Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)
by Douglas H. Parkhurst
More than a half-dozen church buildings in Danbury are local landmarks. Downtown examples include Lighthouse Ministries, West St. (constructed in the 1860s); St. James Episcopal, West St. (1860s and 70s); St. Peter Roman Catholic, Main St. (1860s and 70s); St. Joseph Roman Catholic, Main St. (early 1900s); First Congregational, Deer Hill Ave. (early 1900s). The building housing Lighthouse Ministries is the only one of these five not still used by its original congregation. This structure was home first to Second Congregational and later Immanuel Lutheran churches.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD), while this year marking its 201st anniversary, does not presently occupy a landmark building. Over its long history and under different names UUCD has called a variety of sites in and near Danbury home. The earliest meeting places of the Universalist Society were private homes, a schoolhouse in Danbury’s Great Plain, and the Main St. courthouse (1820s and early 1830s). Then came permanent homes on Main St. (two) and Liberty St. (1830s to 1960s). For four years following the 1966 merger of the Danbury Universalist-Unitarian Church and the Unitarian Fellowship of Ridgefield the group, by then called Unitarian Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County (UUSNFC), rented a former inn on Danbury’s West Starrs Plain Road and then met briefly in the city’s Morris St. School. During the two years (1964 to 1966) of its independent existence the Ridgefield Unitarian Fellowship met in the Ridgefield Community Center on Main St. and in Odd Fellows Hall on King Lane and a neighboring building which later housed a Montessori school.
In 1970 the UUSNFC purchased a former farm property on Picketts Ridge Road off route 7 in West Redding and relocated there. This was home to the group until the move back to Danbury in the early 2000s. For two years the now renamed UUCD held services in what was then called Alumni Hall on the mid-town campus of Western Connecticut State University. In 2005 the UUCD settled at its present location at 24 Clapboard Ridge Road.
The early 1890s was a time of church construction in downtown Danbury. Baptist (West St.), Disciples of Christ (Liberty St.), and Methodist (Main St.) churches were erected with each building becoming a landmark in its time. None of the three are standing today; each of these congregations has since moved to a new location. Likewise the Danbury Universalists, after nearly forty years on Liberty St., began planning a move and construction of a new building. The Society was outgrowing its long-time home. The preferred location for the new church was upper Main St., above White. This would be the Universalists’ second permanent home on Main St. With the encouragement of Rev. Dr. James H. Chapin, then president of the Connecticut Universalist Convention, funds were raised and a lot designated 347 Main was purchased. Generous donations of $5,000 each came from Joseph T. Bates of Danbury and Mrs. Laura Scott of Ridgefield [see note below].
A building committee was formed on May 8, 1891, consisting of Joseph T. Bates, Miles D. Washburn, Luman L. Hubbell, Martin W. Foster, and Cola S. Peck. All were or had been active in the governance of the Universalist church and society. Bates owned J. T. Bates and Company, a lumber and building materials business. Washburn was a hatter. Hubbell was secretary of J. M. Ives Company which sold home furnishings, stoves, heating systems, and the like. Foster was a bookkeeper and treasurer of Danbury Hospital Board of Managers. His brothers Thomas and Joel operated Foster Brothers architects, builders, and contractors [see note below]. Peck was associated with Davis and Company which manufactured paper boxes. In the latter part of 1891 Rev. James Vincent was called to follow Rev. Edward Horton as pastor of the church and subsequently joined the building committee. H. M. Francis of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, was chosen as architect [see note below] and Foster Brothers as contractors. Joseph T. Bates oversaw construction. In time this new church, too, would become a local landmark.
[Note – Joseph T. Bates was from a local Universalist family. Mrs. Laura Scott was the mother of long-time church member and benefactor Laura Scott Fanton. Internet inflation calculators show the value of $5,000 in 1891 to be well in excess of $100,000 today.]
[Note – Thomas H. Foster was an active Universalist. Joel G. Foster belonged to Second Congregational Church. A number of buildings designed by Joel Foster, including the Old Jail, still stand in downtown Danbury.]
[Note – Henry M. Francis was a prominent Massachusetts architect who designed churches, schools, other public and commercial buildings, and residences. Many still stand today.]
To be continued in November 2023…