Town of Bethlehem Connecticut
First Church of Bethlehem was established in 1739, founded by the Reverend Joseph Bellamy. Pastor Bellamy, along with the Reverend Jonathan Edwards led and preached the Great Awakening of 1780, a revival of Christian faith and practice in a time when church participation had waned. Travelling preachers, Edwards and Bellamy journeyed throughout New England and as far as Virginia, calling the faithful to repent of their sinful ways and deepen their faith in Jesus Christ.
Reverend Bellamy, as the founding Pastor of First Church began his Bethlehem
preaching in a barn on property adjacent to his home. The first meeting house/church
was erected in 1768 on the corner of Main Street. The present Church building dates
from 1833. Although he never preached in this building, his pulpit stands at the focal
front of the sanctuary. A room in the church narthex is dedicated to some of the relics
of Pastor Bellamy’s ministry in Bethlehem.
Reverend Bellamy also began the first Protestant Theological Seminary, mentoring
and teaching students, housing them in his own home. That home is now the museum
house located at the top of the Bethlehem Green. The Bellamy-Ferriday House
is open seasonally for tours of the house and gardens.
The present church community continues to expand the original outreach mission
of First Church. The legacy of service to the people of Bethlehem has always been
the hallmark of First Church’s mission. Through active participation in programming,
financial and personal support to those in need, as well as providing a loving,
welcoming, and creative atmosphere for town functions, special events, and gatherings,
First Church remains a central source of life to our wonderful town and its people.
Wherever you are on life’s journey, whatever your religious and spiritual experience,
we celebrate your uniqueness and welcome your gifts.
The First Church has published a history of their church in the book 250 Years of the First Church of Bethlehem. It is an excellent resource full of details and photographs of early Bethlehem. It can be found at the Bethlehem Public Library.
The following is from 250 Years of the First Church of Bethlehem
The earliest records of the Episcopal Society of Bethlem go back to a legal warning for a meeting issued by David Bellamy, Justice of Peace, wherein 14 men declared themselves members of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of Connecticut, and expressed a desire to be incorporated into a district society. The warning is dated March 13, 1807, and the meeting was called for March 30th at the home of Amos Lake. But at least one meeting, (and perhaps several) was held prior to the momentous step of becoming a "district society". The Rev. Daniel Burhans of Newtown, Ct. was at least partially responsible for initiating a meeting September, 1806 at the home of George Bloss on Carmel Hill in Bethlem.
It was not an easy beginning as money was scarce and the services had to be held in the Center School House. Services were infrequent as it was difficult to obtain a minister on so little money. A church building was clearly needed and on February 15, 1820, Dr. Burhans wrote from Newtown urging the people of Bethlem to get busy and build a church. About this time a Mr. Atwood bequeathed $500 for the erection of an Episcopal Church but the church was not actually started until 1829. Work was slow and in May 1831, it was voted "that our committee be directed to do of the inside of the church after the plan entitled No. 1, with circular seats with one pair of stairs to the pulpit".
In September 1835, Bishop Brownell consecrated the new brick church naming it Christ Church. The following spring, 18 members of the parish subscribed to a "Fund" amounting to $3041.00 from which the interest would pay a preacher. Now the parish had two very important things - a place to worship and some working capital.
While at times the church was "full of life and vigor", it was not always so. The lowest point was reached in 1874 after the church had been enlarged. A year earlier, the Congregational Church invited Christ Church to unite with it and some members took up the offer and left the church. In 1874, a special meeting was called in January to determine whether or not it was worth while to keep the church open after the end of the fiscal year. They had to liquidate the debt of the Society and somehow it was done, for later that year the church sought clerical service for the coming year but at a much curtailed rate.
Physical changes were numerous to the church from the beginning. The high pulpit with stairs lasted until 1839 when it was lowered. In 1840 additions and alterations were made in the seating. At some early date the church had a center aisle. This became apparent in 1955 when repairs to the floor were made. The present balcony is not original and no doubt was added during one of the many changes.
