Historical Society Helps Extend Church's Legacy
SOUTH PORTLAND – At the end of August, a church that has stood in South Portland since the 19th century will close its doors for good. The First United Methodist Church, located next to Brownsville Cemetery at the intersection of Church Street and Ridgeland Avenue, will hold its final service Aug. 25, closing the book on the history of the oldest church in the city.
Sharon Ward, the historian at First United Methodist Church, said the number of active members has dwindled below 20, meaning pledges are not nearly enough to cover maintenance for the dilapidated building, much less pay for heat and plowing in the winter. The decision was made in June to close the church. While Ward understands the logic, she said that does not negate the feelings of sadness.
“Reality is one thing, but emotions are another. Even though looking at it realistically, I knew we couldn’t stay open, emotionally it’s difficult to close,” Ward said. “It hurts.”
Ward said the congregation for the First United Methodist Church was established in 1803. According to Kathy DiPhilippo, executive director of the South Portland Historical Society, the church building itself was erected in 1866. Now, the building that has stood in South Portland since the city was part of Cape Elizabeth is extremely worn down. The white trim around the edges of the building is flaking and windows are broken.
However, outside the church a bell sits on the lawn area, in perfect working order but without a steeple in which to sound. Inscribed on the bell are two words, “Revere Boston.”
The Revere Bell, made in Paul Revere’s copper rolling mill in Canton, Mass., is one of less than two dozen remaining in Maine, and the only one in South Portland. According to DiPhilippo, the Nutter family, a prominent and wealthy group in the area during the nineteenth century, donated the bell to the church in 1871.
The Nutter family lived in what is now the central area of the city, unsurprisingly near what is now Nutter Road. The family’s mansion stood on a hill near the current location of the South Portland High School track, and held large galas in which all the wealthy socialites in town “would get invited or hope to get invited,” according to DiPhilippo.
The mansion is long gone, as are most artifacts tied to the once-prominent Nutter family. DiPhilippo said the scarcity of objects relating to the family makes the bell that much more important to the historical society.
“When you find artifacts like that, you can use it to tell a story,” she said.
In addition to the bell’s local historical significance, its rarity also gives it a high financial value. Ward acknowledged the church had the option to sell to a number of interested parties, but saw a more important opportunity to preserve the church’s rich history.
“We want to leave a legacy for our church,” Ward said.
DiPhilippo said the historical society has already received an offer to purchase the bell – she did not specify for how much – but she sees the historical significance of the object as more important than its financial worth.
“We’re not in the business of putting a dollar value on things, we’re in the business of preserving South Portland’s history,” DiPhilippo said.
The First United Methodist Church will also donate volumes of scrapbooks to the historical society, which have been maintained by Ward and the church’s previous historians through the church’s history.
In the beginning, Ward said the books document lightning strikes hitting the steeple and tell the stories of ministers preaching fire and brimstone from the pulpit. Since Ward has taken over, she has focused on documenting photos of charity events, meals and holidays.
“I take my camera with me wherever I go,” Ward said.
DiPhilippo said she was amazed by the meticulous level of detail in the old scrapbooks, which she called a “tremendous resource” for people curious about their genealogy and the city’s history.
“This is not only a building, it’s a whole community of people,” DiPhilippo said.
The scarcity of churchgoers has not always been the reality for South Portland. Ward said when she was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, her Sunday school had hundreds of children in the church, with at least twice that many in the adult congregation.
The abundance of religious residents allowed the city to easily support four Methodist churches for many years. The other three are still operating in South Portland. The Thornton Heights United Methodist Church, Elm Street United Methodist Church and Peoples United Methodist Church form nearly a straight line from the west end of the city to the east.
“In today’s world, (four churches) is too many for this community, but it’s indicative of how many Methodists were in our community for many years,” DiPhilippo said. “People aren’t going to church the way they used to.”
Ward said there are still many unanswered questions as the First United Methodist Church prepares to close. She said many of the active members will likely attend one of the three remaining churches in South Portland, or decide on options in the nearby communities of Scarborough or Cape Elizabeth. She is unsure what will happen to the three Alcoholics Anonymous groups that meet weekly in the church, and she does not know who will pick up the responsibility to maintain the Brownfield Cemetery.
However, Ward said she is confident the individual members of the church will continue finding ways to help the community, and she said the historical society has helped achieve that goal.
“When one door closes, another one opens.” Ward said.
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