Depending on how you measure it, this may be the oldest church in Connecticut. It’s definitely the oldest church in Hartford.
Center Church was founded in 1632 in Cambridge (née Newtown), Massachusetts. Thomas Hooker was the minister, who, after some kind of dispute with the State of Massachusetts, said “we out” and brought his congregation to Hartford in 1636. Hooker is credited as being the founder of Connecticut; a parade has been named in his honor.
This meeting house piqued my curiosity over the years, mainly because of the historical angle. If facing the church from Main Street, you can see the Ancient Burying Ground to its right, where something like 90% of those buried never received grave markers, and where Hooker is rumored to be buried. It is also rumored that Hooker’s grave is underneath Center Church.
How is that possible?
The current site of Center Church was not its first. Originally, it was located where the Old State House is today. Then, in 1640, a new structure was built there. Nearly a century later a third meeting house was built, this time in the current location at the corner of Gold and Main. In 1807, the building that exists today was erected.
Reading about history and looking at it are two separate things. Among the likely original church members were folks whose names we recognize from streets and buildings around the city: Wadsworth, Allyn, Haines, Willis, Lewis, Webster, Stone, Goodwine, and Tallcott, to name a few.
Looking to the left of the church, we see art history: Stone Field. This area is the perfect place to sit and drink lemonade under the shade trees, we learned.
The church is in its fourth building in Connecticut, yet the current meeting house is still plenty old. The tower bell dates back to 1633. The 19th century stained glass windows — which include some Tiffany glass — were refreshed in 1993. The pipe organ is from 1954 and created by Hartford’s Austin Organs; it utilizes some pieces from Center Church’s previously used organs. The columns received a new coat of paint while we researched and wrote this review.
Center Church is deceptive. It has the appearance of a traditional, Puritanical, New England church-on-the-town-green. It has the history to back it up. As it turns out, Center Church is not stuck in the 1600s.
Center Church — officially, the First Church of Christ in Hartford — is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which should hint to where it falls on the liberal scale. They describe themselves as “theologically progressive.” One parishioner we spoke with said he returned to Center Church because he was tired of the “vanilla” services elsewhere. During one service, Reverend Paulo Gustavo França led the congregation in a unison prayer of confession, which included the following statement:
Set us free from our sinful tendency to think of ourselves powerless, as victims, as determined only by gender, sexual orientation, race, social class — as being less than we are.
Though still relatively fresh to serving this church, Rev. França knows this message is not lost on his congregation.
Like its daughter church up the road, Center Church is friendly. For about an hour before service on Sunday, they set a refreshment table out and offer lemonade, coffee, and hot chocolate to people waiting for the bus or just wandering about. A table of drinks and snacks was set out on the portico after the service as well.
What pushed this church to the top of my must-visit list was the presence of Rev. França at a recent immigration meeting at the library. Only in Hartford for a few months, he was already working with the community. When we met, he told me about how he wants to have more music happening on the portico during the week, how he wants the meeting house to be open to the public more often.
Center Church’s involvement in the community fills a tri-fold brochure. There are one-time and international projects that they have contributed to, alongside regular contributions of food and clothing for Hands on Hartford to distribute. They have begun working with True Colors, an organization that helps LGBT youth. In the past, when homeless Hartford residents have needed emergency shelter, Center Church did not hesitate to offer use of its annex.
The theme of social justice was brought into focus during the sermon delivered by guest Reverend Edwin O. Ayala. He talked a little about the split some congregations experience over what to focus on: spiritual growth or social justice/activism. He spoke about the need to take breaks, to have calm…only to have that retreat interrupted by the needs of others. This was based on the gospel reading from Matthew 14: 13-21 in which Jesus helped people, rather than tell them to get lost. Ayala, who is not the Minister at Center Church, was exuberant, a word a rarely get the chance to use when describing someone. Yet, his mood fit well with the congregation. Every person in the small congregation clearly wanted to be there that Sunday morning.