In 1869, Mr. R. W. Hill, a Waterbury architect was hired to enlarge and rebuild the church. In 1870-71, the work was completed with the present chancel added, the ceiling lowered and perhaps the center aisle taken out. The framework for the old windows can still be seen in the space above the present ceiling. In 1955, the last major change was made with the replacement of floor joists and floor. At the same time the center aisle was restored.
The bell in the church weighing 938 pounds was purchased for $288.88 in 1849 from the West Troy Foundry. The present parish house was built in 1932 in memory of Albert E. Johnson who had served the church long and faithfully.
In more recent years, the church saw the need for space to accommodate additional church activities and a Sunday School. The old library building had been vacated because the new brick Bethlehem Library had been built with donations from Christine Bloss and citizens of the town. in 1969, as a result of a request from Christ Church, the Town of Bethlehem leased the old library building to the church for a nominal amount per year, with the church also maintaining the building.
In 1983, Johnson Memorial Hall was joined to the church with a building addition which created a walk way between the two buildings, a meeting room, and offices.
The history of Christ Church is lengthy. Like most churches it has had it's moments of glory and periods of discouragement. Today it lives prominently in the center of Bethlehem, the only building standing made of bricks from a local brickyard, an important part of our small town both physically and spiritually.
This article is from the Waterbury Republican, July 11, 1923
Christ's Church at Bethlehem Adopts Resolutions of Regret
A meeting of Christ Church Parish was held Sunday afternoon at the church to take action on the resignation of the rector, Rev. C. H. Beers, whose health has forced him to give up his missionary work here and return to Colorado. The meeting was well attended by members of the parish and there were also as guests present, Archdeacon Humphery of Roxbury, Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur Mansfield and family of St. Paul's Church, Woodbury, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Clark of Christ Chapel, Waterbury. Archdeacon Humphery presided at the meeting.
"The following resolution was adopted: "Resolved, that we, the members of the Christ Church Parish assembled on this the 8th day of July, 1923, receive with regret the resignation of our beloved rector, the Rev. Clarence H. Beers. It is with heartaches we accept the resignation made imperative by the ill health of one who has labored long and diligently in our midst, comforting those in sorrow and distress, implanting high ideals an inspirations, supporting the poor and needy, giving without stint his strength for the promotion of all that was for the good of the community and church. The example of missionary endeavor, the forgetfulness of self, the heroic sacrifices and hardships will ever remain in our memories and will bear fruit in the years to come. Our prayers and our hopes are for a speedy recover that this missionary of God may soon return to us with renewed health and vigor to develop the work so successfully promoted and carried on by this sincere and devout priest of the church."
Archdeacon Humphery in addressing the meeting said much more could be said than was embodied in the resolutions concerning the retiring rector and his missionary work. He said the sorrow of the Bethlehem people was not any deeper than that of his own and of every clerical associate in Litchfield county. The archdeacon then in behalf of the parish presented Mr. Beers with a miniature trunk, tagged for Denver, Colorado, which contained $109 and a collection of photographs of Bethlehem scenes. Mr. Beers responded cheerfully and reminded the members of his former congregation "that it was more blessed to give than to receive" and that of late the Bethlehem people had been giving and the rector receiving. It was voted to extend a call to the Rev. A. T. Geaner of Waterbury to become minister in charge of the parish. Mr. Beers will leave on Tuesday for Denver and will enter the Oakes Home.
Mr. and Mrs. Beers spent the remainder of the afternoon at the church and attended the evening service conducted by Clifford Leahman of Waterbury. At the close of the service Mr. Beers demonstrated the use of a portable moving picture machine at Memorial Hall in the presence of a few friends, showing one of the State Board of Health films. Mr. Beers purchased the machine before his health became impaired, for use in missionary and community work and has never been able to use it much. The demonstration was given for the purpose of showing local people how to operate the machine, which Mr. Beers has donated for community purposes.
