31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
March 13, 2022
Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
The organist from my last church grew up at our church. Last spring, she sent me the link to a Facebook group called “Picturing Bristol”. A photo of the meetinghouse had been posted, and so many people responded with wonderful comments celebrating how their lives had been touched by the ministry of the First Congregational Church.
They shared memories of how they were baptized or married here or had attended a baptism, wedding, or memorial service for a family member or friend. Two former church secretaries shared what a joy it was to work with our ministers. Most people though, shared how they had wonderful memories of attending church school or Century Nursery School here.
I, too, celebrate how the First Congregational Church has invested time, energy, and money into Children’s Ministry – through programs on Sunday mornings, through youth jazz musicals and choirs, and especially through Century Nursery School, which began over 70 years ago as a playgroup and now provides quality preschool education to the community of Bristol.
Quite a few adults in our church community had their Christian faith journeys nurtured by a large and outstanding team of church school volunteers, led by the Rev. Aubrey Murphy for 21 years. Murf, as he was known to many, felt particularly called to religious education; however he was not the first staff member FCC Bristol called to religious education. In 1940, the church called Miss Alice Cook as Director of Religious Education. She served in this ministry for 17 years, beginning lots of new youth programs, including the motion choir, which my former organist and her childhood friend Mimi, who was also a part of this church, brought to the church I served in South Windsor, continuing to nurture even more children.
FCC’s commitment to the faith nurture of children and youth began even further back than 1940 though. In 1912, when the YMCA project in town did not come to fruition, the church built the Parish House. According to church history, written by Dorothy Manchester, the vision of the Parish House was to provide space for youth and for the entire community to gather.
As we reflect on our past as a church community, the themes of nurturing Christian faith, especially that of children and youth, as well as serving the community come up over and over. Like when in 1918, FCC used the new Parish House as a hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic. FCC’s service to our community, in a time of great need, likely led to the 1921 founding of Bristol Hospital, which continues to serve the Bristol community 100 years later.
It just makes sense that being the first church in Bristol meant that our community was instrumental in the creation of many other firsts in Bristol – like the first school house in 1754 and the first school for secondary education which was called The Academy and was located across the street from FCC’s building, where the current Patterson School Apartments are.
I appreciate that by 1825 when The Academy opened, FCC had already embraced the idea that when it came to serving our community, it was better done in partnership, and two members of the Bristol Baptist church were invited to also be trustees.
There are so many ministries to celebrate from our past. Some date back 275 years, and some happened in the not so distant past. Like this congregation faithfully and boldly declaring ourselves open and affirming, welcoming of all people regardless of our differences. This was an important statement in 2004, and as we serve our community, it continues to be important to say that here, in this faith community, you are welcome; you are important; you are loved just for who you are.
The faithful conversations and work done through the Open and Affirming process, the commitment to welcoming all, in time led to the United in Ministry safety and accessibility renovation. So many people and so much time was involved in planning for and raising the $1.6 million dollars for this much needed renovation. I continue to be so grateful for the generosity and dedication of this church community.
In 2017 when it was completed, we knew this renovation would be a blessing with the elevator, atrium, wide staircases, and accessible bathrooms; We could not have guessed what a blessing it would be during a pandemic, enabling us to continue welcoming in the community by being able to provide groups with their own separate entrances and bathrooms. Groups like Bristol Hospital when their conference rooms were being used as patient rooms, two different Cub Scout packs that were not able to meet in their regular spaces, and St Vincent De Paul Homeless Shelter, who began in December of 2020 to use the white house when they needed more space for winter overflow, housing people during the cold New England winter months.
There is much to celebrate about the past 275 years of ministry. Out of all we have to celebrate, though, perhaps the most important thing is that we are still here.
As the world has changed around this community of faith, there have been times when we have paused, faltered even, not known what to do next. Every time, though, we have adapted and moved forward in faith, staying true to our purpose of serving the community and nurturing Christian faith lives.
Through independence, through separation of church and state, through wars and economic upheavals, through pandemics, through it all, we have continued to be the church of Jesus Christ, following in his Way, sharing the good news, and making the world a better place with God’s love.