Thursday, June 11, 2009

Church's Narrow Escape from Destruction

The Memorial Day fire which nearly destroyed the Central Congregational Church in Middleborough was neither the first fire in the church, nor the first to seriously threaten the structure. At noon on Wednesday, April 23, 1930, a fire broke out upon the roof near the chimney in the rear of the church above the organ loft. "Arthur H. Denham, the janitor, had a fire in the furnace and discovered the chimney was on fire, a spark from which ignited the [roof] shingles. The firemen made quick work of extinguishing the fire and although there was water used from a small hose line, there was no damage to the big organ that was installed only a short time ago. A portion of the roof was ripped out and sections about the chimney wet down. The damage was slight." [Middleboro Gazette, "Fires", April 25, 1930, page 1]

More serious was a fire which had occurred six and a half years earlier when on the early morning of December 2, 1923, the church was nearly lost in the most serious fire until last month in the building. The story, at the time, was documented by the Middleboro Gazette under the headline which heads this post.

Excellent work by the members of the Middleboro fire department Sunday morning doubtless saved the Central Congregational church from being totally destroyed by fire. As it was the loss on the building and contents is placed at from $12,000 to $15,000. About 2.15 a telephone call was received at the Central [Fire] station from Mrs. Allan R. Thatcher that the church was on fire and an alarm from box 43 was immediately sounded. At practically the same time, Walter Weeman, who was returning home after playing at a dance, discovered the blaze. When the department arrived the flames had burst through the windows in the rear and were even higher than the roof. After a stubborn fight of 50 minutes the all out was rung in. Later investigations show that the main damage was in the parlor which was completely gutted and all its contents practically consumed, including the piano, many chairs, desk, etc. The entire edifice was damaged by smoke which was so dense during the fire that when the electrics were turned on in the auditorium not a light was visible until windows were opned and the atmosphere changed. The blaze worked its way through the ceiling to the organ loft and was just breaking out. There were numerous stories in circulation as to the origin of the fire, many claiming it to be of incendiary origin. Chief engineer Maxim had Edward H. Murtagh, fire inspector of the detective department of the district police here Monday to investigate. His verdict was the same as that of the chief after the fire, that it was caused by a steam pipe running clsoe to the wood work of a cushioned seat. The same conditions existed in another place, in the organ loft, and a small fire had just started there when discovered. This latter blaze may perhaps have been due in part to the additional heat of the main fire. It is a well known fact among fire chiefs and inspectors that after a number of years when steam pipes are in close proximity to the woodwork there is a serious danger of fire. Another fact which disproves the incendiary theory is that Mrs. P. M. Ramsey, who lives near the church, detected the smell of smoke in the early evening, going down stairs to investigate. Insurance adjustors were here Wednesday. The loss is well covered by insurance.

As a result of the fire no services were possible Sunday. The congregation worshipped in the Central M. E. church and the Sunday school met in the Unitarian church.

Following the fire and with the onset of spring, repairs were immediately undertaken upon the church building. By March, 1924, it was reported that "repairs are progressing satisfactorily at Central Congregational church, where carpenters have been busy making repairs and improvements the past month. Masons have been engaged in plastering the past week, electricians have completed the wiring and pipe fitters are attending to the necessary plumbing and changes. The kitchen has been enlarged and very much improved and when completed will be one of the best of its kind." [Middleboro Gazette, "Middleboro", March 28, 1924, page 1]

Work was completed on the structure by June when it was ready for interior refurnishing and decoration work which was done by a Boston firm. "At the time repairs were made to the church, new linoleum [decribed by the Gazette as "battlehip linoleum"] was laid on the floor of the auditorium and the rostrum was enlarged, a row of pews removed to make room. Rolling partitions were installed in the vestry and the kitchen remodelled." [Witbeck:30] With interior work upon the church complete, the building was once more ready for use and on September 28, 1924, the first Sunday worship service held in the church since the previous December was conducted.

The newly-rebuilt church was rededicated on November 19, 1924, appropriately the day before Thanksgiving.

