East Lyme Churches
Second Ecclesiastical Society of Lyme
The Second Ecclesiastical Society of Lyme
The colony of Saybrook, founded in 1635 at the mouth of the Connecticut River, extended some twenty miles along the shoreline from Clinton to the village of Niantic. In 1665, in what is known as the Loving Parting, the township of Lyme was established on the eastern shore of the river, and with it, the Ecclesiastical Society of Lyme, now known as the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.
By 1718, the families on the eastern side of this township, tired of struggling with travel conditions, had successfully petitioned the General Court of Connecticut to grant a separation from the Lyme church. The first meeting of the Second Ecclesiastical Society of Lyme was called on February 15, 1719, and the Reverend Mr. George Griswold, a recent graduate of Yale College, was chosen as minister. In 1722 a small wooden meetinghouse was built in the center of the community, where Society Road and Riverview Road intersect today.
The small congregation added 116 members, including 15 Nehantics, during the Great Awakening of the 1740s, but the membership gradually dwindled to two elderly women, and the condition of the wooden meetinghouse deteriorated. Another religious resurgence in the 1790s, however, led to a revitalization of the congregation and repairs to the structure. In 1825 a parsonage was built on property to the west of the meetinghouse.
In 1831, the congregation voted to build a new meetinghouse, which would become known as the Stone Church, about 50 feet north of the original wooden structure. It was constructed of undressed stone from the nearby quarries and was 50 feet by 35 feet in size. There were four stately pillars in front and marble floors, and it was topped with a graceful belfry and spire. The cost of construction was estimated at $2,500. The new meetinghouse was apparently used for the first time in January of 1833.
As the center of population shifted to the shoreline village of Niantic in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was clear that a new place of worship should be built there as well. Mrs. Lydia M. Lee donated a lot on Lincoln Street in March 1876, and construction began. The church was first used for meetings in March 1879, and a parsonage was built next door a few years later.
The marble portion of the Stone Church was sold in 1870 to raise funds for the operation of the church, and, in April 1876, the earlier parsonage and other buildings were sold at public auction. The building was eventually torn down, with some of the stone used to build an ice house and some used to build the fireplace in the old Niantic Library (now the Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut). All that remains on the original site is the old bell and a few of the old stones.
Methodist Episcopal Church
In the early years of the 19th century, itinerant ministers attempted to organize Methodist classes in East Lyme, but none were successful until 1836. The first Methodist Church was built in East Lyme in 1843, at a cost of $1,000, on land donated by Captain Avery Smith at the corner of present-day East Pattagansett Road and Pattagansett Court. A parsonage was built to the rear of the church in 1858.
By 1873, the Methodist congregation, which was largely comprised of quarrymen from the granite quarries in East Lyme and Waterford, had outgrown its meetinghouse, and a new church was built in the heart of the village of Niantic, on Main Street. A parsonage, also on Main Street, soon followed.
Economic and population changes in the 20th century led to a decline of activity in both the Methodist and Congregational churches, and they were faced with the possibility of closing. On June 1, 1953, the two congregations merged in to the newly incorporated Niantic Community Church. Services were held in the Lincoln Street facility until the present building, on Pennsylvania Avenue, was built in 1961. The former sanctuary on Lincoln Street is now a bed-and-breakfast, and the Congregational and Methodist parsonages are private residences. Both of the Methodist church buildings have been taken down.
During the time of the Great Awakening, many colonists chose to establish new communities of worship, distinct from the official Congregational Church. Known as “Separates”, they were considered dangerous radicals, and subject to arrest and imprisonment. Despite the risks, many Separatist churches were established throughout the colony, including in the township of Lyme. By 1748, a group of Separatists were meeting in a private home on Boston Post Road, led by Ebenezer Mack and Elisha Miller. Mr. Mack was ordained as a Separatist minister in 1749. In 1752, both Mack and his followers embraced Baptist teachings, and the church was formally recognized as a Baptist Church.
Over the next twenty years, the congregation faced many challenges, but the arrival of Brother Jason Lee in 1774 led to a period of new energy and growth. In fact, three daughter Churches were formed in the 1780s: in Waterford, the Chatham section of northern Lyme, and in Marlow and Lempster, New Hampshire, to which a large group of Lyme residents had emigrated. Two more daughter churches were established in 1842: in (Old) Lyme, and in Niantic.
In May 0f 1842, the congregation voted to build a new meetinghouse farther east on Boston Post Road, where the population center had shifted. The new meetinghouse was dedicated on June 1, 1843, and the old meetinghouse torn down and the lumber sold to help pay for the construction. The parsonage was built next door in 1879. Both buildings are still in their original locations and in use by the church. The church was known as the First Baptist Church of East Lyme until 1929, when it became the Flanders Baptist and Community Church.
The Niantic Baptist Church was founded as a daughter church of the First Baptist Church of East Lyme. The original sanctuary was built at the top of what came to be known as Baptist Hill in 1843. This building burned in 1866, and was quickly replaced. A fellowship hall was added in 1959. Another fire in 1964 resulted in further renovations. The original double cupola, blown down by the 1938 hurricane, was replaced with the current single cupola bell tower.
The church was officially incorporated in 1905, although it had already joined the New London Association of American Baptist Churches in 1869. Baptisms were conducted yearlong at the beach on Niantic Bay, or in the Niantic River, until 1894. A parsonage was built on Main Street near the beach, on what is now called Baptist Lane. This building is now privately owned.
The Reverend John James McCook, Rector of St. John’s Church in East Hartford, started summering in Niantic in 1869. He settled with his family in a large, pre-fabricated house, on a bluff overlooking Niantic Bay. In 1872, Dr. McCook began holding Sunday services in an alcove off the front parlor of the house. These services were initially intended for family and guests staying at the house, but, in time, as many as 80 people would attend.
