The First Parish Church
Compiled and edited by M. L. Clarke, October 2004
In 1663, the Town Meeting in Medford voted to have a meetinghouse erected. Eager as townspeople were to have one built, there were delays in its construction until May 1696. At that time, the first meetinghouse was completed at 279 High Street. Ministers came and went during the early years, including John Hancock (grandfather of the patriot Simon Bradstreet), and John Tufts.
In 1712, Aaron Porter became the first regular pastor of the church. In 1713 Rev. Porter married Susanne Sewell, niece of the famous judge of the Salem Witch Trials, Samuel Sewell (Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President of the United States was a direct descendant of the Porters). Along with a regular salary, the minister was provided with an annual supply of firewood. Reverend Porter served for nine years, until his death at age 33. A marble slab in the burying ground on Salem Street marks his grave.
After much searching and fasting, a new minister, Ebenezer Turell, was hired in 1724. He served for 54 years, during which time he baptized 1037 people, married 220 couples and admitted 323 communicants to the church. Rev. Turell was widowed three times – first by Jane Coleman, then by Lucy Davenport, and lastly, by Jane Pepperell, the youngest sister of Sir William Pepperell. Jane was a prolific poet, correspondent and diarist. She represented a new generation of women who had a consciousness of gender and looked to women as poetic models, and whose interests went beyond the religious and natural subjects dictated by Puritan culture. As she presented it, the conscientious Jane Turell had difficulty “coming into communion” in the Medford church, partly because she found the counsel and preaching of her father more reliable and inspiring than that of her husband. A new meetinghouse was built during Rev. Turell’s ministry at 227 High Street. Completed in 1727, it was twice the size of the previous one, with a steeple rising from its center. In an effort at frugality, it was decided that each person should build his own pew, at his own cost.
In 1770 a third meetinghouse was built at 147 High Street, the site of the present church. The new meetinghouse was two stories high, with window sashes of square glass, a two-sided roof and three porches. During these early years there was little tolerance for any imitation of the English Church, hence the church did not observe either Christmas or Easter.
Harvard graduate David Osgood of Andover was Medford’s third regular minister. When hired, he was an animated and forceful preacher. As he softened in his later years, he developed a gentle warmth that touched his parishioners. After his marriage in 1785, he built a home at 141 High Street for his bride, Hannah Breed. Unaccountably fearful of death throughout his life, Osgood died in 1822, after 48 years in the ministry. Still church property, Osgood House stands today across Powder House Road from the church.
Differences that had been simmering within the single congregation over the years prompted some members to separate from the church after Dr. Osgood’s death. A majority of the descendants of the original members took sides with the Unitarians, while others, not born in the town, favored the Trinitarians.
The new minister, again from Harvard College, was Andrew Bigelow. Rev. Bigelow found it impossible to reconcile the two groups and the dissidents withdrew. The main church body became Unitarian in belief.
In 1824 the congregation established itself as the First Parish of Medford, a separate body under a legal organization distinct from the town government. The members who left established themselves as the Second Congregational Church.
As numerous ministers came and went throughout the 19th century, various changes occurred. An organ was purchased in 1824 for $450; a parsonage was built in 1832 for $3,805; a formal fund was established to accept gifts and bequests, as well as pay the ministers’ salary, and yet another new meetinghouse was built on the site of the old one.
During that time Medford had three distinct churches: the First Parish, First Universalist, and Hillside Universalist Church. At the end of the century, the First Parish’s wooden meeting house, built in 1839 (see drawing above, and associated link to photo), was destroyed by fire. It was replaced by the current building, the fifth building to house First Parish of Medford, at a cost of $25,594, which was dedicated on June 1, 1894. It became the home for the combined Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford – as it remains to this day – following the formation of Unitarian Universalism via the 1961 merger of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association.
M.I.T. trained Architect J. Merrill Brown designed the Gothic Revival style ashlar stone and wood-framed, shingled building. Brown had previously designed a number of homes in the exuberant Queen Anne style in Cambridge during the 1880s. His design for the church in Medford specified a base of New Hampshire gray granite, trimmed with red granite from the quarries at Rockport, Massachusetts. At the southwest corner a gable-roofed porch and a cochere the driveway. The covered entry, with its high granite step, allowed a horse and carriage to discharge its passengers directly into the church. Original turret cupola roofs and spire on the east side of the building disappeared sometime during the past 50 years.
The main sanctuary has a brown-shingled front gable containing an exquisite tri-partite Gothic stained glass window. Presented to the church by their children, the memorial window honors the generosity and philanthropy of Jonas and Sarah Freeman Sampson Coburn. Designed by F. M. Whipple & Co. of Boston, the richly colored window depicts the story of Christ and the woman of Samaria. The side panels are ornamented with Easter lilies and Passion flowers. See the story below for details and a photo of the window.
The interior of the building retains much of its original medieval country church aspect, with heavy timber scissor trusses of the roof framing, and stained glass windows with Gothic pointed arches. These details are characteristic of the smaller parish churches of England that architect Brown and the church building committee would have felt appropriate for New England.
The chancel platform retains its original carved oak Gothic pulpit and furniture – three chairs and the altar table remain in use. These are significant, as the architect would have specified them as appropriate.
The original 1894 building remains largely intact and little altered, although systems have been updated and minor alterations carried out. During the 20th century, dwindling membership and years of deferred maintenance put this important historic church building at risk.
An extensive interior and exterior restoration program conducted from 2002 to 2007 on the church building and the Osgood House remedied the structural defects and left our beautiful properties in sound condition for years to come.
A Blast from the Past
While doing research in the Boston Library, a church member discovered the following article in the December 29, 1880 issue of the Medford Mercury. It is about the principal stained glass window which dominates the upper back wall of our sanctuary. The window was restored earlier this decade. Here is the article’s text:
“A Beautiful Memorial Window”
An interesting illustration of the achievement in the art of stained glass, which has been reached in this country, is shown by a noble window which has been placed in the new Unitarian Church in this city. The window is a memorial to Jonas and Sarah Freeman Sampson Coburn, who will long be remembered with gratitude for their equal generosity and philanthropy in everything pertaining to religious and city affairs.
This window is presented to the society by the children now living, and is placed in the large gothic tracery, opening in the front of the building, facing High street, where it will serve as a beautiful reminder of the good deeds and works of those to whose memory it is erected.
In the center panel is the story of Christ and the Woman of Samaria. At the right, the Savior sits clad in garments of rich ruby and gold; at the left, standing at the well, is the Woman of Samaria, and in the treatment of the drapery, and head dress of this figure, the artist has been very successful in representing the rich oriental coloring with its varied hues. In the distance can be seen the glow of the sunset tipping the clouds with a golden light; receding forms of water carriers are also discernible, wending their way through the rocks and verdure, and the pictured story as a whole, which is exquisitely drawn and colored teaches the lesson of sincerity and devotion to all religious matters.
The side panels are artistically treated with browns and olives, while in the centre of each, enclosed in a handsome, ornamental bracket, are the Easter lilies and Passion flowers; the ornamentation of these panels extends from the base of the window to the top and is distributed with rare taste, both as to harmony of color and design throughout the entire tracery, making the window one of the handsomest of the kind that has ever been seen in the State, and in the Unitarian Society is especially favored in having presented to it so fine a specimen of art in glass, and the work reflects great credit on the artists, F. M. Whipple & Co. of Boston, who have striven to make this window a masterpiece.