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    Friday, April 19, 2024

    Parishioners remember First Congregational Church as ‘a beacon of beauty and comfort’

    Gay Buths, a former secretary at the First Congregational Church, watches demolition of the site in downtown New London on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. The church’s steeple collapsed onto the structure’s roof unexpectedly in late January, sparking a massive emergency response and a full demolition of the structure. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Gay Buths, who worked in the 1990s as a church secretary, is pictured here in May 1994 on the scaffolding platform of the First Congregational Church during a construction project. (Photo courtesy of Gay Buths)
    Ellyn Peabody gives a recital at the First Congregational Church in the early 1980s. (Photo courtesy of the Peabody family)
    Mamie Bauduccio-Rock, a retreat leader, reads a story to children in the 1990s during the Epiphany Festival of Candlelight and Praise at the First Congregational Church, also known as the First Church of Christ, in New London.
    Mamie Bauduccio-Rock shares stories about her time at the First Congregational Church during an interview at The Day’s office in New London on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Holly Anderson Camerota talks Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, about her mother, Mary M. Anderson, who worked at First Congregational Church in New London. The church collapsed Jan. 25, 2024. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    A poem about First Congregational Church by Holly Anderson Camerota’s mother, Mary M. Anderson. Anderson worked at the First Congregational Church in New London. The church collapsed Jan. 25, 2024. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    A newspaper clipping of Holly Anderson Camerota’s mother, Mary M. Anderson, becoming editor of the Southeastern Connecticut Arts Council. Anderson worked at the First Congregational Church in New London. The church collapsed Jan. 25, 2024. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Jeannie Miller Bergamo at her home in Niantic, on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A photo from Jeannie Miller Bergamo’s baptism day, March 21, 1948. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Photos from Jeannie Miller Bergamo’s wedding at the First Congregational Church of New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals of the First Congregational Church, left, greets Chuck Sharp, center, and Hildy Zeigler, from St. James Church, as they pass by on their "Ashes to Go" wanderings in downtown New London on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (The Day file photo)
    Florence Rollins poses for a portrait at her home in Groton on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Her father was custodian at First Congregational Church in the early 1950s, and she helped him clean the sanctuary. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Florence Rollins’ photo of her brother William Starkweather’s wedding to Shirley Sherman in the 1950s at the First Congregational Church in New London. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Alan McNeely, president of The McNeely Organ Co., talks about the organ at the First Congregational Church in New London. The church collapsed Jan. 25, 2024. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    The custodian’s house of the former First Congregational Church in New London on Union Street in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Florence Rollins with her mother, Geraldine Emma Starkweather, and siblings outside the former parish house of the First Congregational Church in New London on Union Street in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Family members enjoying dinner in the custodian’s house of the First Congregational Church in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Homer Starkweather Sr., custodian of the First Congregational Church of New London in the custodian’s house on Union Street in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Activities in the First Congregational Church of New London’s parish house on Union Street in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Flowers on the altar of the First Congregational Church in New London in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Activities in the First Congregational Church’s parish house on Union Street in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Activities in the First Congregational Church’s parish house on Union Street in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Caroling outside the First Congregational Church in New London in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Caroling outside the First Congregational Church in New London in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Activities outside the First Congregational Church in New London in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Kent Sistare practices playing the organ at the First Congregational Church in New London in the 1950s. (Photo provided by Florence Rollins)
    Joyce Finn’s parents, James W. Wadlow Jr. and Margaret Wadlow, who joined the First Congregational Church of New London when Joyce was born, are pictured here in the 1990s. (Courtesy of Joyce Finn)

    New London ― The First Congregational Church in New London was a place that held memories for many residents of southeastern Connecticut over the decades.

    It was a place where they gathered for church services, community meals, baptisms, weddings and concerts, and where they started jobs, met friends and welcomed people. After the steeple collapse on Jan. 25, residents shared their memories of the church where services were held for both the First Congregational Church and Engaging Heaven Ministries, which bought the building in 2015.

    Helping out

    While in junior high school in the 1950s, Florence Rollins’ Saturday routine was to help her father clean “every nook and cranny” of the church’s sanctuary.

    Her father, Homer Starkweather Sr., was the church custodian, and the family lived in the former custodian’s house, next to the former parish house on Union Street, where the post office parking lot now is.

    Rollins, now a Groton resident, said it was her pride to help clean the sanctuary. Sometimes as she cleaned, she heard the organist practicing.

