Sunderland First Congregational Church celebrates 300 years

  • The First Congregational Church of Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • The First Congregational Church of Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • The First Congregational Church of Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • The congregation of the First Congregational Church of Sunderland. Contributed Photo—

  • The First Congregational Church of Sunderland has called the faithful to worship for 300 years. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Sunderland Carpenter Ken Kushi with his scaled-down replica of the First Congregational Church of Sunderland, May 24, 2017.

For the Gazette
Thursday, June 22, 2017

SUNDERLAND — Since 1717, the First Congregational Church of Sunderland has provided a spiritual home near the town’s center — a witness to 300 years of events that included the nation’s birth.

All this time later, the iconic white church at the corner of South Main Street and Amherst Road — now a member of the United Church of Christ faith community — is thriving under the guiding hand of the Rev. Barbara K. Seamon, who attended Yale Divinity School.

“We’re not huge. Our average congregation on Sundays is around 40 to 45 people. It’s healthy. It’s just not wealthy, and it’s very widespread,” said John Rose, sitting inside the sunlit nave Wednesday afternoon with wife, Judy Rose, both 30-year members of the congregation.

“The only requirement for joining our church is that you’re seeking God. We don’t have stringent requirements for joining. It’s wonderful. We have an extremely diverse membership. We have people from the UMass community, and farmers who’ve been in the community for many, many generations,” Seamon said. “It’s so active in the community — whether or not you’re a member, you know everybody.”

These days, the church holds weekly Sunday worship services that include choral performances. Frequently, the community gathers for country breakfasts or suppers. Other community outreach programs include a quilting group, which sometimes donates quilts to the area’s neonatal intensive care unit for extremely ill newborns; a Bible study, youth activities and “Serendipity” thrift shop open Saturdays for those in need.

“John and I have always considered ourselves extremely lucky to have found a church with such a loving congregation. God willing, this church will continue on in the future to serve many more families like ours,” Judy Rose said, noting their two sons received a strong “religious foundation” at the church.

The church’s history is intrinsically tied to that of the town. In the late 1600s, New England settlements were required to have a church or meetinghouse to be an officially sanctioned municipality. After arriving in 1673, settlers petitioned the colonial legislature of the time to become a town and were granted seven years to attract enough settlers and hire a minister.”

After King Philip’s War ended around the turn of the century, the first meeting house was raised on June 18, 1717. Months later, with around 40 families living in town, the first worship service was conducted by the Rev. Joseph Willard in January 1718. Then, in November of that year, the “Township of Sunderland” was incorporated, according to the church history.

“Three hundred years is a long time because of the location. The church is right on the river — where the trading happened. It was right in the hub of very early activity,” Seamon said.

“Three buildings, 27 ministers and several restorations later, this historic and picturesque church proudly stands at the center of Sunderland, overlooking the Connecticut River and nearby Mount Sugarloaf,” church officials said. The third and current building was built in 1836 on the same site as the second church.

In honor of the church’s 300th, its current congregation and the surrounding community have scheduled a few events throughout the year. Also in honor of the event, Carpenter Ken Kushi built a scaled-down model of the church by hand. The model will be presented in the town’s 300th anniversary celebration next year.

Those events include an ice cream social Saturday, June 24, from 1 to 5 p.m.; and a celebratory worship service and homecoming later this year, Sunday, Oct. 15.

Reach Andy Castillo at: acastillo@recorder.com