EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF THE RECONCILIATION
By – Dr. Elaine F. Davies
How do you tell the history of a church? Do you describe the style of the building? Do you talk about its stained glass or its renovations? Do you muse about the people who founded it or faithfully attended —-their deeds, their role in the community, their fellowship and charity and worship? Ultimately, how over time does the “church” affect the community and the community the church? None of this is easy to do with limited records and recollections. What follows, therefore, is a work in progress that tries briefly to touch on all that can tell the story of Webster’s Episcopal Church of the Reconciliation.
On July 18, 1869—152 years ago— a group of prominent Webster residents came together in the Old Town Hall to worship as Episcopalians. By October, the Rev. Dr. William Brook from Grace Church Oxford became their Rector. By December, they started the formal incorporation process and on January 3, 1870 became known as the Church of the Reconciliation. The name was unique. It was four years after the Civil War, in the midst of Reconstruction. Several men, like Captain Amos Bartlett, had served valiantly in the war. The name of the church thus embodied a mission to heal and reconcile.
Who were these men? Review of the early parish records lists the Slaters—most notably the descendants of Samuel Slater’s son George Bassett Slater. They were joined by prominent mill owners like George Bates, owner of Bates Shoe Factory; their supervisors and managers, such as John Bell from Corbin Shoe and Amos Bartlett from the Slater Mills; and important town merchants, such as George Washington Shumway (dry good and grain) and John Hetherington Jr. (“merchant tailor” per an 1870 map of Webster). Many of their descendants retained an affiliation with the parish well into the 1960s. The Slater family was key in building the church and the parish. William Strutt Slater, grandson of Samuel, donated the land for the church building. His five daughters donated the James Howe Slater Memorial Parish House, and Mrs. George Slater gave the land for the rectory. H. N. Slater donated the tower bell and several others donated windows and organs and other necessities.
The church was built relatively quickly. On July 18, 1870, a magnificent procession marched from the Slater House down North Main Street to where the cornerstone was to be laid. The stone was blessed, a time capsule was placed into it, and the Rector struck the stone three times in the name of the Trinity. Most incredibly, as people filed past the alms basin placed on the cornerstone, they deposited sealed envelopes for the church building fund, containing $4916.10. ($94,183.45 in 2021 dollars)—more than half the cost of the building. (By the way, this procession and service was reenacted on the Centennial Anniversary in 1970—complete with a new time capsule.) On January 3, 1871 the church was consecrated.
The architects for the Church of the Reconciliation were quite well known too—Richard and R. M. Upjohn of New York, prominent church designers. The building was built in a Neo-Gothic style, the speciality of the Upjohns. The interior with its pointed arches is made of chestnut, except for the rood beam which is oak, and it has a 52 foot bell tower. Benjamin Watkins, a local builder, was the contractor. Right from the beginning, the plans included how to expand. While the first addition was a horse shed behind the structure to “accomodate the teams of people living outside the limits of the village,” a major expansion took place in 1907— since all the pews were taken by families and more spaces were needed. Other lesser renovations took place over the years.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the Church of the Reconciliation is its stained glass windows—the first installed in 1880, the last in 1975, most designed in the 1930s and 1940s. The great surprise is that they were designed by some of the best American stained glass artisans in the business. Wilbur H. Burnham of Boston contributed six of the 14 windows, including the Reconciliation window above the altar. While he worked on that piece, he was designing also for the Washington National Cathedral. Connick Studios of Boston designed three. Other designers included Montague Company of New York, Carleton Monroe Winslow Sr. (a West Coast architect), and Herbert Verbinnen who designed at Westminster and Lambeth England. The windows are mostly in memory of parishioners or beloved Rectors. They speak of the centrality of Christ and Reconciliation and the colors are brilliant. One—the All Saints window—took 24 years to come to fruition. Donations came in small amounts from as many people as possible “so that it [the window] might speak to many of love for friends who have gone hence and are no more seen.” The contracts and records from the stained glass companies provide wonderful back stories to the intricate and complicated processes used in the church for selecting artisans and themes.
While a contemplative and beautiful setting for worship is important, it is how a parish writes its history in the surrounding and broader community that is telling. It is not so much the notes of Vestry meetings that elucidate this, but the many journals and reports from a myriad of societies for Women and Girls sponsored by the church. The names of the organizations and the people change over the years, but the strong mission to make life better for the poor and disadvantaged does not. In 1881 the journals record an incredibly organized effort to repair and make clothes for Webster’s poor, with women assigned to be the “cutter of boys clothing” or the cutter of muslin”. There was support for missions in the Appalachians and African American missions in the south, including St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh which was a training hospital for black doctors and nurses. Clothing was sent to Native American missions in the west. International support went to Africa, China, and the Philippines. After World War II care packages were sent to Dutch and German parishes.
The journals provide a vision of how the parish, one that took education seriously and recorded a multitude of lectures on current events and foreign cultures, meshed with history—how the parishioners viewed the wars, the hurricanes, the financial downturns, to mention only a few. One of the most poignant notes written by a young lady from the Girls Friendly Society after World War I stated simply: “We all enjoyed the Halloween Party given by the Associates, and especially the Pumpkin pie and cider, but we were sorry to know that we were all either going to marry widowers or be old maids.” On a more upbeat note, two months after the ratification of the Women’s Voting Rights Amendment in 1920, the women of the parish gathered the young ladies together. “Miss Clarke gave a splendid talk on citizenship. She said every woman should take advantage of her privilege to vote, and she spoke of a number of conditions that could be improved by the women. She also explained the form of government and ballot to be used at the poles.”
Over the years, the parishioners of the Church of the Reconciliation have been served by 16 Rectors. They have weathered manmade and natural disasters, argued, studied scripture, worshiped, baptized babies, and designed outreach ministries where they saw a need —providing clothing, running food pantries, establishing addiction recovery efforts—among others. The parish produced an Episcopal Bishop—the Rt. Rev. Robert C. Rusack, Bishop of Los Angeles (and graduate of Bartlett High School), mourned the death of a serving Rector—Rev. Robert E. Davis, and memorialized in one of the Evangelist windows the longest serving Rector— the Rev. S. Wolcott Linsley who ministered to the parish for 28 years.
The demographics of the area and the parish changed over the decades. By 1911 records show that the parish included not only the prominent businessmen, but mill clerks, weavers in the mills and workers in other factories, homemakers, teachers, box shop workers, and a photographer. Today, the great grandchildren of immigrant mill workers sit in the pews along with a wide variety of Episcopalians from the surrounding towns.
What will be the future history of Webster’s Church of the Reconciliation? Like most churches today, the pews are not full but the ministries continue. In 2020, the parish entered into a partnership with Zion Lutheran Church in Oxford and decided to share a Pastor. Pastor Michael Bastian, a Lutheran minister, regularly provides Episcopal Services at Reconciliation and Lutheran ones at Zion. His mantra to be “Church Better Together” is bearing fruit with two successful joint outreach ministries this spring, one for the Mampong Babies Home in Ghana and one for the Lutheran World Relief Organization. The work and story continue.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
I became the Historian at the Church of the Reconciliation in 2018 and was faced with a pile of unreviewed notes, journals, and records. It was a race to put a story together in time for our 150th Anniversary Celebration in May, 2019. There still remains much to do—especially pertaining to the last 40 years. If you have any records or stories about the church or parishioners I would be grateful to hear from you. The Church email is email@example.com. Put ATTN: Elaine F Davies in the subject line.
Added: October 9, 2021