The House of Worship
Part of what makes The United Church of Rowayton unique is its unusual House of Worship and location. Dedicated in 1962, the building, with its natural materials and wonderful, undulating roof, speaks to what our Church is all about. The House of Worship was designed by Westport architect Joseph Salerno who had never designed a church before. His design won the American Institute of Architects' highest award in 1963.
The Church sits on a small hill, perched above the shore of the Five Mile River as it makes its last mile journey to Long Island Sound. The Church building was well described in "Great New England Churches - 65 Houses of Worship that Changed Our Lives" by Robert Mutrux.
Here is an excerpt from that book describing our Church's architecture:
THE UNITED CHURCH OF ROWAYTON
Architect: Joseph Salerno
“The first reaction of many who view the odd-shaped edifice on Route 136 for the first time is, “It doesn’t look like a church!” And they are right. The United Church of Rowayton bears no resemblance whatsoever to the prim white-spired meething house one might expect to find in this typical New England community….
…It is most significant that this highly original concept, in its totality, is a deliberate metaphorical representation of the nature and aims of the congregation that made it possible.
The building committee, headed by its far-seeing Pastor, Donald W. Emig, outlined their needs simply, “We want a house of worship that will fulfill the needs of this community, not one in San Francisco or Albuquerque. We are unique.”
The last three words of their charge must have sounded like celestial music to the ears of their architect, Joseph Salerno of Westport. Soft spoken, erudite, philosophically-inclined, he outlined his concept of the church building thus, “It is a table, a cross and a pulpit surrounded by people.” In a single phrase, he summed up the intrinsic unity, the ecumenical dimensions, and the spiritual aspirations that were later embodied in his design. Aided by the breadth of vision of the building committee, and bolstered by his own creative convictions, he was able ultimately to achieve one of the New England region’s most ingenious solutions in church architecture.
Every aspect of this completed structure seems eminently appropriate to its use. The semi-circular seating pattern, with everyone “within smiling distance from each other,” is a bold step away from the standard arrangement in parallel rows. The free form enclosing the 300-member congregation is an eloquent envelope that ascends ninety feet above the floor in an effortless arabesque, culminating in a shaft of light. In the union of wall and roof, Salerno has added a touch of genius. He has gone a step beyond Frank Lloyd Wright, who referred to the spire of one of his churches as “a finger pointing towards God.” Salerno has made the entire church into an upward-aspiring symbol.
The wood used throughout is so natural, so appropriate and so expertly handled that one is unaware of the high degree of engineering required to achieve the church’s unique contours. The individually shaped laminated ribs and the planking in compound curves reflect the origin of the material. How foreign cold, hard concrete or intransigent welded steel would have been! And what other surface than a shaggy shingled exterior would echo so well the character of the surrounding residences?
The Rowayton Church is a superbly functional unit. Though it is several light years removed from the rigid geometry usually associated with the term, “functional,” it serves the varied needs of the parish to perfection.
And it is “organic” in the full definition of the word. As it embraces the knoll (it sits on), inviting the outside world into its folds, the United Church seems to rest in the modest self assurance that in this context, no other design would have been possible. One can easily imagine Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright at this moment, in some Elysian drawing-room, beaming in benign approval.
From the day of dedication (1962), the United Church has been an unbounded functional and esthetic success. In 1963, in the prestigious company of Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki and representatives of Skidmore, Owing and Merrill, Joseph Salerno was awarded the top annual honor by the American Institute of Architects.
But he was more recently accorded the ultimate accolade. In exceptional cases, the profession grants to the designer a permanent moral equity in his creation, so that we now speak of Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water as well as the Eiffel Tower. Today, The United Church of Rowayton is often referred to as “Salerno’s Church.”
The tribute is well deserved. The vision of its designer, the wisdom of its pastor and the judgment of the building committee have combined to create a living expression of a living, working faith. And in what better way could one honor “The Architect of the Universe?”
The Memorial Garden of The United Church of Rowayton has been created through thoughtful gifts from members and friends for proprietary care and is intended for various uses. These include scattering or interment of ashes, memorial services, memorial markers, meditation, worship and communion services, celebrations of thanksgiving and praise, baptisms, weddings and musical programs.
The Memorial Garden is for past and present members of The United Church of Rowayton and their immediate families: spouse, children, parents. For more information on the Memorial Garden, contact the Church office.
Here is the illustrious history of The United Church of Rowayton written by our Church Historian, Michael Ziegler.