    She enjoyed being in the sanctuary: “It was just so ornate and just beautiful as a young child to see,” she said.

    Rollins said her father had the more arduous task of taking care of the Parish House; he was meticulous and inspected the sanctuary to make sure she didn’t rush through the cleaning.

    Rollins remembers walking down the long church aisle as a bridesmaid in the wedding of one of her brothers, William Starkweather. She recalls admiring the church while standing on the corner of State and Union streets and waiting for her mother, Geraldine Emma Starkweather, to get off the bus from her job as a bookkeeper at Ideal Linen Service in Hodges Square.

    Poets and church secretaries

    Waterford resident Holly Anderson Camerota said in the 1960s, when her brother went to college and she was in middle school, her mother, Mary M. Anderson, took a part-time job as secretary at the church.

    That began Mary M. Anderson’s presence in New London, a city she loved, and she and a friend a couple of years later started the New London Stenographic and Mailing Service. An avid reader of “A History of New London” by Frances Manwaring Caulkins, Mary M. Anderson, working in the heart of the city, wrote a series of poems about its landmarks that she printed in her ”Typed Topics,” monthly newsletter.

    Camerota shared a poem written about the church by her mother, who gazed at it from her office on State Street:

    “We must rebuild the meeting house,

    Historic records say

    A larger one than built before

    For folks to come and pray.

    Then when the people all agreed,

    They split the granite rock

    And built a stronger edifice

    To stand the storm and shock.

    This monument exemplifies

    The Master's ardent search -

    Who say they that I am? (Matthew: 16)

    Then pleased with Peter's answer -

    On this rock I build my church.“

    ‘The best view in town’

    Waterford resident Gay Buths also worked as a church secretary. She said her first job after having children and moving to southeastern Connecticut in the 1990s helped her integrate into the community.

    “It was a busy office, and people would stop in to chat,“ said Buths, who did the final run for the church’s monthly newsletter that many people would help collate.

    She remembers the kitchen being full of people chopping onions and potatoes in preparation for the church’s well-attended clam chowder luncheons.

    In May 1994, when a team of people worked on the church, she was invited to stand on the scaffolding platform, next to the clock, and look out at the sweeping views of the Thames River and Long Island Sound.

    “It was spectacular,” Buths said, calling it “the best view in town.”

    She said that was just one example of how the people she met through the church were very welcoming.

    In 1996, Buths got a job at Connecticut College. After she retired, she took training at Blissworks yoga studio to become a yoga teacher and could look out the window during the training and see the church.

    “I would just look over and think of all the people I knew there and who were gone, and I just had very fond memories of it,” she said.

    A welcoming church

    The Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals, who served from 2017 until 2021 as the co-pastor at First Congregational Church ― sometimes referred to as First Church of Christ in New London ― remembers during Easter service in 2017, the congregation was singing the opening hymn of “In the Garden” when an older woman with a walker came into the sanctuary with her adult daughter. Everyone stopped singing and ran over to give her hugs and greet her.

    The woman, a long-term church member named Louise who had been home-bound for a long time, was brought to church by her daughter, who was in town, Ofner-Seals said.

    After someone suggested singing the hymn again and someone else suggested starting the service again, the church members went back to their seats, did the call to worship again and sang the first hymn again.

    Ofner-Seals said the church started the service again because the woman they cared so much about had arrived.

    She said that’s the beauty of a small church: those moments happen all the time and show how much the people care about each other.

    Ofner-Seals said the church’s location was a gift. People wandering into the beautiful landmark in the heart of downtown New London on Sunday morning joined the welcoming and loving group of about 12 to 15 parishioners.

    Engaging Heaven Church, which owned the church most recently, had about 150 members and also held services on Sundays.

    Finding strength in storytelling

    Mamie Bauduccio-Rock, a retreat leader in the 1990s, remembers reading to children a story she had written from a camel’s point of view during the First Church of Christ’s Epiphany service, a moment captured in a photograph published in The Day.

    Bauduccio-Rock, storyteller at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London, said her storytelling work at the church helped her through life’s twists and turns and a very bad health issue.

    “I think that the love and the grace that I found in spiritual stories, and that I was able to share through retreats and children's sermons, prepared me to see my life as a story, rather than a straight line,“ she said.

    What she primarily remembers about the church is the welcoming people.

