Frederick Marston first attended the First Baptist Church of Sedgwick with his grandmother, when he was a small boy in the 1930s. In the 1950s, he was married there. And now, in 2010, he’s doing everything he can to save the historic Greek Revival building from disrepair.
“Churches have always been a place for the community to gather, and I want to see this church become that again now,” said Marston, a member of the Sedgwick-Brooklin Historical Society who is spearheading the effort to preserve the church. “It’s no longer a house of worship, but it can still be a place for art and lectures, and weddings and memorial services and all sorts of events.”
The church, built in 1837, is the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the state, according to Earle Shettleworth, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Shettleworth will speak at the church, located at 35 High St. in Sedgwick, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 23, about the building’s long history and current efforts to restore it.
According to a pamphlet produced during the church’s 150th anniversary in 1987, the church was founded as a Baptist church in 1805 by the Rev. Daniel Merrill, later one of the founders of Colby College in Waterville. Before the
building of the church, services were held in the building now known as the Town House in Sedgwick. Architect Col. Benjamin S. Deane of Thomaston, and builder Thomas Lord, based in Surry, finally erected the church in 1837.
“When the congregation got together in 1837 to build it, they really chose a commanding site for it,” said Shettleworth. “The will of the community back then to create such a dramatic building in such a location in the town, with such a forceful facade design, really makes it stand out.”
Shettleworth noted in particular the portico and the belfry as a remarkable example of Greek Revival architecture, the style popular in the late 18th and early 19th century.
“The monumental Greek revival portico, with the full Doric portico and great triangular pediment above it, moving to that beautiful Greek revival belfry, combined with the site and the scale of the design all contribute to the fact that this is a very dramatic building,” said Shettleworth.
Throughout the 19th century, the First Baptist was one of the largest congregations in the region, with approximately 180 members filling the church each Sunday. Membership continued to grow, with a peak of 400 members in the 1920s. By the middle of the 20th century, however, membership began to decline. By the 1980s, fewer than 40 people called the First Baptist Church home.
“I attended a service celebrating the 200th anniversary of the church incorporating as a Baptist church back in 2005, and there were about eight of us there,” said Marston. “It’s time to use the church for something other than its original purpose. Our original pastor wants to see it used for community-wide purposes.”
To that end, Marston is working toward transferring ownership of the building from the First Baptist Church to a yet-to-be-established nonprofit organization. Marston has applied for a grant from the Maine Community Foundation, and has sought the help of a local lawyer to draw up the papers to transfer ownership.
A number of other historic Maine churches have had success in converting buildings from houses of worship to community gathering places.
“The town of Bath faced a similar issue back in 1971, when the two congregational churches merged into one, with one new building,” said Shettleworth. “Those churches are now the Winter Street Church and the Chocolate Church, both of which are used for various community activities. The town of Alna rescued the Meeting House in 1889, and it’s been a town landmark for 120 years. The Chestnut Street Methodist Church in Portland is now the restaurant Grace. It runs the whole gamut.”
In the case of the Sedgwick Church, Shettleworth has high hopes for what it could be in the years to come.
“I think it would be a wonderful future for it to continue to be part of the community,” he said. “It’s a great asset.”
For Marston, it’s about giving back to the community he’s loved for so long.
“It’s definitely a new experience for me,” said Marston. “It’s out of love for my mother, and my family, and admiration for those pioneer settlers who lived in this area. I love carrying this load. It’s my life right now.”