Church’s 300th anniversary a reminder of its vital connection to the town’s founding

Jun 25, 2020 by

Published June 25, 2020

BOUNTIFUL donations of breakfast cereals from church members fill the sanctuary of the UCC destined for the Food Pantry. Rev. Rick Hughes set a goal of 301 boxes – 300 to represent the number of years the church has served the town plus an extra box to serve as a symbolic representation of the bright future that lies ahead. (Allie Hastings Photo)

By ALLIE HASTINGS

NORTH READING — The Union Congregational Church, located at 148 Haverhill Street, is about to celebrate the 300th year anniversary of its original establishment in 1720 this upcoming Sunday, June 28.

The history tied to the town of North Reading will forever remain linked to the Union Congregational Church. In colonial New England, a town could not exist without the presence of a church and a settled pastor. In 1717, 39 individuals who lived north of the Ipswich River petitioned the local court for the establishment of a congregation in this regional area. Although their request was initially met with opposition, their wish eventually came true once Daniel Putnam – whose namesake lives on at the Putnam House – settled in North Reading and agreed to become the town’s first official minister of the Union Congregational Church.

The church has undergone many changes and evolutions since Congregationalists first settled and joined the UCC in the 18th century. After having served for almost 40 years, from 1720-1759, Rev. Daniel Putnam was succeeded by Eliab Stone, a long-standing reverend who served the UCC for over 60 years, from 1761-1822.

George Frederick Root, an American composer who found fame during the Civil War, spent his childhood here on his family’s farm. He was a member of the UCC and wrote the tune for the well-known Christian hymn, “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” which was originally put to wartime lyrics (“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching”). A bronze plaque with his name and the quote: “He loved God and man and was beloved by both,” can be found within the UCC sanctuary, appropriately located by the choir, and a monument to commemorate his life achievements can be found in his family plot in North Reading’s own Harmony Vale Cemetery.

Supported abolitionist movement, ordination of women

REV. RICK HUGHES points out the bronze plaque honoring the UCC’s most famous member, American composer George Frederick Root (1820–1895) in the sanctuary which reads: “He loved God and man and was beloved by both.” (Allie Hastings Photo)

Congregationalists were among the first to ordain women within their ministries, and they also developed anti-slavery societies to aid the abolitionist movement in America. Several reverends served the UCC in the 1900s, most notably the Rev. Dr. Harold Fohlin, who remained with the church from 1965 until 1990. Currently, Rev. Dr. Richard Hughes serves as the UCC’s Senior Pastor, and he is about to enter his 29th year of worship here in North Reading.

On Sunday, June 28 at 10 a.m., Rev. Hughes will be holding a special live-stream worship service on the NRUCC YouTube channel to commemorate the history — as well as the promising future — of the church. After the service, from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., anyone who wishes to celebrate the Union Congregational Church’s 300th anniversary — as well as the new Food Pantry — can drive up to the front entrance, where Rev. Hughes and two other UCC members will be handing out cupcakes. Rev. Hughes will be dressed in a period piece as the first minister, Daniel Putnam, and he will be accompanied by the characters Widow McIntire and Old Ebenezer Flint, two of the original 39 founders.

As a way to simultaneously honor the church’s 300th anniversary and the upcoming opening of the new Food Pantry — which is slated for July 13 — Rev. Hughes requested members of the UCC to drop off cereal boxes to the sanctuary, setting a goal of 301 boxes – the extra ‘1’ serving as a symbolic representation of the bright future that lies ahead. All of these cereal boxes will be donated to the Food Pantry, which is operated by Christian Community Service (CCS), a non-denominational, non-profit and all-volunteer group, once the pantry is officially moved from Town Hall and its services are up and running again. To fund the Food Pantry’s renovation and prepare it for occupancy, CCS and the 300th Anniversary Committee teamed up and launched a successful $220,000 capital campaign last year.

Embracing technology

Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak hit Massachusetts, Rev. Hughes has been conducting his Sunday morning worship services virtually over YouTube live-streams, and this transition has increased his awareness of technology’s incredible potential for outreach, as weekly attendance has doubled in viewership.

Rev. Hughes notes that virtual services are especially beneficial for senior citizens, as some people of faith could not physically attend in-person services previously but they can now enjoy them from the comfort of their homes. Additionally, the videos he uploads remain posted to the church’s YouTube page for viewers who prefer to worship at other times of the day, or who may be unable to watch the live-streams when they take place between 10-11 a.m. on Sundays.

GEORGE FREDERICK ROOT was a member of the UCC and wrote the tune for the well-known Christian hymn, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” A monument to commemorate his life achievements can be found in North Reading’s own Harmony Vale Cemetery. (Allie Hastings Photo)

Although technology has been a real life-saver over the past few months, allowing many to get through these difficult times, Rev. Hughes acknowledges that it’s been incredibly hard missing others, as ministry is all about “walking with people through life’s journey and all the grace-filled moments in their lives.”

While he is grateful for virtual platforms and the fact that they have enabled him to continue worshipping with UCC members on Sunday mornings, Rev. Hughes explains that these remote services lose the special feeling that intimate connection brings. “The community aspect is such a vital part of what faith is all about,” he said.

Fortunately, as businesses start to re-open under Governor Charlie Baker’s Phase 2 plan, members of the UCC will not have to wait much longer to attend in-person services. Rev. Hughes expects that the church will reopen to the public no earlier than Sunday, July 5, although this date may be pushed back to the following Sunday, July 12, depending on how the church council votes. Informational updates regarding the church’s reopening plans and social distancing protocols will be posted to the UCC website at www.nrucc.org shortly, and announced in the weekly church news updates in the Transcript.

Providing a welcoming space for all

Rev. Hughes wants people who currently feel unsure about attending in-person worship services to know that he will continue recording and posting them to the NRUCC YouTube channel, as he has previously been doing. His biggest hope for the future entails remaining visible and accessible to the local community and neighboring towns as well, for the UCC has always been a welcoming space for any and all who wish to be a part of it. “I always like to tell people, there’s no ‘I’ in Jesus, but there is an ‘us’ in Jesus,” he said.

Those who wish to obtain more information on how they can support the Union Congregational Church electronically at this time may email Rev. Richard Hughes at nruccoffice@aol.com or call the office phone at 978-664-3703. Individuals can also visit www.nrucc.org to receive the most up-to-date details on upcoming events.

Those who would like to make a donation to the CCS North Reading Food Pantry may visit: www.nrfoodpantry.org/donate.

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