gather every Sunday for worship at the current meetinghouse, a white building that lies on 107 Palisado Avenue. The church has a Greek-style portico front with four pillars and two grand, ruby red doors. Inside are six rows of slip pews, a wrap-around balcony, and stained glass windows. Service runs from 10 am to 11 am most of the year, except for the summer season when members attend from 9:30 am to 10:30 am.
The church’s goal has remained about the same since its creation in England. “The role of the church is to help its members discover their gifts and use them in response to the needs of a troubled world.” Pastor Emeritus Richard Hanna Huleatt once said. This objective has been evident throughout the church’s history. For instance, after World War II, the church assisted in sponsoring a refugee family from East Germany, Emma and Werner Muck, along with their three children, giving them a place to stay on the second floor of the Pierson house, a building on the church campus. The church has also been active in seeking social justice. Their website (fcwucc.org) states, “Our Open and Affirming Committee helps plan town-wide Conversations on Race and supports the [Gender and Sexuality] Alliance at Windsor High School.” As a part of the United Church of Christ since 1961, the congregation is open and affirming to members and visitors of all walks of life. Associate Pastor Adrienne Armes said it is important to her that the church provides a place of worship and support to anyone who needs it, including visitors who haven’t made the decision to become a member but would still like to see what the church is about.
The church is also committed to being a part of the community. Members have the opportunity to volunteer in the Parish Caring Ministries of the church and help out their Windsor neighbors. Members can visit older Windsor residents who are homebound or living in nursing facilities and might not be able to attend church every Sunday. They also can provide transportation to church for those who are unable to drive themselves, and can cook and freeze meals for those in the community who have suffered a loss or are in need.
Going forward, Associate Pastor Armes aims to keep the church true to its roots and provide support to anyone who needs it, while making it an interesting place to worship. Having served in relatively young churches in Arizona and California prior to coming to Connecticut, she remarked, “this church has a really cool history,” citing the journey of 140 Protestants from England 389 years ago. While most services are traditional in order to manifest this, comprised of songs, prayers, scripture readings, and a sermon, every time a month has a fifth Sunday, such as the 26th of January this year, she leads a “contemporary worship” in which she plays guitar to songs, accompanied by talented musicians from the congregation, as prayers and words to songs are projected onto a screen in the front of the church for attendees to see. Members look forward to these Sundays, as it’s a way to combine the ideas so important to the pilgrims who founded the church, as well as 21st-century technology and songs. These services draw in the youth of the church who will be the ones to continue the almost four-century-long legacy of the First Church in Windsor.
When the 140 men and women boarded the William & Mary to set sail for Massachusetts 389 years ago, they took this leap of faith in order to gain religious freedom from the Church of England so that they could practice their faith in the way that seemed just to them, with ideas of helping the community and being an open place for worship. Now, in 2019, the church continues to be an active part in its community, helping those in need. At the same time, members and staff find it important to include the youth of the church and draw in new members to keep the church going for a long time to come as a testament to the strong faith that those 140 brave souls had so long ago.