Christ Church, Pomfret, Connecticut
There are so many ways to imagine God’s glory and live into it.
One version of our Christ Church story states that it contributes to the Pomfret Street Historic
District. This designation extends for approximately two miles through the center of Pomfret and includes three churches and a school chapel. Two independent schools and many white, framed buildings in the Colonial Revival style that were once private homes and are now associated with the schools speak to the transformation of Pomfret in the late nineteenth century. But Christ Church stands out, even though Route 169 is lined with stone walls.
In 1881 Howard Hoppin was a young architect in Providence who had already garnered the first
of many commissions in Pomfret. He had returned from a European tour with his head filled
with images of stone cathedrals and parish churches reaching back to medieval times. Pomfret
was in an exciting time of growth, recently discovered by summer visitors from Providence to
Philadelphia. Many gravitated to Christ Church and agreed that the historic sixty-year-old
building that had served the parish since 1829 should be replaced.
Hoppin imagined that the rocks that farmers and gardeners battled in their fields could be
gathered and stacked in a form that suggested a sacred place. Inside this curious rubble-stone
structure, its donors and artists celebrated God’s glory with color and light on the walls and in
the windows. Many of these expressions were given to honor the memory of the faithful whose
lives modeled God’s love.
In the beginning, a small group of Episcopalians convened in May 1828 and voted “to unite ourselves to form a Parish to be called the Episcopal Parish in Pomfret.” A month later at its Convention, the Diocese of Connecticut established this parish and its elected officers. Their rector at Brooklyn’s Trinity Church, Brooklyn, was present for the meeting and until 1842, he and several successors served both churches.
For the first year, services were held in district schools using altar linens, a Bible, and prayer
books donated by new members to make those plain buildings fit for worship. The church school was organized, and books collected for a children’s library. This energy quickly translated into fundraising to purchase land and raise the first church. Although “not quite finished” by Christmas 1829, the Eucharist was celebrated for the first time on that occasion.
This building was heated by a stove and lighted with candles and oil lamps. At the annual meeting in April 1830 the name Christ Church was adopted and the following May, the building was dedicated by the Bishop of Connecticut.
The Rev. Roswell Park was rector from 1842 to 1852. Those were vibrant years for the parish.
He and his wife Mary, moved into the newly built rectory to house students at Christ Church
Hall, a school that he founded. Park had been a topographical engineer before entering the
Soon after his arrival in Pomfret, a West Point ’31 classmate, George Washington
Whistler, who went to Russia as a civil engineer to build the railway linking St. Petersburg and
Moscow, died suddenly leaving his wife and two children. She returned to Connecticut with her
sons and made her way to Pomfret in 1850 to enroll them at Christ Church Hall. Her diary
records her regular attendance at church and her worries about her children, especially the
creative James. When Park left Pomfret in 1852, the school closed, and the Whistlers moved
away, too. ‘Whistler’s Mother,’ best known a study in gray and black by her famous son, is part
of parish history.
By mid-century the population of Pomfret had declined and the parish struggled with
membership and keeping the building in repair. Pomfret reinvented itself when summer visitors
discovered the inns established by Ben Grosvenor and his brother Charles and began building
houses in town and employing local residents. Members of the Vinton family returned to
Pomfret and after the death of their patriarch, the prominent Episcopal clergyman (and one-time Pomfret physician), Alexander H. Vinton (1801–1881), his family proposed replacing the quaint but decaying 1829 building.
The plans were drawn up by a family member, the Providence architect Howard Hoppin, who
designed other nearby houses. For six windows, they turned to Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose
father had kept a store in Brooklyn before moving to New York City. Tiffany, already a noted
landscape artist, was beginning his experiments with glass. When it came time to lay the
cornerstone, another family friend, the celebrated Boston clergyman Phillips Brooks was invited
to return to Pomfret, where he had already preached several times. Brooks is best known today
for writing the verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a carol that is traditionally included in
the Christmas music at Christ Church.
Hoppin’s design also included a new rectory. The cloistered walk that he imagined connecting the two was never built. Such a building is silent until “two or three are gathered together in God’s name.” Whenever I am asked to give a tour of Christ Church—as if it is a historical structure frozen in time—I attempt to conjure up its vitality: the music, the singing, and yes, the chatter before the service begins..
Thanks be to God for this community--the devotion to families and friends and for
reaching out to support the needs of others.
Caroline Sloat, November 2021
For further reading:
Ellen D. Larned, History of Windham County, 2 vols. (1874-1880; repr. Westminster, MD:
Heritage Books, 2008).
John Addison Porter, “Picturesque Pomfret,” Connecticut Quarterly 2 (January-March
Caroline Sloat, Christ Church, Pomfret, 1828-1978: An Anniversary Book (Pomfret, 1979).