In the Beginning….
A meeting was held by David Cudlipp, William McKenzie and Benjamin Jutten, who constituted the Baptist Ecclesiastical Society of Five Mile River. The date was June 24, 1855, and they resolved "... to associate ourselves together for the purpose of buying and holding property for the use of the Baptist Denomination worshipping at present in the building known as the South Five Mile River School-house." (sic)
On January 1, 1859, the Society held its first annual meeting and on June 4th, the building committee was authorized to "fit up the storehouse on the lot owned by the Society as a house of worship." (The location was 15 Cudlipp Street.) Then on July 10th another meeting was held to organize what became known as the Five Mile River Baptist Church. Sometime between April and October 1860 the building was opened for public worship; it was dedicated on August 15, 1860.
Thus, the roots of The United Church of Rowayton were established.
Nine years after the Baptist Church was officially organized, the Third Methodist Episcopal Church Society came into being with a one-room building at the corner of Rowayton Avenue and Maple Street, later renamed Pennoyer Street in honor of Elias Pennoyer, who donated the land. Having been through several remodelings, the present United Methodist Church stands on the original site.
Between June 1891 and early 1892 the Baptist property passed from the Baptist Ecclesiastical Society into the possession of a newly formed society, the Rowayton Baptist Church. Having outgrown its Cudlipp Street building, a new church was built at 210 Rowayton Avenue and dedicated September 3, 1905. Josephine Craw provided this property and then purchased the vacated site.
In reality, the movement for a union church in Rowayton goes back 160 years, since the first house of worship was really built as that. There ensued a period of heated denominational controversy, which led to a split and eventual formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1925, members of the Rowayton Protestant faiths talked about a union. But nothing came to fruition largely because of conditions decreed by the Methodist Episcopal Church hierarchy requiring membership in what was then known as the New York East Conference, which included portions of Connecticut. This requirement was unacceptable to those desiring a single church to serve Rowayton. Interestingly, several former ministers of the two churches expressed their preference for a union church -- one not affiliated with either of the present denominations.
In June 1945, just before the end of World War II, the Reverend Donald Wesley Emig came to Rowayton as minister of the Methodist Church. Newly graduated from Yale Divinity School, he had been appointed by Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, head of the New York East Conference.
Three years later another union effort began with a community meeting on April 23, 1948. A committee composed of four Baptists, four Methodists and three at large was appointed and subsequently conducted a professionally designed survey which concluded a) there should be a union church, b) it should be denominational and c) it should not be either federated or one of the two present denominations.
Mr. Emig (as he often referred to himself) was instrumental in helping the union movement's progress and in June 1949 the Rowayton Church Union Committee submitted a plan for a united church under denominational auspices, but neither Baptist nor Methodist. Both congregations warmly endorsed the plan at their annual meetings. Pending ratification by the Methodist Conference, the two denominations began operation as The Rowayton Churches on July 1, 1949 with Donald Emig as pastor and services held at each church on alternating Sundays.
Despite ongoing negotiations with the Methodist Conference leaders, the property matter could not be resolved since the Bishop refused to allow giving up the deed to the property on Pennoyer Street. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Baptist Convention and Rowayton Baptist Church continued their wholehearted support of a denominational union church. The possibility of becoming affiliated with other Protestant faiths, including the Presbyterian Church, was looked into, but presented their own 'structural' problems.
On April 10, 1951, an agreement was "made and entered into" by the Rowayton Baptist Church -- a Connecticut ecclesiastical corporation -- to convey its property to trustees named in the document, for the establishment of a "United Church in Rowayton." (The property was later given outright by the estate of Josephine Craw.) Then on April 29, 1951, The United Church of Rowayton, Incorporated was granted its charter by the state of Connecticut. Shortly thereafter we were formally accepted into the fellowship of the Congregational Christian denomination, which became known as the United Church of Christ after the former's 1957 merger with the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
During the pastorate of Donald W. Emig there were many beginnings as the community and church continued to grow. The Meeting House was built in 1955 to serve both. Just six years later the unusual and award-winning House of Worship took shape and was dedicated on September 30, 1962. This was followed with construction of a Parsonage on church property, with completion in July 1964. Then the United Church Nursery School had its initial session on October 3, 1966, with 16 children enrolled. And an organ comprised of 26 ranks and 1,494 pipes replaced the limited-range and worn out electronic instrument at Christmastime in 1978. There was a dedication recital on March 11, 1979.
