“Our Church, how tall and strong it stands
Built and kept for us by many hands,
It now is ours, its cherished trust to hold
That God’s Word and Will to others may be told.”
….Gordon D. Briggs
The earliest records show that the first church was a crude building in the vicinity of the former Hapgood School. It was built on the north bank of Mill River and existed for about three years from 1737 to 1740. This was the first house of worship in Athol.
A safer location on East Hill, now Pleasant Street, was the site of the second meeting house in 1741. It was during the 30 years that this building was used that the Rev. James Humphreys served as pastor.
Around 1773, a third meeting house was built on the uptown common and stood for 54 years before being destroyed by fire. After the loss of this building, the people built the beautiful building in 1828 which still stands at the corner of Main and Liberty Streets and is the present home of the Athol Historical Society.
Rev. Humphreys was followed by Rev. Joseph Estabrook and their two pastorates covered the period from 1750 to 1830. It was at the close of Rev. Estabrook’s ministry that, due to theological discussions and disagreements, a split developed in the congregation. Those who held to the original faith of the church left the Meetinghouse and formed the Evangelical Society of Athol in October 1830 and so our present church began. In 1833, the present church was built.
During the ministry of the Rev. Beckwith (1831 – 1834) there was quite an increase in attendance and membership due to a period of religious awakening, climaxed when Evangelist Horatio Foote conducted meetings for awhile.
The building became too small to hold all those who wished to attend. In 1838 a larger vestry was built over the audience room “in the roof of the Meetinghouse” according to the records. This larger room was adequate for their needs for about 20 years until finally the building was raised and the present vestry, or Fellowship Hall, was built underneath. The first pipe organ was installed in the singers’ gallery in the rear of the church. It took the place of stringed instruments. It was customary at that time for the congregation to turn and face the rear of the church for the singing of hymns.
Also, at this time, the custom was to hold morning and afternoon services with time out between for lunch and sociability. Later the afternoon service was changed to the evening, conforming to the changing ideas of that day and age.
Rev. John Norton was the leader of the Church during the Civil War years (1861-1865). There were many important changes made in the church structure during this time. The whole front of the church was changed and the steeple was built to replace the old belfry.
In 1879 a “town” clock was installed in the steeple of the Church. Donations for the clock were collected from the citizens of the upper village by George W. Rickey, who maintained the clock for nearly 50 years.
The pastors during this first 50 years of the Evangelical Church were:
- Reverend B. B. Beckwith
- Reverend James F. Warner
- Reverend R. N. Chipman
- Reverend John F. Norton
- Reverend Temple Cutler
- Reverend Henry A. Blake
By the end of the first 50 years the Church membership had gradually increased to 282.
1883 to 1888
Reverend H. W. Stebbins. The most notable event during his pastorate was the establishment of the Young Peoples’ Society of Christian Endeavor in 1887.
1890 to 1896
Reverend Edwin S. Gould. A kindly Christian gentleman, loved by all, fulfilled his high calling as Pastor and Teacher during his 6 years in Athol. Mrs. Gould is credited with getting the various Women’s Organizations of the church merged into one – “The Ladies Union.”
1897 to 1904
Reverend Rolla G. Bugbee was a graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Divinity School.
In 1900 the Church was invited to participate in the 150th anniversary of the First Church Unitarian of Athol. Rev. Bugbee gave the address. These two churches, formerly one and the same, again joined hands for this important event.
On May 1, 1902 another long-standing custom was changed when the church accepted an individual communion service from the Young Peoples’ Society of Christian Endeavor, thus giving up the Common Cup which had previously been used. This set of 2 pitchers and 8 common cups, which was the gift of Deacon Goddard in 1870, are on display in the Narthex.
1904 to 1905
Reverend Warren J. Moulton was a very scholarly gentleman who left after just one year to become the head of the Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine. He had many degrees bestowed upon him at the Bangor Seminary until his retirement when he became President Emeritus.
1905 to 1919
Reverend Charles O. Eames. One of the first things he did was organize a young people’s choir that sang at the Sunday night services. He also organized a Men’s Club which held monthly meetings which featured various programs followed by a lunch. In 1915 a new organ was installed in the front center of the Sanctuary at a cost of $2,800.00.
Mrs. Eames worked long and efficiently in the primary department of the Sunday School. Her methods and songs were used for many years.
1919 to 1924
Reverend Elliot O. Foster came to the Church right after WWI.He established the first Church Council, later called the Church Cabinet. He also helped form the Religious Education Committee in 1920.
1925 to 1930
Reverend Benjamin A. Wilmott. Soon after he arrived, he organized a Girls’ Sanctuary Choir which grew to about 40 girls. This group, together with a group of adult singers, brought the quality of the church music to a very high standard which won for our church the title of “The Singing Church”.
