Notes on Two Hundred Years (and more)

Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)
by Douglas H. Parkhurst

…Continued from October 2023

Work on the new Universalist church commenced and a cornerstone was placed on September 15, 1892, “a beautiful day” as noted in church records. Just a year later, on Sunday morning, September 10, 1893, the new structure at 347 Main St. was dedicated. According to reports the day was pleasant and the church filled with members and guests. The order of service included an organ voluntary with anthems sung by the choir, hymns, and a responsive service and reports from the building committee. A sentence of dedication was followed by a scripture lesson and prayer. Rev. Dr. J. Smith Dodge, Universalist minister in Stamford, Connecticut, preached the sermon taking as his text Matthew xvi 18 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church….” A special child dedication was also performed, that of little Nathan B. Dibble, great-grandchild and namesake of the late Col. Nathan B. Dibble, a prominent Danburian, stalwart Universalist, and longtime member of the society and church.

In the afternoon a second service was conducted, called a “Service of Friendship and Good Will.” Clergy from First Congregational, Disciples, Methodist Episcopal, Second Congregational, Union Hall (non-sectarian), and Second Baptist churches participated. As noted previously the Baptist, Disciples, and Methodist churches had only recently dedicated their own new homes in downtown Danbury. From September 19-21 the Connecticut Universalist Convention met for its 1893 annual meeting in this brand new Main St. church.

Contemporary descriptions of the new building are found in Bailey’s History of Danbury, Conn. 1684-1896 and the Christian Leader (a Universalist periodical) issue of September 14, 1893. The structure stood on the east side of Main St., facing the street a little south of the railroad crossing. Its dimensions were sixty-four by ninety feet. The foundation was granite and the exterior walls North Haven brick. Exterior details were of brownstone. The tower and steeple, located at the southwest corner of the building, was one hundred twenty five feet tall at its peak. The main entrance was by a porch at the base of the tower; this opened into the large auditorium (sanctuary) with floor gently sloping toward pulpit, choir space, and pipe organ diagonally opposite this entrance. Total seating accomodated several hundred persons in pews of quartered oak. The ceiling was finished in ash. Auxiliary seating space was available through sliding doors at the east side of the auditorium which opened into what was otherwise a large Sunday school room. A substantial stained glass window donated by Cola S. Peck and Carrie B. Peck in memory of their parents dominated the west wall facing Main St. Amber-tinted windows graced the north and south walls. A porch on the south side of the building toward the rear led to a hallway, the auditorium, a parlor, the Sunday school room, and a staircase to the second floor. Upstairs was another parlor, a large banquet hall finished in cypress wood, and a kitchen. When new the building was heated by three furnaces and lighted by gas and electricity.

Mention should be made of two furnishings in this new church. One was the Opus 1345 pipe organ built and installed by L.C. Harrison and Company, then of Bloomfield, New Jersey. This instrument was expertly played by Miss Adelaide Grabert, beginning in the 1890s until her retirement early in 1961 when it was named in her honor. The second item was a communion table given by relatives and friends in memory of society member Col. Nathan B. Dibble. This is the same communion table (usually covered by cloths) used today during Sunday services at 24 Clapboard Ridge Road.

This church, with modifications and updates, served the Danbury Universalists and Universalist-Unitarians for seventy-three years. This writer, as a child, remembers receiving palms on Palm Sunday and geraniums during Children’s Sunday services in the auditorium. I climbed, with other kids, at least partway up the steep, narrow stairway in the tower and with my father descended into the damp, dark basement with muddy floor and planks to walk on before Sunday school rooms and a children’s chapel were constructed in this space in the late 1950s. There were Sunday school classes for younger children in the large hall on the second floor (where I grew to dislike and attempted to avoid fingerpainting) and dinners, rummage sales, and fundraisers in that same large hall. And I saw volunteers wash piles of dirty dishes stacked near the sink in the kitchen. Some of that same china has been stored in boxes in the “cage” in the basement of the house next door to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury’s present-day Fellowship Hall. [Note – Reminiscences of this church by Eleanor Lyon and Carolyn Wells LaPine can be found in chapter five of The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County 1822-1995 by Reverdy Whitlock.]

By the autumn of 1966 the Danbury church and the Ridgefield fellowship had completed their merger. The renamed Unitarian Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County left its 347 Main St. home for a rental on West Starrs Plain Rd. The reasons for this change were varied, generally having to do with the expense of building upkeep and repairs and limited parking space as well as some newer members’ discomfort with the traditional though comfortable atmosphere of the old church. Much debate precededed this action. The following year the building was sold to Congregation B’Nai Israel, by coincidence the same congregation, then called Children of Israel Society, which had purchased and moved into the former Universalist church on Liberty St. in 1907. A few years later Congregation B’Nai Israel sold the now synagogue at 347 Main St. to a private party in anticipation of the group’s move to a new location. For a short while after this the building was used as a theater. Then, in October 1974 this venerable old edifice was torn down. The site was redeveloped and today a modern glass-fronted office building stands in its place.