Williston-West Church


A Brief History of Williston-West Church



Williston-West Church began as a mission church of State Street Congregational Church in the late 19th Century. Officially gathered in 1873 to serve the burgeoning West End neighborhood of Portland. Toda, it is difficult for us to imagine life in Portland over 142 years ago. Transportation was by foot, horseback, or horse and carriage. Roads were packed dirt or cobblestone, and in winter snow and spring rains were nearly impassable. While the distance between State Street Church and the West End neighborhood of Williston-West seems small today, in 186l the route was not so easily traveled, especially by children.

Image: Williston ChapelThus in 186l, with the West End of Portland growing, a community based Sunday School was started in the Walnut Street school house under the direction of State Street Church. By July 1866, a chapel had been built at Danforth and May Streets by State Street Church for the 150 children attending the Walnut Street Sunday School. Dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Maria Williston Walker, the wife of the pastor of State Street Church, the first service in the new Williston Chapel was held on July 1, l866 for 22 members. By 1872, a minister, Burke Fay Leavitt, was hired for the Williston Chapel.

The church, as we know it, was officially formed as Williston Church on February 5, 1873 with 17 of the original 22 members coming from State Street Church. Williston Church was the first incorporated church in the state of Maine. Leavitt was ordained and installed as the first pastor of Williston Church in May 1873 and served until 1876. During Leavitt’s tenure, the membership grew to 61.

Leavitt’s replacement, Francis E. Clark, had just completed his studies at Andover Theological Seminary. Twenty-five years old and energetic, Rev. Clark accepted his first ministry and the condition that a new church be built. Under Clark’s leadership, the present site was selected and fund raisers were held.

Image: Great Fire of Portland 1866The architect chosen for the project, Francis Fassett, was born in Bath and trained as an architect in Boston. Fassett’s previous projects in Portland gained him a reputation that lasts to this day: he redesigned and rebuilt the Old City Hall destroyed by the Great Fire in Portland on July 4, 1866; he completed the Casco Bank Block on Middle Street in 1867. In 1874, the Maine General Hospital design began to be constructed. And in 1876, his own dual house on Pine Street (117-119) at the top of Thomas Street was begun.

Though technically in the Victorian High Gothic style, Williston Church also shows heavy influence from the Queen Anne style. Rev. Clark’s seven-year career at Williston Church saw 322 people become members of the church, the installation of the organ, and in 1881 Rev. Clark founded the nondenominational Christian Endeavor Society, a worldwide organization that is still in existence. A builder of Williston Church, both literally and figuratively, Rev. Clark and his wife reached out particularly to children within and without the congregation. Upon leaving Williston Church in 1883, Clark became the first president of World Christian Endeavor.

In 1904, the architect John Calvin Stevens, who trained under Fassett and was his partner from 1880-1883, was hired to design the parish house. Stevens own architectural style had taken him in quite a different direction from his earlier mentor, but the parish house addition was reasonably sympathetic to Fassett’s earlier design. Both Fassett’s and Steven’s long architectural careers and their significance, not only within this historic neighborhood but throughout the Greater Portland area, will long be felt.

The years from 1883-1930 were fairly calm at Williston Church. However, on February 3, 1931, flames swept through the chancel. The organ and several stained glass windows were destroyed. Insurance covered the major losses and repairs were completed by November 1931. The organ currently in use is the 1875 organ from the Williston Chapel on Danforth Street. Refurbished for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Church in 1973, major repairs were also made in the summer of 1995.

In the 1960s and '70s, Williston Church, like many churches nationwide, saw a drop in attendance as people moved to the suburbs. Combining forces and congregations with West Church which was founded in 186l, the church adopted a new name, Williston-West Church, United Church of Christ in 1970, expanding its community base. The United Church of Christ (UCC) was formed in 1957, blending the Congregationalism of the New England Pilgrims and Puritans, the Christian Churches of the South, and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches of the Mid-West. Through the years the UCC has been enriched by the presence of many different racial and cultural traditions who have joined these four faith streams as well.

It has been more than 79 years since a memorial window was dedicated in the sanctuary, but interestingly the fourteen windows represent a complete history of the art of making stained glass, for every method of the glassmakers art is represented: the laborious antique method; the less time consuming cathedral method, and the opalescent and drapery glass method, developed in the United States and popularized in the l880s, in particular by the Tiffany studio.

The church’s newest memorial window, dedicated in 1936, was made by the renowned Boston stained glass artist Charles Connick, a major promoter of the antique technique. With the success of the Capital Revitalization Campaign in l996, restoration has begun on one of the stained glass windows endangered by bowing in the frame. The repair of Christ Among the Doctors was completed during the summer of l996.

Williston-West Church’s 138 years of formal organization carry with them much history. In recent years, the church has housed the Soup Kitchen as a major community outreach project. Another mission activity has been the International Play Group, an idea brought forward by a member of the congregation. In the fall of 1995 a Comparative Religions series of Adult Education Classes saw 30 to 40 people attending over a series of weeks. Our focus as a church community has grown from a small local community Sunday School to a membership that stretches from Old Orchard Beach to Brunswick. A successful Capital Revitalization Campaign saw pledges over a three-year period of nearly $240,000, a commitment by this community to insure the future of Williston-West Church.

** "Williston-West Church, Portland ME" by John Phelan - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Williston-West_Church,_Portland_ME.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Williston-West_Church,_Portland_ME.jpg