    “There was never any, ‘Who is this new person?’ at all,” she said. “It was just a warm embrace, and come and worship, and that's the kind of spirit that I hope goes forth from the building now that we no longer have the building.”

    Careers inspired

    Sisters Ann and Ellyn Peabody, whose family has attended the church for generations dating back to the late 19th century, said both of their parents were Sunday school teachers in the 1970s.

    The sisters participated in choir, and Ellyn Peabody said the music director at the time, Don Janse, saw her potential. Her experience at the church inspired her professional opera career.

    “The church community was incredibly supportive throughout my formative years and afterwards, which allowed for so many opportunities to perform and hone my skill,” Ellyn said.

    The church, with acoustics the sisters said were unmatched by any other venue in the area, held concerts, regional choral gatherings, speaker engagements and opera performances.

    The Peabodys said the church’s steeple dominated the New London skyline as “a beacon of beauty and comfort to us.”

    ‘Never thought of being anywhere else’

    Jeannie Miller Bergamo, a Niantic resident who grew up in Waterford, said her whole family went to the congregational church.

    The church was where Bergamo marked the milestones of her life: “I never thought of being anywhere else,” she said.

    She was baptized there on March 21, 1948, and married there 22 years later on March 21, 1970. She only recently discovered when looking at a photo of her mother holding her on her baptism day that it was on the same date.

    On her wedding day, she and her new husband were walking down the long steps from the church to State Street when, she said, at the bottom of the steps was a city police officer who had nabbed her the week before for speeding.

    “I went ‘Oh my God,’ and he saw me and he turned and walked away,” Bergamo recalled. “I said, ‘Of all days.’”

    Bergamo said a man by the name of Jim Danforth ― “the kindest, sweetest man” ― rang the church bell and let the kids ring it too.

    “Now there was the big rope that came down, and he’d just stand there one-handed ringing the bell,” she said. “But he would let us grab it with two hands and the rope would take us up a little bit ― probably one foot off the ground ― but we would have thought we were halfway up to the belfry.”

    Her brother, Charles Miller, said one day, when he was 14 or 15, he and a classmate decided to cut Sunday school and climb up the church stairs to the steeple.

    They walked up the steps to the choir level, walked farther up to see the bronze bell and then continued to the clock level near the top of the steeple.

    “We saw all the clock works, that was very interesting, and I think we may have gone a little farther up, but I do remember there were a lot of pigeons residing in the steeple up there,” he said.

    After they saw everything they wanted to see, they walked down unhurriedly and went to the Parish House in time for their parents to pick them up and take them home.

    “They used to take attendance in Sunday school, and at the end of the year if you had 100% attendance you got a little pin you could put in your jacket lapel,” Miller added. “I think we sacrificed that pin by not being in Sunday school that day.”

    Organs and bells

    Alan McNeely, owner of the McNeely Organ Co. in Waterford, tuned the church’s pipe organ ― it had a sweet sound and was useful for all types of music, he said ― and played it for a number of weddings and funerals.

    The pipe organ, which was rebuilt in 1966, wasn’t in the church when it collapsed. It had a digital instrument, which McNeely also played.

    He said the church had fine musicians in charge of music programs, including hymn sings, special cantatas for Lent and Christmas, and an annual community George Frideric Handel “Messiah” sing.

    When walking up the church steps, he always admired the architecture and all the hand-carved granite work on each side of the steeple.

    The church is also special to his wife, Joyce Finn, whose parents joined the church when she was born and who was in the bell choir with her sister.

    Bells always ringing

    Waterford resident Janet McIntyre Secchiaroli’s parents got married in the church in 1925.

    Secchiaroli and her siblings were baptized there, earned perfect attendance at Sunday school, and served as candle lighters. She recalled Christmas pageants, where children dressed as angels and kings, mother-daughter banquets, rummage sales, and chowder luncheons. Recipes from church members were passed down in a cookbook. Secchiaroli also was married there, and both of her sons were baptized there.

    She loved helping out at the community meals held there.

    The church, when it had a larger congregation, had a hand bell choir. When her father died, the memorial service was held at the church, and the church bought hand bells spanning three octaves with donations in his memory.

    Secchiaroli said the bells found a new home at the Seventh-day Adventist church in Willimantic, and when the steeple collapsed, the hand bell choir director told her, “The bells will always be ringing for the First Church of Christ Congregational.”

    k.drelich@theday.com

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