HOULTON, Maine — The Rev. Doug Dunlap took to the altar on Sunday morning, beginning his sermon with a short song of prayer.
“We are pilgrims on a journey, we are brothers on the road,” he sang. “We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.”
It was the first time that the First Congregational Church of Houlton, part of the United Church of Christ denomination, held an in-person service since March 8, 2020. It would also be its last. The 210-year-old church announced at the end of July that it would cease its services, bringing an end to the first Christian congregation in Houlton.
Over the years, Aroostook’s population has seen a notable decline, due to closures of military bases and changes in Aroostook’s potato industry, leading people to seek better work opportunities elsewhere. And while Aroostook remains one of the more conservative areas in the state, Maine as a whole continues to be one of the most secular states in the union, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I certainly sense that there are fewer people living here. For example, Loring [Air Force Base] closed and reduced agriculture in general so that things are more mechanized,” said Dunlap during a reception held after the service. “But every time I come up here, the hospitality, and the graciousness and kindness of the people is remarkable.”
Houlton was founded 210 years ago in 1811, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. The law at the time required towns to establish a Congregational Church in order to be incorporated. So the First Congregational Church of Houlton was established.
As most of the first settlers in Houlton came from New Salem, Massachusetts, and members of the Church of Christ, it became the denomination of the new church, slowly adding more members, including armed service members sent up during the Aroostook War skirmishes in the late 1830s.
Church membership first began to decline shortly after 1956, when the church’s original location burned down on New Year’s Day and the Congregationalists had to share services at the Unitarian Church for several years. Eventually they moved into the former Presbyterian Church on High Street in 1972, which would become their new church home.
But in 2011, with attendance at services dwindling, the congregation decided to close the building. Services continued for another 10 years — held once again at the Unitarian Universalist Church building. By 2021, fewer than 10 people were church members.
The Rev. David Hutchinson, who leads the Unitarian congregation in Houlton, spoke at the Aug. 8 final service to tell the congregation that a church does not consist of just a building to hold services in.
“It’s the people in the church that make a church a church,” he said. “Their faces and their stories, their jokes and their generosity. That is what I think of when I think of the First Congregation.”
Lynn Tweedie, a member of the First Congregational Church who has been attending since the 1970s, said that despite the end of official services, she hoped to still find a way to meet with her church family.
“I feel kind of sad, but I don’t think that we’re through,” she said. “I think that those of us that are still going to church will still be together in some way.”