Perhaps the Reverend Emig's crowning achievement was the culmination of a 12-year effort to establish affordable housing for limited-income senior citizens. After having lost out on many available properties, the Rowayton Senior Housing Corporation gratefully accepted a three-acre hilltop parcel from the Church. Ground was broken on Don's 60th birthday, October 5, 1980. Residents began moving in during late October 1982; Hill Top Homes was formally dedicated on December 5, 1982.
At the 34th Annual Meeting on May 19, 1985, Donald Emig read a letter in which he announced "my plans to resign ... on or about November 1, 1985 in order to enter into retirement ..." His 40-year ministry in Rowayton was celebrated with a community-wide ice cream social at the Rowayton Community Center on October 20 and incorporation of The Emig Foundation, for charitable and educational purposes in Rowayton and Norwalk, in his honor. He conducted his last service on November 3, 1985.
An era had come to an end. Sadly, Don wasn't able to enjoy the pleasure of retirement for very long; he died in Rhode Island Hospital (Providence) on April 4, 1988.
More Recent Beginnings
On July 20, 1986, the Reverend John Steven Livingston preached his candidate's sermon, after which a special Church Meeting took place to consider calling him as our new pastor. The vote was enthusiastically unanimous and when asked to return to the sanctuary, John and his family were greeted with thunderous applause.
A new era had begun. On September 3, 1986, John S. Livingston became the second pastor in our Church's 35-year history, and on Sunday evening, November 16th, he was installed in a moving service.
The outstanding musical gift that John and Judi Livingston have brought to our Church has been a wonderful experience for all. The combination of their unique talent with that of Marsha Hall, who's been our music director for 35 years, is most inspirational. Not only do they enhance worship services, their special performances -- whether for a holiday celebration or to raise funds for a Church project -- have been a treat for one and all.
The year 1992 marked the first Giant Tag Sale, an event that has become a major, annual fund raiser and a day of great camaraderie among its participants. Since its inception more than $200,000 have been raised.
In 1993, two of our flock -- both graduates of Yale Divinity School -- were ordained in our Church. Long-time member Heather Steele Hopkins' ceremony took place on February 28 -- this was followed by a ceremony for Mark Lang Heilshorn on November 14th.
Of course there are always mundane property matters that arise, and Pastor John has had his fair share to contend with, such as worn out roofs on the Church and Meeting House, a balky, aged furnace that had achieved last gasp status, a leaky organ bellows, threadbare sanctuary carpeting and major bathroom problems in the Parsonage.
While the roofs got replaced and Parsonage problems repaired via borrowings and special contributions, the other items led the Board of Household Concerns' Property Committee to conclude that we had to broaden our horizons. In addition, more space was needed to accommodate the growing demands on our facilities, such as Church School rooms, places for the increasing number of meetings and offices for the clergy and staff.
Thus, was born the Capital Fund Drive which was approved at the May 15, 1994 Annual Meeting of the Congregation and was comprised of three phases:
1) immediate replacement of heating systems and sanctuary carpeting plus repair of organ bellows
2) refurbishment of and major addition to the Meeting House
3) construction of a new front entrance to the Church and walkway to the Meeting House.
More inspiring events took place in 1995 with dedication of the recently completed Memorial Garden on September 24th followed just a week later with the unveiling of the architect's plans for expansion of the Meeting House and new entryway to the Church. Also in October, the Reverend Rhona Kochman became our Minister of Christian Education and Spirituality.
It was wonderful to watch as the walls and roof of the Meeting House were pushed out and up during 1996 and completed in 1997. This major undertaking was celebrated with special recognition of the Building Committee during worship on November 1, 1998.
Despite the fact that the property across the street had been purchased many years ago to protect our view of the Five Mile River, it wasn't until just recently that a group appointed by the Executive Council got together, cleaned up the land, planted bulbs and other flora, placed benches beneath the huge silver beech tree and installed a sign that said "Emig Park." How appropriate. The Park was dedicated on October 5, 1997, which would have been Donald Emig's 77th birthday.
The Church's first Jazz Vesper Service occurred in April 1998. Organized by David Snyder, a double bass player par excellence, he is a member of our Church and The Fairfield County Art Ensemble. The service morphed into a Jazz Worship Service - held at our regular 10:15 Sunday worship time - in 2007 and continues to be an annual event.
