History tour gets into nooks and crannies
Bryan Haeffele photos
Visitors enjoyed views from the bell tower and balcony of the Wilton Congregational Church while on a church steeple tour on Sunday, Nov. 18.
The tour was led by historian Bob Russell, author of the book Wilton, Connecticut, which is available at the Wilton Library. He was assisted by Pamela Brown, the church’s executive administrator. The tour also encompassed Old Town Hall, the parsonage, and Comstock Barn.
The purpose of the tour was for people to learn more about the church’s architecture and history. “The Wilton Congregational Church was founded in 1726, 50 years before our country claimed its independence,” Russell said.
The church was first established on Wolfpit Road, but the congregation outgrew that building and in 1736, built a larger one on the corner of Danbury and Sharp Hill roads. As the town spread northward and new settlers arrived, a third and final sanctuary was constructed on Ridgefield Road in 1790.
Today, that building stands as the oldest meetinghouses still in use in Fairfield County and one of the 12 oldest in Connecticut, according to Russell.
The church’s initial architecture reflected the colonial style of early New England American churches. That style was modified in 1844, when an architect added columns and Greek elements. “That was all the rage back then,” Russell said.
In 1975, the church was ripped apart on the inside in order to reinforce the structure because it was in danger of falling down, Russell explained. The interior was rebuilt and the building’s striking barrel-domed ceiling was flattened out.
On the tour, Russell pointed out a section of one particular wall inside the church that initially contained a mystery.
The wall has graffiti on it dating back to 1848. The graffiti is a simple handwritten list of names and dates. The graffiti was discovered when the church was undergoing internal renovations, and the walls were to be repainted.
Russell, who was the church’s historian at the time of the renovation, decided to investigate. He discovered that the names on the wall were members of the church. The date after each name was the date the person died. The dates spanned from 1848 to 1858.
Russell believes a church janitor at the time wrote the names and dates on the wall in order to keep track of them. “Many of the names were young children. People died young in those days,” he said.
Because of its historical significance, the church left the writing on the wall and did not paint over it, Russell said.
Russell pointed out a number of artifacts and gifts people gave to the church, dating back to the 1900s.
The gifts include a series of portraits, including some of old church ministers, various pieces of furniture and a grandfather clock.
Russell said a member of the Comstock family left a silver communion service to the church, but it had been stolen many years ago. “Things tended to disappear because security wasn’t great back then,” he said.
One of the more interesting artifacts, he explained, was a safe that was found in someone’s barn. The safe had been lying there for years, and when it was opened, it was found to contain records of the church dating back to 1726. “Those documents are now in another safe. They contain membership information from the church at that time, who joined, who left. It’s good information for genealogy research,” Russell said.
For a final highlight of the tour, those brave enough were allowed to climb up a narrow ladder to the bell tower and balcony for a sweeping view of the surrounding area.