(In the same column of the newspaper)
Red Sox Lose
The Watertown Red Sox were defeated at Ferriday field on Sunday afternoon by the Bethlehem nine, 11 to 4. Anderson occupied the mound for the locals and although he allowed twelve safeties they were widely scattered. Donston, star twirler for the Watertown High nine, was on the mound for the visitors, and although he was touched for only nine hits, they were all bunched and he issued six free passes also. Announcement is expected to be made immediately as to whether there will be a game this year between the Watertown Independents and the locals. A game was originally booked for this Sunday with Abe DeBunkers nine and Manager Johnson is in hopes that the Watertown crew may be induced to come here on Sunday. If they do, a fine game and a huge throng of fans are liable to be in evidence.
A new metal roof is being put on Christ Church.
Mrs. Sage and Mrs. William Smith visited Miss Ina Lake at the Waterbury hospital this afternoon.
The following is from 250 Years of the First Church of Bethlehem:
The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Bethlehem is one of considerable interest. It reflects not only the growth of the church here, but also a change in the town's population which directly contributed to that growth. Until relatively recent years, Bethlehem had no Roman Catholic church largely because people of that faith were few in the town. The influx of immigrants from other shores, many who replaced the Yankee farmer, included increasing numbers of Roman Catholics. There was no church in town where they could worship and the distance to neighboring towns made attendance to churches of that faith difficult.
Father Loftus, then priest at St. John's the Evangelist Church in Watertown, became interested in church work in Bethlehem and through his zeal and enthusiasm, the local mission first began to assume form.
About 1916, the first Roman Catholic services were held at regular intervals in the original Memorial Hall. That same year, with the decline in the strength of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Fr. Loftus made efforts to purchase the Methodist church building. The Methodists, however were not yet ready to disband and declined to sell. Fr. Loftus and his dedicated followers were determined however and they secured a small building on East Street formerly used as a pool room. Structural changes were made and services began in the newly named "Church of the Nativity". The name seemed quite suitable for the church, as residents insist, Bethlehem is the cradle of Christianity and the Bethlehem church is well named.
The church began to assume important proportions. Services were held only from July to October and then every other Sunday. Fr. Judge succeeded Fr. Loftus in his Watertown work but the new priest continued the efforts of his predecessor and the little mission continued to prosper. Fr. Teulings replaced Fr. Judge. Soon the church building was too small for those who wanted to attend Mass and it lead to discussion of plans for a larger structure. Eventually the Methodists united with the Congregational church in Bethlehem and with the Methodist church building unoccupied for several years, they offered their structure to the Roman Catholic mission, gratis. After much consideration, the offer was declined due to renovation costs, lack of adequate land and because they had proceeded too far with plans for an addition to their present church building. But even that plan was eventually scrapped in favor of a new plan calling for the erection of a new church.
Additional land was purchased from Mr. Crane so that the new church could be build on a 100' x 150' parcel. It is of the old California Spanish mission type selected by Fr. Teulings as it emphasizes that this type is a link between the past and the present. Columbus, who discovered America brought with him Spanish monks and the Spanish mission type was then in vogue. It offers a pretty picture with its yellow stucco walls and its red tile roof. A cupola such as adorned many of the California missions is a feature of the building, and some of the windows are covered with attractive bars such as formed a means of protection in the mission buildings. Twenty feet by sixty feet in overall dimension, it seats 150. A special altar was constructed and has been made according to a description outlined in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
The dedication, officiated by Hartford Bishop John J. Nilan and assisted Frs. Teulings, Loftus, Jude and ten other priests took place on October 20, 1929 following closely the 100th anniversary celebration held by Christ Church, the Episcopal Church of Bethlehem.
To illustrate the community spirit which existed at the time of the dedication, it is appropriate to quote from the Waterbury American on October 19, 1929,
From the time of the church dedication, there was continual church growth. in 1971 ground was broken on East Street for a rectory which was completed in 1972. This would provide housing and offices for a resident priest, Fr. Carl J. Sherer, and the church would cease to be a mission and become a parish.
Today (1989) 59 years from church dedication, the Church of the Nativity has grown considerably from the 85 communicants at that time. It is a church of 600-700 families, some of them from neighboring Morris, Watertown and Woodbury. Fr. William Judge, who traveled up Magnolia Hill by horse and buggy to say Mass would recognize the church building as it has changed little - but he would not recognize the church from the size of its congregation.
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