Among the most exciting announcements of the decade was one made at a special Congregational Meeting on August 2, 1998 when we were informed that the Church had been bequeathed close to $1,000,000 by the Kathleen Gillespie Trust Fund. The Gillespies joined the United Church in 1955 and left Rowayton in the early 1960s. They lost a son during their years here and apparently the Reverend Emig provided great comfort to them. What a magnificent way of saying thank you. Then another substantial bequest was made in late 1999, this by Jane Brown in an unexpected amount of $500,000. So, as the 20th Century neared its end with the Church in its 48th year of existence with little or no major financial assets, we suddenly became twice blessed.
Both amounts have been prudently managed by our Board of Household Concerns' Investment Committee and have accrued nicely.
The Last Beginning of the 20th Century
During early 1999, the Board of Deacons, with approval of the Executive Council, initiated a survey of Congregational priorities called "Shared Vision," with the intent to identify what members thought needs were so that those needs could be addressed.
Questionnaires were mailed to the membership. Some 110 completed ones were returned, an above average response rate. The Board tabulated results which were then reviewed and discussed by some 35 members in two four-hour sessions conducted by an outside facilitator. Several areas were identified, e.g., inspiring worship and effective Christian education. Task groups were set up to give these priorities further study and develop preliminary recommendations for a meeting in December and subsequent progress report at the 48th Annual Meeting on February 6, 2000.
This put us into the next millennium with the exciting prospect of expanding our shared vision with Pastor John Livingston as he continues his inspiring, spiritual leadership.
Beginning of Our Second 50 Years – and the 21st Century
The 21st Century kicked off with implementation of "Shared Vision" priorities and a year-long celebration of our 50th anniversary as a Congregation.
Key "Shared Vision" recommendations were to develop a mission statement; establish as a permanent position the post of Christian education director in order to reflect the growing number of children, allow for improved internal communication and create a more inspiring worship atmosphere. All of these matters were thoroughly addressed, in particular by hiring Debbie Beaudry as our Director of Christian Education in 2000 to replace Rhona Kochman, who had resigned. She was instrumental in building the educational program with a resultant 50 percent enrollment increase over the previous year.
The 50th jubilee started on Sunday, April 29, 50 years to the day of being granted our charter by the state. After a large cake with 50 lighted candles was carried to the altar by Moderator Joanne Brown and Clerk Michael Ziegler, these former moderators, listed in chronological order served, gathered round: John Reiners, Philip Penberthy, Thomas Richardson, Michael Ziegler, Alan Wyland, Frank Kuffel, Thomas Robinson and Michael Poler.
Reflections were offered by John Reiners, a charter member and first Church School Superintendent, Philip Penberthy, who served on the Church Building Committee and the Reverend John W. Emig, a son of Bette and Donald Emig. Afterward, a very special Fellowship Hour featured enlarged photographs from the past and a spectacular '50' ice sculpture, which enhanced the tasty refreshments provided. Festivities continued on May 19th when Judi and John Livingston, with Marsha Hall, presented an enrapturing performance called "Celebrating 50 Years of Broadway."
The celebratory year neared its end on March 17, 2002 with Choir Reunion Sunday and a glorious 50-voice offertory by 32 present and 18 former members. Director of Music Marsha Hall arranged a special music program of Senior Choir voices and guest instrumentalists on April 28 for the culmination of our anniversary year.
The year 2002 saw other noteworthy matters unfold, a significant one being the May 5th celebration of John Livingston's 15 years as our Pastor and 20 as an ordained minister. Worship was conducted by the Board of Deacons; other participants were a confirmand, John's brother, chair of the former Search Committee, the Moderator and four members of the clergy who had a direct connection to John. After this unique service, a reception, including luncheon, was held in the Meeting House, during which time a number of people shared remembrances.
Debbie Beaudry's unexpected resignation brought into focus the expanded responsibilities of the Director of Christian Education and our need to have someone in that position full-time. Carla Dietz was hired to fill that role in time for Rally Day, 2002.
As the year drew to a close, the Board of Deacons announced an expansion of its Visitation Committee into the Caregiving Ministry to supplement John Livingston's outreach. Nineteen members volunteered for this ministry and attended an all-day training session in January 2003. They were commissioned by Co-founder Holly Adams at a ceremony during worship that April. In addition to regularly contacting folks, a group of them periodically prepares dinners which are kept in a freezer for dissemination, as wanted, to those being called on. Organized by Caroline Robinson, an original member, this effort started in 2012. Deaths, moves and resignations have depleted the original group, but the ranks have been replenished from time to time with new volunteers.
