Published July 08. 2013 4:00AM Updated July 13. 2013 10:23AM
New London - At the Second Congregational Church's first Sunday worship of the month and the second-to-last in its longtime home at 45 Broad St., deacon JoAnn Barrows, breezy in a blue Hawaiian shirt, reassured the parishioners that it would be a short service on this hot day.
The congregation will see its last Sunday worship here next weekend, ending 178 years of calling New London home. The congregation has called this church home since fire destroyed its original building in 1868.
In May, the congregation voted to transfer ownership of the building at Broad and Hempstead streets to the Miracle Temple Church of New London; and last month, to share the space of Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Waterford.
The church's other tenants will stay at least through the end of the lease, which runs through next year, and the Clarke Memorial AME Zion Church will continue to meet there.
The decision to leave came after waning membership and a long financial struggle left the congregation with little choice, and after a failed merger attempt with the First Congregational Church just a few blocks away at State and Union streets.
Over the humming of the little white fans perched in the sills of the thrown-open stained glass windows, the church's choir director and organist Allyn Donath led the couple dozen parishioners scattered among the pews in the first-Sunday tradition - singing "Best wishes, God bless you" to the tune of "Happy Birthday" to those with a July birthday.
Mamie Rutherford stood with three other women to be serenaded.
Rutherford came to New London by way of Georgia and Arkansas 45 years ago when her husband accepted a job as an economics professor at the Coast Guard Academy. They looked at four different area churches before settling here, where all four of their children would be baptized.
"We came here and didn't look anymore," she said. "We said, 'This is it.'"
As worship began Sunday with Psalm 23 - "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" - the brave faces here abounded, including Donath's. Like her mother, she was born and raised in New London, and has been a member of the church for 54 years.
"I look at it as a new opportunity," she said.
Barrows, who led the service with several other deacons in the absence of Rev. Matt McCaffrey, who will return from vacation for his congregation's final worship here, said it was a difficult decision to make, but a necessary one.
"I think we're all sad that we're leaving," she said. "But we're looking forward to a new home with new friends."
Barrows' husband, Winston - who was baptized and went to Sunday school here, and who tells a story of the church kicking out his great-grandfather for failing to pay his pew dues - said one thing he will not miss is the building's many maintenance woes, including what he called "eternal leaks."
"Our faith is our faith wherever we practice it," he said.
Another plus: the new building will have air conditioning.
Wearing an elegant white church hat, Church Council Co-Chairwoman Diantha McMorrow said that the building's history will remain in the care of the Miracle Temple, which will preserve the parishioners' beloved memorial plaques.
McMorrow echoed the Barrows' optimism.
"It's time for a change, and we're pleased about it," she said. "It's a new beginning and it's exciting."
Henry Curtis, a parishioner here for 65 years, remembers when the pews were packed to the brim in the sanctuary that can hold 500. As the Sunday school superintendent, he said he once oversaw a student body of 400. Now, you can count the Sunday school children on two hands.
Curtis came to New London in 1956 after getting out of the Navy. He and his wife joined the church a couple of years later. His three small children went to Sunday school while he and his wife worshiped on Sunday mornings.
He's not happy about the move, he said - it just won't be the same. But there was simply no choice.
"When the inevitable comes," he said, "you have to accept it."
The church's last service in the Broad Street building will be held Sunday at 10 a.m., followed by a car caravan to its new home at Crossroads Presbyterian Church. The first service there will be Sunday, July 21, at 11 a.m.