The Story of Our Congregation
In the mid-eighteenth century, the Congregational Church was the established church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and mandated Sunday religious worship. The Puritans living in the area now known as Paxton, settled around 1748, were residents of either Leicester or Rutland. In order to attend worship services, they had to travel long distances, in constant fear of Native American attacks, to the center of Rutland or Leicester.
After years of petitioning His Majesty King George III’s Great and General Court to form a new district so the settlers could establish a closer church and settle a gospel minister, the bill was finally passed. Governor Francis Bernard signed the legislation on February 12, 1765, authorizing the Parish and District of Paxton, containing four square miles from equal portions of Rutland and Leicester. Because the basis for establishing Paxton rested on a religious necessity, organization became an urgent matter. The first warrant was issued on February 25, 1765, followed by the first town meeting, and, by April 1, approval for building a Meetinghouse was voted. One and one-half acres were donated by Seth Snow, a portion of which became the Old Burial Ground.
Silas Bigelow was called as the first settled minister on May 4, 1767, moving to Paxton from Concord and Shrewsbury and residing on Asnebumskit Hill. He helped in the establishment of the church and was much admired during his short ministry, dying in 1769 at only 30 years of age. Worship services were held in nearby homes until September 3, 1767, when construction of the Meetinghouse was completed, on the Common near where the flag pole now stands. It served as both a religious and municipal center.
In the 1830s, separation of church and state became prevalent, and, on July 14, 1830, the church severed its connection with the town and became the First Parish Church of Paxton. Discussions about moving the Meetinghouse to its present location began in 1834. The town paid $500 to move and repair it, build a belfry, and hang a bell, provided the town would be permitted to conduct business in the building. The move was completed in 1835. A steeple, vestibule, gallery and basement were added, and a 700-pound Paul Revere bell was brought from Boston by oxcart. In 1850, the Masonic clock that hangs in the sanctuary was purchased. The basement was used for municipal purposes until the town hall was built in 1888.
The First Parish Church of Paxton was disbanded in 1894, and the church was incorporated as the First Congregational Church of Paxton. In 1896, Eliza Howe willed her home at 16 West Street to be used as a parsonage for the church, and the chandelier that still graces the sanctuary was given by Deacon Edward Kendall of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The twentieth century brought continuing growth – and natural disasters: the steeple was destroyed by hurricane in 1938, and the front of the church and the pipe organ were extensively damaged by fire in May, 1969. Repairs were completed soon after each event. Major additions and renovations were made in 1957 and 1988, including a chair lift to facilitate handicapped accessibility. The Grove Street parsonage was purchased in 1965.
Town and Church Timeline
1765 - Parish and Town established. Four square miles taken equally from portions of Rutland and Leicester. One and One-half acres were donated by Seth Snow on which to build the Meetinghouse, a portion of which became the Old Burial Ground.
1767 - Silas Bigelow called as the first settled minister. Meetinghouse was completed on the Common near where the flag pole now stands. It was the religious and municipal center.
1830 - First Parish Church of Paxton was established, separating from the Town.
1835 - Meetinghouse was moved to its present location. The Town paid to move and repair the building, build a belfry and hang a bell provided they were permitted to conduct business in the building. A steeple, vestibule, gallery and basement were added and a 700pound Paul Revere bell was brought from Boston by oxcart.
1891 - Tower clock installed by and is still maintained by the Town.
1894 - First Parish Church disbanded; First Congregational Church of Paxton incorporated
1896 - West Street home donated for parsonage, Chandelier that still graces the sanctuary was donated by a Deacon.
1938 - Steeple destroyed by hurricane
1957 - First addition built
1965 - Grove Street parsonage purchased
1969 - Fire extensively damaged the front of the church and pipe organ.
1988 - Second addition built; existing space renovated
2015 - 250th anniversary celebration
2016 - Reverend Jane Willan called as the first woman minister of First Congregational Church of Paxton
Glimpses of the Early Church
The safety of the parishioners was a main concern during the beginning years; often, the local militia escorted parishioners to church. Holes to allow shooting at attackers still exist near the base of the tower clock.
Men and women sat in separate sections, called “gendered spaces,” and used separate staircases. Social status was indicated by ownership of a designated pew, the closer the pew to the altar, the more important the person. Pews were reserved for slaves at the far corners of the upper balcony, the farthest point from the altar. The pew in the upper right corner remains today.
Sunday services were much longer than they are today, often lasting up to four hours. The minister used an hourglass, which was turned over several times, as sermons lasted two-to-three hours. A tything man kept people awake, employing a long pole with a brass knocker on one end to rap sleeping males and a rabbit’s foot or feather on the other end to awaken sleeping females. During the winter months, foot stoves were brought to services, and women carried hot stones in their muffs. The minister preached in overcoat and mittens.
Bells were an important regulator of early life. For example, the Gabriel Bell woke the people, and the Sermon Bell announced the time for church services. The sexton rang the curfew at nine o’clock each evening and tolled the Passing Bell three times to mark a death, with subsequent tolls for each year of the deceased person’s age. Other bells tolled other actions.