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HISTORY

Christ Church, Pomfret, Connecticut

There are so many ways to imagine God's glory and live into it.

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Our Story

Christ Church is situated on land acquired from a sachem of the Mohegan tribe, a territory occupied and cared for by the Nipmucs, Wabbaquasetts, Quinebaugs, Narragansetts, and Pequots before them. We recognize and respect the Mohegans for their stewardship of the land and the Quinebaug River. Our acknowledgment stands as a promise to continue the work of recognition and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

 

Despite the 1662 US Charter—which officially gave Connecticut the right to self-rule—designating Congregational churches as the official religion, other denominations were flourishing long before the state revised its Constitution in 1818.

 

One example is Trinity Church in Brooklyn, Connecticut, the first Episcopal church in the quiet corner, built in 1771. It served the sparsely populated towns of Brooklyn, Pomfret, and Plainfield. Over time, several residents of Pomfret became leaders of Trinity Church and in May 1828 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, who also served Brooklyn’s Trinity Church, was present for the meeting and he and his successors would serve both parishes until 1842. 

 

For the first year services were held in a district school using altar linens, a Bible, and prayer books donated by 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 construct 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 Reverend Roswell Park was rector from 1842 to 1852. Those were vibrant years for the parish, allowing him and his wife Mary to move into the newly built parsonage and launch a school where they could “receive several students in the higher branches of study.” Park named the school Christ Church Hall, and the classroom also hosted Vestry meetings and community events. 

 

After George Whistler, a former classmate and dear friend of Park’s, died in 1849, his widow, Anna McNeill Whitler, moved to Pomfret with her two sons to enroll them in 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. Although Whistler painted his “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” about twenty years after their departure, it has a special place in Christ Church lore because reference to it as ‘Whistler’s Mother,’ is also recognition of a one-time member of our parish.

By mid-century the population of Pomfret had declined and the parish struggled with membership and keeping the building in repair. Then Pomfret reinvented itself when visitors hailing from cities as close as Providence and as far as Philadelphia spent summers at the inns established by Ben Grosvenor and his brother Charles, decided to build homes here. Members of the Vinton family returned to Pomfret around that time and, after the death of their patriarch, the prominent Episcopal clergyman—and one-time Pomfret physician—Alexander H. Vinton (1801–1881), proposed replacing the quaint but decaying 1829 building in his memory.

The plans were drawn up by a family member, the Providence architect Howard Hoppin, who designed many of the new nearby houses. Hoppin had returned from a European tour with his head filled with images of stone cathedrals and parish churches reaching back to medieval times. 

He 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.

For six windows on the sides and back of the church they turned to Louis Comfort Tiffany, who had family connections in northeast Connecticut. His father had kept a store in Brooklyn before moving to New York City. By the time the church was being built in 1882–83, Tiffany, already a noted landscape artist, had begun his experiments with glass. The chancel windows were designed by Frederic Crowninshield, then teaching at the Boston Museum School. 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, which continues to house the parish clergy. (The original designed also called for a cloistered walk to connect the two structures but it was never built.) 

 

Later, a window created by Wm. McPherson of Boston, and one produced by Heaton, Butler & Bayne of London, England, were added. In 1897 an organ by the prolific George S. Hutchings Company of Boston (Opus 429) was installed, and has been maintained since them with some additions and modifications. Then in 1905 parishioner Helen Bradley commissioned Tiffany to create a baptismal font as a memorial to her late husband and daughter. A sacristy and a small parish house were built in the middle of the twentieth century and the latter was enlarged and renovated in the 1980s. 

 

A history of the buildings without considering the people who have been involved with them over the years doesn’t do justice to Christ Church, Pomfret. Visiting when they are quiet, these buildings appear to be a memorial to past parishioners. But silence did not attract these gifts, nor was it the purpose of these gifts. They are tribute to the vitality represented by these names; the leadership, the joys and celebrations that are part of a community. Whenever we are asked to give a tour of Christ Church—as if it is a historical structure frozen in time—we attempt to conjure up the purpose and activity for which these buildings exist. Thanks be to God for the long history of Christ Church and the ongoing ministries of its clergy and members.

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