July 16, 2018
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How a tiny Maine village found new life by reviving a long-lost Christmas tradition

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff
Updated:

Newspaper clippings from 1952 kept in a red scrapbook that 76-year-old Martha Morrison of Rockville totes around depict a scene that small towns across Maine can relate to during the holiday season.

In these vintage photos, taken at what is now the Rockville Community Chapel, poinsettias and fir boughs adorn the church’s sanctuary. In one photo, adults and children trim a tall tree with tinsel and ornaments. In another, a chorus sings in front of an organist, as parishioners donned in bonnets and coats fill the pews.

“It was just so quaint,” Morrison remembers fondly. “We had fun. We had a lot of fun.”

Year after year, the Christmas celebration was a staple for the village of Rockville, one of five informal villages that make up the midcoast town of Rockport.

The clippings are from a newspaper out of New York, the Sunday News, which featured the Rockville celebration in a Dec. 21, 1952, article, titled “Small town’s Christmas centered in old church.”

“It’s population of about 100 derives great pleasure in decorating the 101-year-old Baptist Church. The entire town pitches in to decorate the sacred building,” the article read. “All enjoy the pre-Christmas candlelight service and make sure that the annual children’s Christmas party is a big success.”

The annual celebration at the church would go on like this for the next 16 years after that story was published.

Then, it stopped.

As the Rockville Community Chapel began to fall into disrepair and the village around it started to dismantle, traditions like the Christmas celebration fell to the wayside.

But, after nearly 50 years, the celebration will return to the Rockville Community Chapel on Thursday evening, the result of a longtime effort by a small group of Rockville residents who were determined to bring their cherished Christmas tradition back to the community.

A village time forgot

Today, the Rockville Community Chapel stands unsuspectingly between homes on Old Rockland Road, which runs parallel to Route 17, not far from Chickawaukie Lake.

The 166-year-old white church is striking in its simplicity, contrasting with the bare trees of early December.

To those unaware of Rockville’s history, the location of the Rockville Community Chapel might seem rather random. But going back 100 years, the church was once the heart of a vibrant village community.

“We never wanted to lose this [church] because this is the last remaining public building [original to] this town,” Morrison said. “There used to be a lot of them.”

Aside from some time during her childhood when her family briefly relocated to New York, Morrison has spent her whole life in Rockville. She grew up in the house next door to the Rockville Community Chapel and lives just around the corner from the church in the home where she raised her four children.

Growing up, Morrison remembers going down to the ice house on the lake with her father to watch ice being harvested. That ice house is long gone.

She recalls potlucks and fairs held during the summer at the village’s ”town hall,” which also doubled as the fire station. That building is now gone, too.

The post office was torn down around the time Morrison moved into her current home in 1959. The old one-room schoolhouse was torn down so Route 17, known locally as “the new road,” could be constructed, she said.

The building that once housed a general store has since become a private structure.

As the buildings of the village vanished, so did the community life around them. Large celebrations centered around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July haven’t been held in decades.

“It’s a completely different village now,” Morrison said.

Giving an old church new life

Through all of those changes, the Rockville Community Chapel stood. Granted, it wasn’t in very good shape.

Morrison can remember the last Christmas celebration she attended at the chapel in 1968 — the last time the celebration was held.

While sitting in a pew toward the front corner of the church with her husband, the deterioration of the building began to show itself. “All of the sudden, a piece of paint feel down from the ceiling and came right down between us and, he said, ‘I’m outta here,’” she recalled.

The building dates to 1851, when the church opened as the Rockville Free Baptist Church, later becoming the Rockville Baptist Church. The church has not had a regular pastor since the 1930s, and in the 1970s, the church was decommissioned and became the Rockville Community Chapel.

In the lifespan of the chapel, it has had various informal caretakers. First there was the Meet Again Club, which Morrison said was a group of local women who, around the second half of the 20th century, would handle upkeep and organize what few functions were held there. Two members of that group, the Tollman sisters, were active in not only looking after the church but in curating its history, Morrison said. The scrapbooks and photo albums that hold black-and-white photos of Rockville’s past were started by the Tollman sisters. After the sisters died, the books were passed down to Morrison.

Most recently, the Rockville Community Chapel Association has taken charge of maintaining and restoring the church — both its physical state and its spirit. Morrison is one of five members involved with the association.

While restorations to the building have been ongoing since the 1980s, the work began to pick up in 2010. Since then, the roof was reshingled, the belfry rebuilt and the building repainted. A portion of the expansive tin ceiling that had rusted was replaced. Energy-efficient windows and a bathroom were installed.

The work was done with money raised by the Rockville Community Chapel Association and a generous member, Roy Bennett, who dedicated time and money to the restorations.

A desire to reconnect with family and community history seems to draw people to the old church. Bennett was born and raised in Camden, but his career took him out of state, spending summers on the Rockland side of Chickawaukie Lake. When Bennett’s brother compiled a family history, they discovered that their family roots ran through Rockville, where their mother was born.

“I became inspired to take the opportunity to help,” Bennett told the Bangor Daily News in 2012.

The Rockville Community Chapel had the same draw for Felicity Davidson, a Rockport native who began getting involved with the association last winter. Morrison said Davidson was looking to give back to her community and was doing so through her committed work with the association.

But this summer, tragedy struck when Davidson died in a motorcycle crash. In lieu of flowers, her family asked that donations be made to the Rockville Community Chapel, where her funeral was held.

The donations received in the wake of Davidson’s death went to the building’s heating fund and in October a heating system was installed in the previously unheated building.

“Every time I turn on the heat, I think of her,” Morrison said.

The installation of the heating system made the Christmas celebration possible this year. In recent years, the Rockville Community Chapel Association has hosted functions during the warmer months, such as blueberry and strawberry socials. The chapel is also open for musical performances weddings, funerals and other functions.

But without heat, the building was unusable during winter.

Now, Morrison has hopes Easter and Mother’s Day services can be held at the chapel, in addition to the Christmas celebration.

This year’s celebration will be short, largely because the building’s bathroom isn’t usable during colder months just yet. But decorations will be up, carols will be sung and a short message given by a local pastor.

While it won’t be as elaborate as the celebrations of her childhood, the revival of the Rockville Community Chapel’s Christmas celebration brings Morrison hope that radiates far beyond the holiday season.

“I think it’s quite exciting really. It’s been so many years,” she said. “I just hope that it brings this church back to life so that people can enjoy it and get together here.”

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