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Historian’s Corner

First Church is 297 Years Old!

On November 22, the longest-standing organization in West Haven will be 297 years old!  That’s right—First Congregational Church of West Haven, founded in 1719, is having a birthday!

In 1638, the community originally known as the West Side, later known as West Farms, and ultimately known as West Haven, was first settled.  For centuries, it was a farming community, and provided most of the crops to feed the New Haven Colony.  As years passed, it became a shipbuilding community, serving the growing needs of Long Wharf.  Even later on, it became a manufacturing community, which supplied the country with buckles and automobile tires.

In 1719, over eighty years after the West Side was settled, First Church came into being.  The West Side farmers were tired of making the twelve mile round trip into New Haven for worship every Sunday, so they petitioned for their own church.  That petition was originally denied, but the stubborn farmers persisted until they got their way.

The original First Church sanctuary had no steeple, no bell, and no source of heat.  The faithful were called to worship by a drummer.  Sunday worship was an all-day affair, and we can only wonder how the congregation could stand the many hours in an unheated building in the dead of winter.  Some brought stones, heated on their hearths, to warm their feet.

The church was built on a place called “the Commons” which denoted common ground for the use of the community.  The Commons—now called West Haven Green--were at the head of a salt marsh that extended all the way down to the shore.  Indeed, Old Field Creek rose on the Commons in the form of a pond that has since been piped underground.  This spot was long used for the feeding and watering of the local livestock.

Over the years, First Church has had three separate sanctuary buildings:

  • The first one was built in 1719.
  • The second one was built in 1851 and burned to the ground in 1857.
  • The third sanctuary was built in 1859, at a cost of $10,000; it is still in use today.

Here are some First Church Firsts:

  • First Church was the first organization of any kind in the fledgling West Farms.
  • The first bank in West Farms was run by First Church.
  • The first school in West Farms was run by First Church.
  • Early government was a theocracy; the church was the original authority over the village.
  • The first public library in Connecticut was created by First Church’s Rev. Williston; it functioned there from 1792-1909.
  • During the early years of First Church, the sanctuary served as a place of worship and also as a public meeting place.
  • Pauline Lang of First Church almost single-handedly started the West Haven Community House in 1943.
  • Lorraine Standish and Rev. Donald Frazier of First Church created the West Haven Green Nursery School in 1964.
  • Alex Miklos was the originator of Alex’s Soup Kitchen, which operates out of First Church, and which is open to the needy every week.

From this church have come many who have volunteered:  some were called to the ministry; some were called to missionary service; some have served in many capacities as leaders in this community; and a great many have joined in the uniformed services of this country.

First Congregational Church, therefore, has a long and proud history as the first organization of any kind to be established in West Haven.  Our rich history is thus filled with centuries of proud and important ministry and service to this community.  We should all take pride in our church’s contributions to the community of West Haven!

Dan Shine, Church Historian

(updated November 2014)

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