It was during Mr. Wilmott’s pastorate that the several organizations which had previously run the church were merged and incorporated under the name of the Athol Congregational Church.
In 1929 extensive repairs and renovations were carried out. Excavations under the church gave added space for heating and lavatory purposes. It was discovered when these excavations were in progress that our church was literally founded on solid rock!
Also new stained glass windows and new lighting fixtures were installed, making the auditorium lighter. All this took about 4 months and cost $12,000.00. Church was held in the then Woman’s Club at the corner of Liberty Street and Main Street during this time.
“The100th anniversary of the erection of the church building was observed in September. The church had been organized in 1828 and the building was erected in 1830. This really was a great event in our church life and we put a great deal of preparations into its observance. One of the highlights of the program was the singing by the chorus of 100 voices under the direction of Mrs. Elizabeth White of Fitchburg. All former singers of the church who could be reached were invited to return and participate, which many of them did. Mr. Wilmont was at his best in the pulpit and the whole affair was a great success.”
“A night or two later a large social event was held in the vestry. The reception committee consisted of some of the ladies of the church appropriately dressed in the old-time costumes.” Excerpts from the diary of Leslie W. Briggs
1931 – 1945
Rev. Dr. Daniel I. Gross. – Although Dr. Gross’ pastorate was first marked by the depression years of the thirties and later by those of World War II, he kept the church at a high level of efficiency and active in all departments. Mrs. Gross kept service records of all the young men and women from the Church who responded to their country’s call in World War II.
Two noteworthy events happened in 1938 – the Church was painted and with the coming of the automobile, the old horse sheds were removed.
During the war period when it became necessary to conserve fuel and lights, the annual meetings were held in the church auditorium on Sunday afternoons, by special vote of the church.
After a period of illness, Dr. Gross passed away in September 1945. He was the only Pastor of the Church to answer the “Higher Call” while still on active duty as Pastor at the Church.
“Everyone that knew Dr. Gross spoke very highly of him as a pastor and townsman and he was a very friendly type of man. During his 15 years of service here he endeared himself to his church people and to the community.” Excerpt from the diary of Leslie W. Briggs
1945 – 1957
Rev. Leonard W. Fowler served as interim pastor briefly after the death of Dr. Gross. On December 8, 1945 he accepted the call to be the Pastor. During WWII he served in the Navy as Chaplain.
The Country Fair was organized for the first time in 1951, a tradition which has continued to the present time. Proceeds from the annual church fairs were set aside to enable a Parish House to be built.
During Rev. Fowler’s tenure more emphasis was placed on religious education, resulting in a consistent gain in enrollment in the Sunday School.
The 125th anniversary of the Church was celebrated during his tenure and the Congregation voted to join the United Church of Christ.
1957 to 1966
Reverend Arthur S. Blowen. Under Rev. Blowen’s guidance and leadership a complete renovation of the ground floor of the Church was carried out at a cost of $50,000, including a new kitchen. The Liberty Street parsonage was sold and the house at 383 Pleasant Street was purchased for $23,500 as a new parsonage.
In 1958, for the first time in the church’s history dancing was allowed in Fellowship Hall so that our young people would not leave and join other organizations where dancing was permitted as part of their social evenings. Also, it was voted that the regular Sunday morning Worship Service would be held at the hour of 10 o’clock and this is still in effect today.
The Jennie Lawton property next door to the Church was purchased to make room for parking and for the new Parish House. In 1964, the final plans were completed and the Parish House at last became a reality. It was dedicated on Sunday, March 7, 1965. Due to the Country Fairs and the pledging of the congregation, it was only necessary to borrow $50,000 to complete the building.
1967 to 1970
Reverend Harold O. Wilson. He was one of the youngest Pastors to serve the Church. He was deeply rooted in modern theology and brought to the Church an outstanding preaching ability, rarely using notes or the pulpit while preaching. Changes were made in the Worship Service and the Christian Education program during his pastorate. He had weekly programs for Sunday School teachers and provided an outstanding Youth Mission ministry.
1970 to 1978
Reverend Howard P. Horn. On January 22, 1973, a prayer service for Christian Unity was held in our church and it is noteworthy for this history because the principal speaker was the Rt. Reverend Bernard J. Flannigan, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Worcester. To this writer’s knowledge, this has been the only time in our history when a Roman Catholic Bishop has appeared in our pulpit. The service was well attended and was an Ecumenical success. Our church has frequently been a leader in helping to bring the different churches together for these types of services.
1979 to 1993
Rev. Jeffrey P. Johnson. On April 29, 1979 the Church called the Reverend Jeffrey Johnson and Ann Johnson to share in a flexible team ministry.
