Many of us tend to forget or remain unaware of our state’s religious history. Connecticut – like many New England colonies, commonwealths, and states – was largely founded because of Protestant sect divisions. In the 17th century especially, Congregationalists established various houses of worship along with town greens and they served a civic purpose for many New England communities. These were religious spaces as well as town hall meeting locations. Across our region, Congregationalist churches have adorned our skylines for generations.
Hartford’s civic spaces stood out because of its religious founding but also because their Congregationalists’ Meeting Houses (also known as churches) were significant in stature. These historic structures are prominent around our capital city and one can’t ignore their presence. Center Church on Gold Street and South Church on Main Street, for example, are unavoidable in downtown Hartford as they’re the city’s oldest congregations. Many of these churches were initially wood structures and by the nineteenth century were rebuilt as brick and Federal-style churches.
It’s also no secret that Black American churches have been the heart of countless neighborhoods for generations. They were often the only civic space where local politics thrived in Black communities since electoral politics were near impossible in political machine cities. Black pastors were and remain significant leaders especially in urban America. Religious leaders like Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. extended their sermons and civic engagement beyond their church pews and into Atlanta and New York streets during the civil rights movement.
I have taught and researched local government and can’t ignore the significance of religious institutions in America when discussing community politics. I even had the opportunity to write a book about New England democracy and its affiliations to local churches.
So I may study local politics, particularly in New England communities, but I was also raised in a Hartford Congregationalist church – Horace Bushnell Congregationalist Church now Liberty Christian Center International. It’s located on upper Albany Avenue in the city’s North End neighborhood. After relocating to Connecticut’s shoreline, I joined New Haven’s First Congregationalist Center Church On The Green and it’s the city’s founding and oldest church.
Both meeting houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and have prominent architectural features including immense floor-to-ceiling organ pipes. As a tenor, I was blessed to sing in their church choirs and hear robust organ pipes play in superb acoustic sanctuaries. I revered these Congregationalist Meeting Houses, even as a child. They hold such important religious but also local history and community resources. In fact, they house neighborhood services like Horace Bushnell Children’s Food Pantry and Center Church’s partnership with Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. So both churches have been an essential part of their respective cities.
But sadly these churches have fallen into disrepair and require much needed preservation work. Their steeples are battered and rotting. My New Haven church has thankfully undergone significant work recently, especially to its sizable steeple. But Liberty Christian Center International Church made the top of Hartford Preservation Alliance’s 2022 most endangered properties. It’ll be costly to address their roof, steeple and other structural issues. Religious leaders discovered five years ago that it would cost $1.2 million so it will likely be more than the initial estimate.
Community and preservation organizations like the Hartford Preservation Alliance help promote the importance of repairing historic structures such as the Liberty Christian Center International Church. Preservation Connecticut awarded a $10,000 grant to help with some initial repairs to their church. Even Center Church applied and received Preservation Connecticut grant funding to help with steeple restorations. Ultimately, community and media attention about these churches and additional historic projects is vital for fundraising and grant consideration. Knowing a community’s history is key to protecting its past.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies associate dean and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.