In 1891, the Archdeaconry of New London assigned the Reverend Theodore M. Peck to the Mission. Winter services were held in the Millstone Point Schoolhouse in Waterford or the home of Mrs. Warren on Main Street in Niantic, while summer services continued in the McCook home.
Dr. McCook had placed a lacquer box on the hall table for voluntary offerings, hoping to someday build a chapel, and by 1899 these offerings amounted to several hundred dollars. With contributions from the Archdeaconry and Miss Celeste E. Bush, the project was finally ready to move forward. St. John’s Chapel was built in the fall of 1899 for a total cost of $1172. Designed by Melvin Hapgood of Hartford, the building was best described as Carpenter Gothic, and painted green with white trim. A circular stained glass window, donated by Mrs. E. C. Hilliard, was installed in the wall above the altar. The property on which the chapel stood was deeded to the Trustees of Donations and Bequests for Church Purposes by the McCooks.
Because St. John’s was served by the Lyme Missionaries, who were responsible for services in several communities, services in the Chapel were held only twice a month for several years. The Chapel was formally dedicated in 1908, and in 1913 electricity was installed. The building was also used by the Niantic Public Library from 1900 until 1921, when its own facility was built across Main Street. In 1937, as the congregation outgrew its building, the Sunday School was given permission to meet in the library’s building.
A Parish Hall was built in 1938, and substantial improvements made to the building in the 1950s. St. John’s Mission was declared a Parish on March 31, 1965, and the Reverend Richardson A. Libby was instituted as its first Rector in June of that year. On June 14, 1970, a new Church was dedicated across McCook Place from the original Chapel. The site of the first building is now St. John’s Green.
Spiritualism, a belief system combining religion, philosophy and science, and committed to the concept of continual life, became an important force in the mid-nineteenth century in this country, propelled in large measure by the story of the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York and the activities of the Shaker communities throughout New England.
As the movement grew stronger, many groups established summertime campmeetings. These encampments allowed the followers to share their beliefs with each other, and to spread the word into new communities. One such group was the Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp, founded by the Connecticut Spiritualist Campmeeting Association in the 1880s. On a peninsula between Smith Cove and the Niantic River, the camp consisted of lots 25 feet by 50 feet. Gothic style cottages, decorated with gingerbread trim, were built on some of the lots; other lots were occupied by tents. A dance pavilion, a restaurant, refreshment stands, an area for roller-skating, and an amphitheater were among the amenities of the campground.
During the 20th century, much of the Spiritualist Camp gave way to private homes, some of which retain traces of the original cottages. The amphitheater was replaced by a temple, which is still in use.
St. Francis Chapel
In the late 1800s, Catholics in the East Lyme area were part of the spiritual community of St. Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church in New London. Three mission churches were established in the early part of the 20th century to serve the needs of summer visitors, in Flanders, South Lyme, and Niantic. From 1905 through 1908, the former Crescent Beach Hotel was used for services. In 1908, the St. Francis Chapel was dedicated, and continues to be used for the summer months.
St. Agnes Church
St. Agnes Parish was established on April 16, 1922 on what was then known as Prospect Avenue (now Haigh). A long, low wooden structure was opened in November 1924. As the parish grew through the 1930s, construction began on the present church. A foundation was dug, but covered over as construction was suspended during World War II. In the mid-1950s, construction resumed, and the first Mass in the new Church was offered on February 10, 1957. The earlier wooden building served as the parish center and church school until it was razed in 1962 to make room for a new church hall. The original wooden rectory was replaced by a new one-story rectory southward of the church in 1967. The current church hall and classrooms were built in the 1990s, and the church has recently undergone renovations.
St. Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church of New London served a small mission in Flanders in the early years of the twentieth century. However, mill workers in the area, many of whom were of Slovak origin, were more comfortable using their own language. As a result, sacraments were sometimes administered in the home of the George Wino family by a priest from Bridgeport. As the population grew, services were held in Comstock Hall, at Flanders Four Corners, and later in the schoolhouse farther west on Boston Post Road.
The Catholic community decided in 1920 to establish their own church, to be named St. Matthias. Property was purchased from the Niantic Manufacturing Company and Frank Bruce in 1922, and the groundbreaking took place on May 4, 1924. A simple wood-framed building with white stucco siding and clear glass windows, typically New England in style, was dedicated in 1925.
Some in the community objected to having a Catholic Church in Flanders, and expressed their objections by burning a cross in front of the church. The minister of the neighboring Flanders Baptist and Community Church made clear that there was room for more than one denomination in Flanders, however, and there were no further incidents.
St. Matthias became a Parish in 1939, with the appointment of its first Pastor. In August of that year, a home on Boston Post Road was purchased for use as a rectory. Stained glass windows replaced the clear glass in the mid-1940s, and major renovations to the building took place between 1968 and 1971. By 1988, however, it was clear that a new building was needed. Land was purchased three miles north of the original building, on Chesterfield Road, and a new building was dedicated on November 1, 1998. The building on Boston Post Road is now a commercial building.
The first service of the Christ Lutheran Church in East Lyme was a Christmas vesper service, held on December 23, 1961 at Flanders Baptist and Community Church. This was followed in January with the first official opening service, on the upper floor of the Flanders Fire House. A parsonage was purchased on Bush Hill Drive in July 1962, and the first church council elected in September.
The Church grew steadily through the 1960s, and ground was broken for a new church building on March 17, 1968. Phase I, the lower level, was dedicated on April 5, 1970. Phase II, the upper level sanctuary, was dedicated on May 1, 1983.
Harvest Christian Fellowship is a mission of the Pleasant Valley Community of Prayer and Praise in Groton, CT. It is located on Freedom Way in Niantic.