Our History & Building
A Brief History of First Congregational UCC
Our church was organized with seven members on December 18, 1850 under the Wisconsin Union of Congregational and Presbyterian Churches. In the spirit of that Union, the charter members chose the name “Congregational” but adopted the Presbyterian form of governance. New residents settled rapidly in the little village of Appleton, many of them Congregationalists from New York and New England, leading the members to change to Congregational governance in January of 1852 when they adopted the proper name of “First Congregational Church and Society of Appleton, Wisconsin.” It was common for Congregational churches of that era to have two separate organizations, with the “church” taking responsibility for spiritual matters and the “society” handling its business affairs.
The Little Brown Church
Worship services were held in several sites before a permanent home was built. Construction of the “Little Brown Church” began in February of 1852 on a lot donated by Amos A. Lawrence. Members of the Society went miles into the forest surrounding the village to cut timber for the building. On May 29,1853 the first service was held in the still uncompleted building. The 36 x 45-foot structure, built at a total cost of $2,000, was formally dedicated on January 12, 1854, the first church building completed in the village. The building was lit by candles and heated by stoves. A melodion provided the music until it was replaced by a reed organ, and finally, in 1869, a pipe organ.
The church began as a mission congregation, receiving support from churches in the East. It became self-supporting in 1858, by which point the membership had reached 125. It then entered into mission work of its own, both in the other wards of Appleton and in the nearby communities of New London and Hortonville. The congregation was steeped in Puritan ideals of personal discipline and moderation, but also shaped by Enlightenment perspectives elevating tolerance, racial justice and social ministry. Early members were outspoken proponents of the Abolitionist and Temperance movements.
The Ladies Sewing Circle devoted four years of effort to earning money to purchase a 1000-pound bell for the church in 1861. This same bell hangs in our present church building. In 1870 many members were lost when those from Presbyterian backgrounds formed their own congregation (Memorial Presbyterian Church), but still by 1875 the congregation had grown to more than 300 members.
The Red Brick Church
It became clear that the “Little Brown Church,” despite several expansions, was no longer adequate for the needs of the congregation. A lot on the southwest corner of Lawrence and Pearl (Oneida) Streets was purchased. Construction of a new building, largely faced with red sandstone from Lake Superior, began in 1888 and was completed the following year at a cost of $37,000.
Growth of the Congregation
By the turn of the century, First Congregational had become the largest Congregational Church in the state and was known nationally for its programs in mission, education and sacred music. The church operated nine Sunday Schools, two of them housed in permanent chapels built by the congregation in “parts of the city remote from the church.” The Fourth Ward Chapel stood on the corner of Jefferson and Fremont Streets, while the other Chapel still stands today on the northwest corner of Richmond and Winnebago Streets. An active Sunday Evening Men’s Club became a national model for similar organizations, and the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor traveled to conventions as far away as Boston and New York.
In the 1920s the church shifted its mission focus overseas, supporting missionaries in Japan, China, Africa and Hawaii, while also supporting ministries among the poor and oppressed in our own nation, particularly in Alabama. The church’s reputation was rather enhanced when one of its members, Frank Harwood, was elected National Moderator of the Congregational Churches in 1925. It was this year that the membership rolls first reached 1000.
Like so many churches, First Congregational struggled financially during the years of the Great Depression. Still it continued to grow, reaching 1280 members in 1940. The 1940s and 1950s saw the church return to vigorous health. This was the era when our music program grew to become one of the nation’s most acclaimed. On April 9, 1961, the congregation joined the United Church of Christ, a union of Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed Churches.
A New Location
By the mid-1960s the beloved “Old Red Church” was near the end of its useful life. Extensive structural repairs were needed, and the impending construction of a high-level bridge on its site made rebuilding impossible. A site of more than four acres was purchased on the south side of the river and, after a thorough study of the present and future needs of both the congregation and community, the present edifice was constructed. On Sunday, October 27, 1968, the congregation began its worship service in the Old Red Church and completed it in the new one. The present congregation of 1400 members seeks to build on the foundation of its proud heritage.
Building and Resources
The Sanctuary of the church is a striking reinterpretation of the traditional Congregational Meeting House. Designed to be used throughout the week, the church buildings also contain a smaller Chapel, multiple classrooms and meeting rooms, a library, a choir room, a large fellowship hall, a kitchen, and offices. The building serves not only as a center for the active life of the congregation, but for a host of community activities as well (see the Community Calendar).
In 1988 the church established a Memorial Garden below the Chapel to provide a peaceful outdoor setting where church members may have their ashes scattered.
The Memorial Garden is meant as a setting for contemplation, meditation and affirming our faith in eternal life. Plantings and flowers have been carefully selected to maintain an atmosphere of peace and beauty throughout the changing seasons.
The names and dates of those whose ashes rest in the garden are recorded on a permanent plaque outside the Chapel. No markers or permanent containers are used in the garden itself. It is suggested that the service of committal be simple.
There is a modest charge for use of the Memorial Garden, $125 for members and $250 for non-members. Memorial gifts are also gratefully accepted for the garden’s maintenance and for other needs of the church as designated by the donor or by the Gifts, Memorials and Grants Committee.
Any questions concerning the Memorial Garden should be directed to one of the pastors or to a member of the Gifts, Memorials and Grants Committee.
The church library contains books and media relevant to church life and spiritual growth. Some selections reflect our core values of inclusiveness and acceptance, others support the themes of our programs, and still more are simply chosen to meet the diverse needs of a dynamic and growing congregation.
Materials are available for adults, youth and children. You are welcome to explore our holdings and check out our materials.
Located on the east side of the church campus, the Labyrinth Garden is a gift to the community of Appleton from the church, given in 2000 to commemorate the church’s 150th anniversary. We are grateful to Lawrence University for providing the site for this peaceful path to spiritual rejuvenation.
A labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all faith traditions in various forms around the world. By walking a replica of the labyrinth that was laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral around 1220 CE, we are rediscovering a long-forgotten, mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.
The labyrinth is not a maze. It has only one path with no dead ends. The winding path encourages us to lose ourselves in communion with God, who meets us wherever we are on life’s journey. You may walk it with an open mind and an open heart.
Three Stages of the Walk
There is no right way or wrong way to walk a labyrinth as long as the desire to walk it is consciously chosen. Labyrinth walking is not a perfectionist act; it is often necessary to step outside the lines. Whatever happens during the spiritual exercise of labyrinth walking can be used as a metaphor for our spiritual lives.
You may find it helpful to consider the walk in stages.
- Purgation: a releasing, letting go of the details of your life. This is an act of shedding thoughts and emotions. It quiets and empties the mind.
- Illumination: when you reach the center. Stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
- Union: which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces in the world. As you walk out of the labyrinth, you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for.
Clear your mind and become aware of your breath. You may pass people or let others step around you, whichever is easiest at the turns. The path is a two-way street; those going in will meet those coming out. Do what feels natural.
It is important to find and honor your own pace on the path, which will often change throughout the three stages of the walk. Follow the pace your body wants to go, not the pace the mind may think you should go. In order to honor your pace, give yourself permission to move around others during the labyrinth walk.
We ask that no one use skateboards, roller blades, bikes, or inline skates on the labyrinth.
Groups are asked to contact the church office (920) 733-7393 to schedule a group walk.
The church has two portable labyrinths available for labyrinth workshops. Please contact the church office for rental information.
Organ and Musical Instruments
The Sanctuary organ, built by M. P. Möller of Hagerstown, Maryland, is one of the largest pipe organs in the city of Appleton. For more on the organ and the church’s musical instruments, see Our Instruments.