First Church, 1850-2024
The First Congregational Church of New London collapsed and perished unexpectedly on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 25, 2024. The building was 170 years old.
The historic church building is survived by the original First Congregational Church congregants, now a small remnant, and the members of Engaging Heaven Ministries, the owner since 2015.
First Church, as it was familiarly known, was indeed the first church founded in colonial New London. It is also survived by its longtime neighbors, including New London’s City Hall and the U.S. Post Office, along with which it anchored the city’s center.
There were no other casualties. Only one person was in the church at the time and safely escaped the collapse of the building. No other buildings were damaged, although some were closed and the occupants evacuated in the aftermath.
A spiritual, historical and visual pillar of the community, First Church was, already elevated on its downtown hill and then reaching even higher with its graceful spire. The church leaves numerous legacies of kindness and civic leadership, and many to mourn the loss of its stately presence in the heart of the city.
Among them are ordinary Sunday worshipers and people who were baptized, wedded or buried from its vaulted sanctuary. Mourners also include those who gathered daily for the breakfast that started the day with hospitality for people with few resources.
The church’s beneficiaries also number those who could look up or down State Street, from a vessel on the Thames River, or from the hills of Groton or Waterford, and see the graceful spire as an emblem of the skyline. It will be missed.
The church was built on bedrock, literally and figuratively. Its founders came right behind the founders of the city, arriving in1650. Puritan immigrants from England, they sought to build “a city on a hill” as an incentive and a symbol for a faith-based success story. By 1850, when the elders were planning their new house of worship, prosperous, pre-Civil War New London had grown up around the parcel selected 200 years earlier. Much of the rock now reduced to rubble was quarried on site for the new church.
That no one was on the sidewalk to be caught by the cascade of granite and dust that fell Thursday might strike the members of a faith congregation as divine providence. The church loomed over an intersection that had seen major changes in commerce and traffic for decades. In the 1850s, and even the 1950s, State Street would have bustled. Many could have been injured or killed, had a collapse happened in those days.
In nearby buildings and across the street were many witnesses to the sound of tumbling rock and even a video capture of the tall spire tipping back and then scooping out the main structure as it slid down. Strangely, while tons of granite fell, relatively fragile wooden framing at first survived. In the first photos of the partially hollowed-out building remained the cherrywood frame of the circular rose window, but not a shard of glass remaining.
Inspections of the ruins took place on Friday, preparatory to leveling the remaining structure. Although the city does not own the property, the administration made the only reasonable decision for public safety, to pay for the demolition now and seek reimbursement later.
Investigations may have to include examination of historical records for evidence of previous concerns about the stability of the building and anything done to address them. New London Mayor Michael Passero said all churches in the city with spires would be subject to structural inspections — one final legacy of the fallen church.
Although the building is gone, the congregations persevere. Both of the two resident First Church congregations have said they will continue to hold their respective services elsewhere, and that other houses of worship have called with generous offers of space.
In recent years, the custom of holding a Celebration of Life gathering, less structured than a traditional funeral or memorial service, has grown. Participants are invited to speak about their memories of loved ones. For First Church, the Celebration of Life has begun, as people reach out to share their sense of loss for a landmark at the heart of New London’s history and identity.
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