BANGOR, Maine — When the six founders met 175 years ago today in the Penobscot Exchange Hotel to organize what would become St. John’s Episcopal Church, the state of Maine was just 15 years old, the nation had been independent for only 59 years, and just 21 years earlier the British fleet had sailed up the Penobscot River and occupied Bangor.
That is how a history of the French Street landmark, published on its centennial, began.
The congregation will mark its 175th anniversary Thursday with a silent auction and dance at Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon.
St. John’s held its first service in 1834 in a Bangor home and officially organized on Oct. 6, 1835.
The first church building was a wooden structure, consecrated in 1839. It was designed by Richard Upjohn, who later became an internationally known architect. He also designed Trinity Church, Wall Street in New York City. That church became a refuge for first responders who worked at the site of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
St. John’s first structure was destroyed in the Great Fire of April 30, 1911. A replica of that building with a stone facade was constructed between 1912 and 1918. It was designed by Hobart B. Upjohn, the grandson of Richard Upjohn. The lectern and the baptismal font from the original building are still in use.
At the time of its 150th anniversary, the church listed as one of its recent achievements the fostering of a hospice program in Bangor in conjunction with St. Joseph Hospital. Twenty-five years ago, St. John’s was host to the city’s oldest branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in the state.
Two years ago, the church made history when it hired the Rev. Marguerite “Mother Rita” Steadman as the first female rector at St. John’s.
Steadman said last month that the 175th anniversary of the congregation is an opportunity “to pause and first and foremost give thanks for all those who have come before and made this present day possible.”
In looking forward, the parish created a new mission statement — “To the glory of God and for all the common good, we make God’s love known now and for generations to come through worship and service to all.”
“With this renewed sense of mission,” Steadman said in an e-mail, “and with great gratitude for the inheritance we have received, our anniversary asks us to consider God’s purposes for us today that we might also pass on this living tradition to those who will follow us.
“Looking forward,” she continued, “we are committed to our common worship that brings us together from varied backgrounds and that forms our life together.”
Over the past 25 years, work to repair and maintain the building have been ongoing, longtime parishioner Pat Totman of Hampden said in an e-mail. The most recent work has been the repair of the slate roof, sealing the exterior of the building, replacing the pinnacles, or tops, on the tower, reinforcing the tower and insulating the attic.
Those 1,100-pound pinnacles were placed in the church flower garden as part of a landscaping project that included enlarging the gardens. In addition, a residence at 234 French St. was purchased for office and meeting room space and renovated.
During recent years, parishioners have prepared a monthly meal at The Salvation Army on South Park Street in Bangor and provided a free community luncheon once a month at the church, according to Totman. A team of Eucharistic ministers has been trained to visit the homebound and hospitalized to provide Communion.
One individual who had a major impact on the congregation during the past quarter-century was Fred Jones, who became choirmaster at the church in 1982, according to Steadman. Jones died in May, but his passion, high standards and insistence on correctness characterized his approximately 30-year tenure at St. John’s. Jones retired in 2005.
He left behind a powerful legacy, the rector told the Bangor Daily News earlier this year. Under Jones’ leadership, the choir achieved a high degree of artistry and proficiency in performing the early choral works of the Anglican Church, Steadman said in May. Jones also “built from scratch” a youth choir program that has attracted two generations of youngsters, both from within the Episcopal community and from beyond its borders, she said.
Steadman said Jones’ legacy includes creating within the members of the parish “the expectation and the experience of choral beauty in their worship.”
The church continues to be known for its music and is collaborating with other congregations to branch out from traditional Anglican church music. Recently, St. John’s and All Souls Congregational Church have produced plays with religious themes, such as “Godspell,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and, most recently, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
On Nov. 7, parishioners, singers from other churches and community members who aren’t churchgoers again will form a choir to perform gospel music in a concert at Gracie Theater at Husson University in Bangor, according to Roger George, a lifelong member of St. John’s. Next year, St. John’s and All Souls again will collaborate for a service to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
“One of the things I respect about the congregation is that we support each other during hard times,” George, of Bangor, said Tuesday. “When my mother died 12 years ago, the people there were very warm and comforting.”
Tickets for the 175th anniversary auction and dance with music provided by the Retro Rockerz are $30 for adults, $15 for children under 12. For reservations, call 947-0156 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.