Lee congregation to celebrate 150 years

Posted Oct. 23, 2008, at 9:13 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

LEE, Maine — It has survived the Civil War, two world wars and a scandalous former minister, but Lee Baptist Church will celebrate its 150th anniversary this weekend, its pastor said Thursday.

From today to Sunday, the Lee Road church will host a harvest supper, hockey and volleyball games, a cookout and several special services, the Rev. Mitchell Bickford said. Several hundred people are expected to attend, including many former members of the church who have left the area.

“There will be people coming from at least as far away as Palmer, Mass., and several different churches in southern Maine are having representatives come up here,” said Erroll Woodward, 77, of Prentiss Township, church treasurer and a member of the church for almost 30 years.

“We are having food, fun, preaching fellowship, celebrating, rejoicing — I guess you can throw all those great words in there,” he said. “Some folks will be seeing family members that they haven’t seen in a long time.”

Established in 1858 by the Rev. Sylvester Besse, the church has been a mainstay to the Lincoln Lakes region, particularly the small community of Lee, through its many years, said Brenda Bickford, Mitchell’s wife.

It has lost members to wars, epidemics and economic downturns, but probably nothing in its recent past was quite as devastating to the church and its town as the tenure of its former church pastor in the 1980s and 1990s, the Rev. Daniel Dunphy, parishioners said.

An ex-Marine, Dunphy’s confrontational style led to arrests and two incidents of violence. In 1986, a gang of men attacked the fundamentalist preacher and several members of the church with pipes and logging chains during a Sunday night service. The assault, which resulted in assault convictions for four of the five attackers, sprang from two teenage girls attending the church’s school and Dunphy’s refusal to obey their parents’ decision to withdraw them.

Dunphy was charged with criminal trespass, criminal assault and assault after trying to remove one of the girls from her foster home during a battle with her parents. A year later, state troopers broke down the locked door of the church and dragged Dunphy from the sanctuary when he refused to report to serve a six-month jail sentence for assault.

When Dunphy left in 1997, attendance had plummeted to about 30 people — down from a high of at least 188 — and the church was in heavy debt, the Rev. Bickford said.

“Considering the history of the church, it’s pretty amazing that it didn’t close down,” Bickford said. “That was really bad … nobody wanted to come through the doors here. It just hurt a lot of people that had attended church for years and were really involved. It just drove a lot of good people away. We have some people that have come back recently.”

Bickford credits the Rev. Jason Byler, Dunphy’s successor, and his six years of service with saving the church. Byler worked several jobs and ministered the church, slowly coaxing the faithful to return, he said. Woodward, a retired Lee school teacher, was another mainstay, Bickford said.

Woodward credits someone else.

“The church survived because it is protected by God himself and Jesus Christ. He has blessed it and taken care of it for years,” Woodward said. “The church had its problems. To tell you the truth, we are still working to recover from that period.”

Much work has been done. In Bickford’s five years of service, the church has gained a small but healthy balance of $2,700, said Bickford, whose inspiration to keep trying is Philippians 3:13-14 from the New King James Bible:

“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead. I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Bickford said the church now earns enough to allow him to minister full time.

The church also has recently finished a retreat center, which will be used this weekend to house anniversary guests. Church attendance peaked at 91 people this summer.

The church averages about 60 parishioners for Sunday services, Bickford said. He hopes that this weekend’s celebrations will coax more to return to the church.

“The town of Lee has an amazing amount of sweet old elderly couples that are just really nice people,” he said, “and a lot of them really got hurt by what happened. Some of them, even if they don’t attend church, should come back and see what it’s like now.”

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