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Ashfield church readies  for 250th

Special service Sunday

Recorder/Paul Franz
Rev. Kate Stevens in the Ashfield Congregational Church, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary.

Recorder/Paul Franz Rev. Kate Stevens in the Ashfield Congregational Church, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary.

ASHFIELD — On Feb. 22, 1763, about two years before there was an “Ashfield,” 15 people gathered at the home of Ebenezer Belding, on what is now Bellus Road, to form a church. The next day, the six white men among them approved and signed the Articles of Faith and Covenant, and the Rev. Jacob Sherwin was installed as the first pastor of the First Congregational Church.

This Sunday, Feb. 24, the church begins its 250th year with a special service to honor its past. The 10 a.m. worship service will include 15 participants in Puritan garb and the music will include hymns that were performed at least 200 years ago.

The service will be followed by a lunch and a chance to discuss the church’s history with Nancy Garwin, a local historian. Singer/songwriter Sarah Pirtle will also be performing a song she has written for this event.

The Rev. Kate Stevens has been studying the church’s history in preparation for this and other events.

In the downstairs kitchen area of the church, a paper “time line” stretches across the walls, highlighting key dates in the church’s 250 years, including its progression of church buildings, the comings and goings of the 38 pastors who have served in that period. The timeline also notes that, in 1952 the congregation repealed “blue laws” and approved of games and sports on Sundays. “Games now unite families,” says the timeline.

Stevens said the church was established by the “Huntstown proprietors,” as a preliminary step to founding a town under British colonial rules.

“Part of starting a town in New England was that you had to have a church,” she explained. “This was before they called it ‘Ashfield.’ It was called Huntstown.”

Stevens said the proprietors were mostly the heirs of soldiers who had served in a failed 1690 expedition to Canada during King William’s War. The soldiers were paid for their services in land grants, and the proprietors were doing the groundwork of establishing a church for future settlers on their lands.

“Huntstown” became “Ashfield” when it was incorporated in 1765.

Stevens said the 15 council members who formed the church included eight women and seven men, including a freed black slave named Herber Honestman.

For the first few years, the church members met in people’s homes, then, in 1771, they built a church where Plain Cemetery is located, on Baptist Corner Road. According to an article found by Stevens, the first church building was about 48 feet long and 36 feet wide, without a bell or belfry. The walls had no plaster, and the seating consisted of scrap lumber mounted on blocks.

Howes Ashfield History says that, in 1800, there were only three carriages owned by those attending the Congregational church, and they were only lumber wagons. Yet everyone came to church. There were no cushions on the seats for many years. And there was no heat in winter, when the minister would preach for as long as he could read from his notes in the fading light.

The longest serving minister, the Rev. Nehemiah Porter, served for 33 years.

His last sermon, at the age of 99, “asked people to live together in peace,” according to Stevens.

The second Congregational Church building now serves as Ashfield’s Town Hall. But it was built at the top of Norton Hill in 1814. According to Stevens, it did not have a second floor, but was a tall single-story church.

The current Congregational Church building was built in 1856, as a result of a growing divide among the congregation.

Why parishoners separated and ended up in separate churches isn’t clear, although Stevens knows of two or three conflicts that caused some parishoners to leave the Norton Hill church and build their own church on Main Street.

“There was a Dr. Charles Knowlton in town, in the 1830s, who promoted birth control,” said Stevens. “At the time, women were having six, eight, 10 children. People loved Dr. Knowlton, but the minister at the time thought (birth control) was immoral.”

“During the time he lived here, the birthrate went down,” she said.

Another conflict, she said, was over who would be choral director for the church. But the final factor may have been a dispute over some missing church treasury funds. “Either the treasurer couldn’t or didn’t account for the missing money,” said Stevens.

“This church cost $5,000 to build in 1856.”

The new church was apparently in a better location, because the Norton Hill parishoners eventually paid someone $300 to haul their church building down the hill to Main Street ­— practically across the street from the other Congregational Church. “For awhile, you had two Congregational Churches practically within spitting distance from each other,” said Stevens.

The separation of the congregation only lasted 12 years. “They put an oil furnace in this building, and the other one was unheated,” said Stevens. She said they sold the older building to the town, for use as a Town Hall, in 1870.

Today the First Congregational Church is a busy place. It hosts the Hilltown Churches’ Food Pantry, which provides boxes of food twice a month to area families and is supported by six churches. The church provides fuel assistance and some aid for local residents, and outreach efforts to people in other countries.

There are an ongoing series of discussion groups on Israel and Palestine. Also, the church has been what Stevens calls “an open and affirming church,” welcoming gay and lesbian participants for the past 15 years.

“Our current church has seen many physical changes over the years,” says Stevens. “The church has had two steeples, both of which blew down in storms.” She said the church added a chapel and dining room in 1886, a kitchen in 1930, a new wing for Sunday school in 1956 and the current pipe organ, which was purchased and installed in 1932.

The church now has about 110 members from several hilltowns, and Stevens is the church’s first settled female minister.

A summer anniversary celebration of the church is planned for July.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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