Rededicatory exercises were held at Central Congregational church, Wednesday evening at which a large number were present, many representatives of the other churches in town attending, as well as guests from out of town. Fine music was rendered by the vested choir of the church, under the direction of Wirt B. Phillips, with Miss Annie Keith as organist. The opening prayer was offered by Rev. A. G. Cummings of the First [Congregational] church and the scripture was read by Rev. John E. LeBosquet, pastor of the First Congregational church of Fall River. Mr. Cummings brought greetings and blessing from the mother church at the Green, which is 230 years old this year. It was from this church March 25, 1847 that 33 members, ten men and 23 women, asked for letters of dismissal in order to found the Central Congregational church. At that time the right hand of fellowship was given by that staunch old preacher, Rev. Israel Putnam. Dr. Cummings stated that during all the years from that day to this the mother church has watched her daughter, happy in her successes and now rejoices that she has passed through the trials of fire and has come out reclothed and in such a prosperous condition.

Rev. C. R. Chappell, pastor of the Central Baptist church, brought the greetings of the sister churched in the community, saying that it was a personal delight to him to assist in this dedication service, because of the delightful fellowship that exists among the churches of this town.

The sermon of the evening on "The Lost Radiance of the Church" was preached by Mr. LeBosquet. He spoke of the large church buildings erected in years past which used to be thronged with people, whereas the great problem now is how to fill them. The speaker said that now the Central Congregational church had been so splendidly refitted the time was ripe to increase the church attendance. People respect the church as much as in olden times but so many attractions exist today that it is neglected. So many fraternal organizations have risen that the work of the church does not seem necessary in this line. But clubs, however popular, have no such history as the church and the church is not for men and women alone, but for the entire family. The speaker emphasized the great mistake in bringing up children with no religious training. By attending church people can set an example to the children which will bear fruit in the next generation. The speaker closed by emphasizing church attendance as a duty people owe to others as well as to themselves.

The act of dedication was performed by the pastor of the church, Rev. John P. Garfield, and the congregation, after which the service was closed by a prayer and benediction by Mr. Garfield, Rev. Lincoln B. Goodrich being unable to be present. The present church edifice was dedicated Aug. 15, 1849; the church was incorporated Sept. 9, 1889. It was rededicated after extensive changes, Feb. 23, 1892 and was damaged by fire, Sunday, Dec. 2, 1923, restored and rededicated, Nov. 19, 1924. A new Hook & Hastings organ is to be installed before next Easter.

At the close of the service all were invited below to inspect the lower rooms, which, fresh from the hands of the decorators, present a most attractive appearance. Some changes have been made in the arrangements of these rooms which add greatly to the beauty and convenience of the church. About 200 were present and an enjoyable social hour was held during which musical selections were rendered by Walter Weeman, violin; Chester Shaw, flute and Parker Kennedy, piano. Refreshments of sandwiches and coffee were served by the social committee of the church, Mrs. Louis Ritter, Mrs. Charles Martin and Mrs. Wilson G. Harlow, assisted by numerous ladies of the church. [Middleboro Gazette, "Rededicatory Services", November 21, 1924, page 1]


Fire-gutted rear of the Central Congregational Church, Michael J. Maddigan, photographer, June 5, 2009
The view shows the rear addition of the Central Congregational Church. The addition was constructed during the 1891-92 renovation of the church and was the source of the three fires in the church since that time: 1924, 1930 and 2009.

Detail, fire gutted rear of the Central Congregational Church, Michael J. Maddigan, photographer, June 5, 2009

Fire-gutted eave and windows, Central Congregational Church, Michael J. Maddigan, photographer, June 5, 2009

Damaged Window, Central Congregational Church, Michael J. Maddigan, photographer, June 8, 2009
"Flames had burst through the windows in the rear and were even higher than the roof" during the 1924 fire.
Reverend John P. Garfield
Garfield served as pastor of the Central Congregational Church from 1921 through 1936, and oversaw the church's reconstruction following fires in 1924 and 1930.
Central Congregational Church, photograph, late 1930s
The photograph shows the pristine church just over a decade following its repair following the 1924 fire.

Middleboro Gazette, "Church's Narrow Escape from Destruction", December 7, 1923, page 1.
Middleboro Gazette, "Fires", April 25, 1930, page 1.
Middleboro Gazette, "Middleboro", March 28, 1924, page 1; June 6, 1924, page 2; July 4, 1924, page 8; and October 3, 1924, page 1.
Middleboro Gazette, "Rededicatory Services", November 21, 1924, p. 1.
Witbeck, Mertie E. History of the Central Congregational Church, Middleborough, Massachusetts, 1847-1947. Middleborough, MA: Central Congregational Church, 1947.


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