A History of Park Congregational Church
Park Congregational Church began as the first “Children’s Church” in the country. Originally located in the heart of historic Elm Park in Worcester, one of the nation’s oldest public parks, several interested Congregationalists in the city, under the auspices of the Worcester City Missionary Society, launched a ministry to the children who would come to the park, along with their parents, in the 1880s. This ministry quickly grew so that in 1884 a Sabbath School was formed. In 1887, with help from the Missionary Society, the construction of a new building was completed at the corner of Elm Street and Russell Street, and Park Congregational Church was officially organized on February 24 of that year when a worship service was held to install the Reverend George S. Pelton as minister.
Within a few years, the church became known as the “Children’s Church,” the first in America, organized to serve children who came to play in Elm Park. This building served as the home of Park Congregational Church until the summer of 2008 when the structure was sold and the congregation moved to its new location at 111 Park Avenue in the building of First Baptist Church.
Park Congregational Church was able to burn its mortgages in 1913 under the inspirational leadership of the Reverend C. F. Hill Crathern, who became known as the “Children’s Pastor.”
The church organized the first Boy Scout troop in Worcester County in 1910, the year that the Boy Scouts were founded nationally. That troop moved to another congregation, but a new troop was started at Park Church, Troop 60. The congregation continued its ministry to youngsters in the 1920s as it became actively involved in hosting “Father and Son” banquets in cooperation with the Worcester YMCA, giving an opportunity for fathers and sons to bond. The very energetic Troop 60 became well known throughout the city in the 1930s and 40s, winning an assortment of trophies for scouting skills. Quite a number from that troop attained Eagle Scout badges. In addition to its Wednesday evening meetings at the church on the corner of Elm and Russell Streets, the scouts held annual programs and courts of honor. They would present one-act plays that would draw large crowds to watch them perform. Park Church also participated in a basketball league for youth and gained a reputation for being one of the best teams in the city.
One of the more prominent former pastors of Park Church was the Reverend Dr. Myron W. Fowell (1933-1942). He was instrumental in the founding of the Worcester Council of Churches in 1937. Rev. Dr. Fowell served as the first Executive Secretary of the Council, which later changed its name to the Worcester County Ecumenical Council. Rev. Dr. Fowell’s Park Church office doubled as the office of the Council. Under his ministry to the congregation and the community at large, Park Church gained widespread stature in the city of Worcester.
In the mid-1940s, the Reverend Alfred Winham concentrated his efforts on expanding Park Church’s Pilgrim Fellowship, creating a young people’s group that would be active for several decades. The Pilgrim Fellowship provided challenge and fellowship to high-school age youth with mission trips, retreats, local service events, and fundraising. They performed plays and sang in choirs.
Another prominent former minister of Park Church was the Reverend Dr. Joseph W. Beach (1948-1961). Under his beloved leadership, the church’s membership reached its zenith, over 500 in the mid-1950s. In 1951, Park Church experienced a devastating fire that destroyed the chapel, organ, and much of the main sanctuary. The congregation was able to overcome this setback, and within a year, a new sanctuary was built and other parts of the building were redesigned. In 1954, the Pilgrim Fellowship grew so large that Mr. Beach, as he was known, persuaded the church leadership for the first time in its history to call a Minister of Youth, who was H. Milton Bartlett, who in 1958 became the first minister to be ordained in Park Church. It was during the tenure of Joe Beach that the United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 as a merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and Mr. Beach became a strong proponent of the new denomination, writing numerous articles in newspapers and preaching sermons in support of it.
Under the leadership of Park Church’s longest serving minister, the Reverend Martin W. Perry (1967-2000), the church became famous for its “Scottish Sundays,” a tribute to the large percentage of church members who were of Scottish descent. These “Scottish Sundays” drew people from Worcester and beyond, becoming an annual tradition on the Sunday in January closest to the birthday of Robert Burns from 1976-1996. On those Sundays in the worship service, bagpipers and drummers played Scottish hymns and the Bible was read in Scottish Gaelic. Many of the Scottish men wore kilts and many of the men and women wore clothing with tartan patterns. The sanctuary was packed on those Sundays, even the balcony. After the service, downstairs in the Fellowship Hall, the festivities continued with Scottish music, singing, and dancing.
Under the leadership of the current minister, the Rev. Dr. Gary R. Shahinian (2000-present), the Sunday School and Youth Group have grown considerably, as the church remembers its legacy as the “Children’s Church.” Children and youth are involved in many aspects of the congregation’s ministry, such as hosting church suppers, financially supporting a NEADS dog, “Benny,” attending the annual Lenten Series and monthly Movie Matinee, and taking part in an ecumenical Vacation Bible Camp, which this past June attracted 128 children and youth. In addition the children participate in worship services at Christmastime and on Maundy Thursday. Several of the Sunday School children sing in a Children’s Choir and several of the Youth Group join the Adult Choir and sing in the Christmas and Easter Cantatas. The Youth Group serves as Youth Deacons on Communion Sundays, ministers to the homeless in Worcester and to the elderly at the Odd Fellows Nursing Home, and frequently lead or participate in many worship services during the course of the year.
Our church’s motto for our 125th Anniversary Celebration is “OUR PAST HAS INSPIRED OUR FUTURE,” and we as a congregation are continuing to travel along that road looking forward to the future with faith and hope in God as we dedicate ourselves to serve the church and kingdom of Jesus Christ!