On January 25, 1981, we experienced the catastrophic event of having the ceiling in the Sanctuary come crashing down. The incredible thing was that it happened at approximately 10:15 AM on a Sunday morning, the one hour of the whole week when the Sanctuary is in use. However, choir members who were rehearsing heard creaking sounds and saw a crack appear in the ceiling so they cleared out and took hymn books and Bibles and whatever else they could carry. The Building Inspector was called and he was overhead checking the situation when the entire ceiling crashed down on top of the pews. Church services were underway in the parlor and they heard it happen as there was a rushing sound when the air was forced out of the Sanctuary. Work proceeded throughout the year and a rededication service of the new Sanctuary was held on Christmas Sunday 1981.
In 1985, the Deacon/Deaconesses sponsored our first photo-directory project and 175 families took part. It was considered a great success.
During Rev. Jeff Johnson’s tenure as Pastor, he was a mentor for students at Andover Newton Theological College and our church benefited with a series of Student Ministers coming to train with Rev. Johnson.
On Homecoming Sunday, 1988, we made our first attempt at making our sanctuary wheelchair accessible.
In 1989, the Board of Deacons/Deaconesses instituted the Stephen Ministries program. Also in 1989 was the forming of a handbell choir.
In 1991, finally, the work began and in spite of many unexpected problems we accomplished our goal of expanding the Parish House for more office space and Sunday School rooms, and made our church fully handicapped accessible with the addition of the lift up to the Sanctuary and handicapped bathrooms. We dedicated our new building in May with another special dedication service on September 1992 along with an Open House.
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Johnson and Pastoral Assistant Dr. Ann Searing Johnson ended their “team” ministry in June, 1993 after serving our church for 14 years.
Interim pastor Rev. Stephen Alspach accepted the call from the church and began his duties around the first of September 1993. Rev. Alspach served through 1994.
1995 – 1999
Rev. Barbara Kline-Seamon.
The Search Committee issued a call to Rev. Barbara Seamon which she accepted and was voted in by the church members. She started her Pastorate on January 15, 1995. Rev. Seamon has the distinction of being the first Woman Pastor to be called to serve the Athol Congregational Church as Pastor and Teacher. She and her family lived on a farm in Leverett, Massachusetts. On May 16, 1999, the new Memory Garden was dedicated after many fundraisers and donations by members.
Interim pastor, Rev. Mary E. Giles began serving the church in November 1999.
In June 2000, The Duke of Atholl, Scotland visited Athol along with his private army and as part of their activities, a special service called “The Kirking of the Clans” was held in our church.
2001 – 2009
Rev. Harold V. Lloyd, Jr was called and began his Pastorate October 1, 2001.
Rev. “Skip” Lloyd and Mrs. Lloyd were active with community outreach. Rev. Lloyd was instrumental in the resurgence of interfaith spirit in the community. He was the convener and host for the Athol Clergy Association meetings.
He was well known for his keen sense of humor and quick wit. He often dressed up as “Skippy the Clown for the country fair. One of his special talents was the ability to remember people’s names even though he had met that person only once.
Rev. Lloyd made it a point to call everyone in the church directory to wish them a “Happy Birthday” on their special day. Every year on his birthday, Rev. Lloyd hosted a party for the children of the church. He hired a clown and served hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.
Mrs. Lloyd started the monthly pancake breakfasts at the church and she organized a baked potato booth at the country fair. She was also very involved in all of the women’s (and other) groups at the church.
During his pastorate the Church celebrated its 175th anniversary.
2011 – present
Rev. Dr. Beverly Prestwood-Taylor. “Rev. Beverly” came to the Church as our Interim Pastor on February, 28, 2010. As interim pastor she began working with the Congregation to revise our by-laws and to come up with a vision of where we wanted the Church to be in the next few years.
The Congregation began to thrive under her leadership and we were thrilled when Rev. Beverly accepted the call as our settled pastor. She officially became our Pastor and Teacher on January 1, 2012.
Since then, our Congregation continues to grow with new members. Our Sunday School is active and expanding as more young families are coming to church. Our worship services are often filled with special music coordinated by our music director Adam Bergeron. Rev. Beverly has introduced drama in many of her sermons. Healing services are also held several times a year during worship.
She has also organized special worship services to honor the Veterans/Military in the community on special holidays. One year on Veteran’s Day she gave special recognition to the Vietnam Veterans, who never were formally recognized following that war.
Rev. Beverly also was a driving force in expanding the Church’s Missions. Under her leadership we have established a “Sister Church” relationship with a church in Chile through a program with the UCC. We also have implemented a monthly Free Community Meal and a Relay for Life Team.
Greet the dawn of each new day
As time goes winging on its way
Help fellow travelers along the road
If they falter beneath their load of care or sorrow.
All too soon the morn advances on to noon
And we must hasten ere the sun goes down to rest
And day is done.
Guide us, O Lord, until at last
The heights are gained, the dangers past
Fear not, nor dread the approaching night
At eventide there shall be light.
….Gordon D. Briggs