The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, of South Portland was established May 7, 1733, when the General Court of Massachusetts set aside lands south of Fore River as the “2nd District Parish of Falmouth.” We built our first meetinghouse in 1734, across the street from the present building, in what is now Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The building featured hand-hewn white oak timbers, two tiers of windows, galleries on three sides, and square box pews, but no heat and no steeple!
The first minister was the Rev. Benjamin Allen who served from 1734-1754. He was succeeded by the Rev. Ephraim Clark whose pastorate of forty-two years was the longest in the history of the church. Meanwhile, in 1765, Cape Elizabeth (named by Capt. John Smith) became a town, and was served only by this parish.
After languishing late in the century the church was revived in 1801, and with a membership of nine became the First Congregational Church in Cape Elizabeth. In 1834, our century-old meetinghouse, with the cemetery laid out around it, was torn down and a larger one erected. This church of 1835 remained in the cemetery until 1891 when it was moved across Cottage Road to its present location. Outside timbers and trusses of the original building have been incorporated during additions and renovations, and are still visible in the third floor classrooms.
Our congregation was 165 years old when the city of South Portland was incorporated in 1898. A few years later, in 1907, the church and parish adopted new bylaws, clarifying their mission to South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
In 1909, marking the 175th anniversary of our church, the historical address remembered: “This has always been the First Parish of the town and has had the respect and affection of all classes of its citizens and all sons of Cape Elizabeth wherever scattered.
The period from 1920-1940 was marked nationally by the Great Depression and the looming World War. Several building alterations kept our building suitable for the gradual growth of our congregation, from 82 to 156 adult members. In 1934, marking our 200th Anniversary, the church was incorporated as the “First Congregational Church of South Portland.”
During World War II our members joined with the State Street congregation when our pastor became an Army chaplain. Our building was occasionally closed for lack of heating oil. But after the War the congregation experienced dramatic growth with membership climbing from 200 to approximately 1,000. During these years the parish house wing, including the church offices and Guptill Hall, was erected. Plans for building expansion to house the growing membership led from the formation of a building committee in 1955, to ground breaking in September, 1959, and the dedication of our new sanctuary in December, 1960.
At a special congregational meeting in April, 1961, our members unanimously approved the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, and became a member of the new denomination. In 1966 a committee began work on new bylaws which were approved by the congregation in January, 1971. In the spring of 1973 the old sanctuary space was completely redone, creating the Davidson Lounge, Laity Room, and present chapel.
A seed was planted by a single gift in 1990 to “the elevator fund,” a tangible reminder that our building, though large, was hard to navigate. Over the next several years additional building concerns surfaced, leading to the formation of a study committee in 1994. Ground was broken in April, 1998, for inside work that included the elevator, Wright Pavilion, ramp, and classroom changes. Outside, we doubled the parking areas and landscaped the grounds
In the last decade we’ve engaged in long range planning and spirited discussions that have led to adopting our mission statement (1992), changes of our worship schedule and format, (1998) and adopting our Open and Affirming statement (2000). We also have had the opportunity to be stewards of a one million dollar gift designated for direct response to the needs of children, families, elders, and neighbors in crisis.
In 2001 we received a single gift of one million dollars designated for direct response to the needs of children, families, elders, and neighbors in crisis. The donor directed that we: 1) disburse all the money in three years, 2) assist our neighbors in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough who are not being served by existing public and private agencies, with a minimum of red tape, and 3) not give any of the money through existing agencies but rather form our own unique ministry of outreach and service.
The congregation prayerfully considered many opportunities for service in the community and decided on three: elders in the congregation and community, families with children, and households in crisis. The gift enabled us to extend our weekday programming through the Discovery Center preschool, and to establish an extensive ministry to members in their post-retirement years, focused on the social and spiritual needs of elders.
Thirdly, this gift underwrote the beginning of our Community Crisis Ministries program which has assisted hundreds of our neighbors who have nowhere else to turn in times of great need, often caused by illness, job loss or indebtedness. This ministry continues our long tradition of service to the community, maintained now through hundreds of annual donations. All the personnel and administrative costs are borne by our congregation’s annual budget, so every dollar given to Crisis Ministries goes directly to our community.
Across the decades First Congregational Church has maintained the familiar and fundamental ministries of worship, education for all ages, and fellowship, and has created dynamic new programs and opportunities to express the Good News in a changing and challenging world.
God is still speaking and inviting us to listen.