On another visit, we had the opportunity to hear Rev. França. His sermon, “The Human Face of the Christian Faith,” was long, but organized. He began with the Jean-Paul Sartre quote, “hell is other people,” and led into a synopsis of Sartre’s play No Exit. This turned into a talk about the many ways people wrong one another when they feel threatened. The purpose of the sermon was that humans were designed to have relationships founded on helping one another.
This is not the church to attend if you want people to make you feel guilty or bad about yourself.
This is also not the church to attend if you want to be anonymous. First-time visitors are offered a welcome bag as they walk in the front door. Ours had a magnet, pencil, two postcards, and then informational brochures.Within days of our first visit, we received handwritten thank you notes in the mail, signed by Rev. França.
Because we were there a few minutes early, the greeter suggested we take a walk around the building to look at the stained glass. We were greeted by at least five other people by the time the service began, and that does not include people turning our way and smiling. We were only ten minutes early.
During the passing of the peace, it appeared more or less mandatory to get out of the pew and walk about until you have shook hands with everyone. On our way out, after our first visit, we were approached by a few more congregants who asked for our opinions and invited us to return. One woman told us we had to return to hear Reverend Paulo, who said only a few words during our first service. When we returned to hear him on another day, we received just as warm of a welcome, possibly, more so. During post-church snack time (fruit, pastries, cheese, crackers, etc) we had extended conversations with about a half dozen people, including the Minister Emeritus who had requested special permission to return to Center Church after retiring. Two congregants affectionately referred to each other as “Burl Ives” and “Odetta.” They’re a quirky, friendly bunch; that is to say, this church goes well with the city it lives in.
Though a small group, it is racially diverse — more than most. A Quinceañera was listed on the church calendar. The website claims that “members of the GLBT community now represent about ten percent” of their “membership and staff,” who participate “in every aspect of church life.” While I did not ask congregants to identify their sexualities, my senses indicated that this number was either accurate or an understatement. In church literature, they describe themselves as “socially inclusive” and “an open and affirming congregation.”
Some of the service reflected this. The Lord’s Prayer was updated with alternate language suggestions for those who may identify God in either a feminine or gender neutral way. The bulletin included both the traditional and inclusive versions of the Presentation Doxology. On the first Sunday of each month, they have “open Communion,” which they say adults and children, regardless of religious background, can participate in.
As for accessibility, this took a few forms. There is a hidden-in-plain-sight lift at the front of the church, which can be accessed through a ramp located on the side facing Stone Field. Large print materials are available upon request, as are headphones are for those with impaired hearing. In terms of location, Center Church is at a major bus stop on
Main Street. Parking is abundant, between the on-street available on Lewis Street and free inside of the Travelers’ garage across the street. The Wadsworth Atheneum, at a diagonal from the church, has a nice bicycle rack, which is unavailable until they finish construction.
Center Church earns points for internet accessibility as well. The website is easy-to-navigate and loaded with useful information. They also have an up-to-date Facebook page, featuring a number of photos, including the inside of the meeting house.
Though we looked around before the service began, I failed to photograph the inside. During the service, my mind did not wander, so the details I can provide of the building, from memory, are limited. It is a bright church with comfortable pews and historic stained glass. The light fixtures would go well in my home. There is a balcony area that we did not explore because it was off-limits at the time.
Religion aside, this should be on the list of places to visit for history buffs. The meeting house contains plaques, photographs, and is surrounded by the Ancient Burying Ground. The building has a library.
Five Spires (out of six)
Good: Services were uplifting and relatively brief. People were friendly and diverse. The church has taken a stand on social issues. The “Silence for Personal Reflection” lasted long enough for actual reflection to occur. Wouldn’t hesitate to return.
Bad: Only one weekend service, but the size of the congregation indicates that they probably can not justify adding more services. Sometimes, they began readings too quickly, or maybe, it just takes me too long to flip to the right pages.
Center Church/The First Church of Christ in Hartford is located at 60 Gold Street (enter on Main). Sunday worship is at 10 through Labor Day weekend; it then begins at 10:30. To park in the Travelers’ garage, new visitors should call the church office in advance.