PITTSFIELD, Maine — It was a rainy Sunday morning 50 years ago when members of the First Congregational Church gathered for the first time in what was once a funeral home.
Though the building, situated near the heart of Pittsfield’s downtown on Somerset Avenue, did not yet have a steeple, parishioners sat on wooden theater seats to hear the building’s inaugural sermon.
Persis Smith of Pittsfield, one of 51 founding members of the church, remembers stepping over long wooden planks that were stacked in the center aisle because there was no other place they would fit. From behind a pulpit donated by a church in Waterville, the Rev. Scott Kittredge presided over the first service on Oct. 2, 1960. Smith, then a member of the choir, remembers singing Handel’s “Messiah” that day, accompanied by a donated Conn organ.
“We had a good choir and quite a parish,” said Smith, recalling the day recently.
The First Congregational Church, which has been nicknamed “the Church That Love Built,” was formed after members of another church split away in September 1960. For a few weeks they worshipped in members’ living rooms, but the decision was quickly made to purchase the former Donald H. Shorey Funeral Home, including a building for a parsonage and a barn.
Norman Rogers said he had never been a churchgoer until he was brought to the First Congregational’s initial service.
“I really came to enjoy it,” said Rogers, who along with Smith is one of only two founding members still active with the church. “It was just a really nice group of people who I enjoyed being with.”
In December 1960, members needed a place for the church’s first Christmas supper, so they cleaned out the barn, which the funeral home had used as a shelter and as a workshop for the hearse. Church members transformed the space almost overnight, clearing away rows of oilcans and other car-maintenance debris.
“It was just absolutely beautiful,” said Smith. “We had our Christmas supper at card tables, and we all brought our own cups and saucers.”
From those humble beginnings, the church has grown. From the start it operated the Pennywise Thrift Shop, where anyone can buy bags full of items for little or nothing. The church survived a push for urban renewal in the 1970s, and in 1979 the building finally got its spire. In the mid-1980s Memorial Hall was built as an addition to the church. Today that space is used for numerous church and community gatherings.
In 2008, the church tore down its parsonage and built the current thrift shop, which continues its mission of providing “affordable clothes for those in need,” according to Al Wyman, who runs the shop.
Today the church has more than 100 members, according to Doug Carnrick, a member of a committee that is planning anniversary celebration events. In addition to memorializing the church’s history, the events will serve collectively as a fundraiser in an effort to pay for renovations on the church’s front door and steeple.
The schedule of events kicks off with a special service at 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 3, and a supper later in the day, which is already booked to capacity.
“We have a number of people coming in for the weekend,” said Carnrick. “It gives everyone a chance to see what kinds of changes have been made over the years.”