Recognition and celebration of Marsha Hall's music ministry took place during worship on November 23. In her 25 years of devotion and dedication, the music program has grown tremendously with a variety and scope appreciated by all. At the reception following, the Senior Choir sang a parody of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" (from "South Pacific") re-titled "There Is Nothing Like Our Dame."
Pastor John Livingston took his well-earned sabbatical during May and June, which he 'started' by conducting the May 2nd Confirmation Sunday service. Then, he led the Service of Remembrance on May 30 and participated on June 13 with recognition of graduating high school seniors and awarding of Jonathan Peter Wildman Scholarships. Further 'enjoying' his sabbatical John, along with his wife Judi, Marsha Hall and most of the Senior Choir -- dubbed "The United Church Broadway Ensemble" -- presented "Something About Life" on two nights in mid-May. This was the Livingston's sixth musical offering with Marsha's collaboration. During the rest of John's sabbatical five of our members and a close clergy friend delivered "Profiles in Faith" messages.
An incredible statistic surfaced with departure of long-time members Gary (Margaret) and Tom Richardson in September 2004. For 34 years, Gary was involved in or directly responsible for our outreach contributions which came to almost $1million. Amazing for a church our size, or any church for that matter! She and Tom chaired and served on many Boards and Committees; he among many notable endeavors chaired the House of Worship Building Fund Drive back in 1960 and most recently, the 50th Anniversary Committee. Tom also served as lay leader and moderator in the mid 1970s.
The United Church of Rowayton is involved with many types of outreach. An important one that was started many years ago is based on a percentage of pledges received that is donated to local social service groups.
Starting in early 2005 a new outreach program got underway, one that helps prepare and serve dinner to about 150 people, then clean up, at South Norwalk's Open Door Shelter. Volunteers sign up to work on the second Wednesday of each month.
Our Prayer Shawl Ministry was established in April 2006. A closely knit group, it meets on a regular basis to create shawls that are presented at baptisms and to ailing members of our community.
Other efforts are made as situations arise, e.g., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 we supported a United Church of Christ mission, the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, our Youth Group offered many kinds of help after a tornado tore apart a high school in Enterprise, Alabama and holding a fund raiser to benefit victims of Cyclone Nargis that devastated Myanmar in 2008.
Mission trips are scheduled from time to time and include both adults and high school students. In June 2009 a group drove to Whitesburg, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, to help other groups at a project called H.O.M.E.S. (Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service.) During the mid-April school break in 2012 seven students and two adults from our Church joined eight other folks from the area and ventured to Oaxaca, Mexico, a remote and poor area where, among other things, they helped build a school. The next trip, in July 2014 to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota, had two of our adults and three students, plus three local friends, joining 19 people from other Connecticut United Church of Christ congregations. These last two were under the aegis of Simply Smiles, an organization with a pure and simple mission: Put a smile on every disadvantaged child's face and give them a decent future.
While serving as our Director of Christian Education, Carla Dietz attended Yale Divinity School, and after graduation in 2008 was called to become our Associate Pastor. She was subsequently ordained here that September.
Filling a void, several forms of adult education were initiated, including Thursday noon Bible study and an ongoing series on Sunday evenings called "Saving Jesus." And for high school juniors and seniors Pastor Livingston has begun Tuesday evening sessions dubbed "Talk It Over."
In 2008 Joanne Brown and Ann DiLeone took over the reins of the Caregiving Ministry as co-chairs since founders Heather Hopkins and Holly Adams were no longer able to continue their roles. Heather had become an interim pastor and Holly was finishing her studies at Yale Divinity School while serving at the First Church Congregational in Fairfield.
Our first stand-alone Silent Auction took place in April 2009 with 28 Church members organizing and directing the event. Exceeding expectations, it was a huge success and has become a semi-annual event.
Having graduated from Yale in May 2009, Holly Adams was ordained here on January 10, 2010. She served as a chaplain and interim pastor and later was installed as the Senior Pastor of the United Congregational Church in West Norwalk on October 13, 2013.
A Significant Beginning
In May of 2009 an Ad Hoc Committee was formed to determine if we should become an Open and Affirming Church, i.e., open and affirming to all people regardless of race or sexual orientation, along with many other United Church of Christ congregations. A confidential survey was issued that elicited an excellent and positive response and at our 59th Annual Meeting on February 6, 2011 all 145 members - without any discussion - voted in the affirmative!
An unusual fundraiser called "Somehow . . . Someday . . . Somewhere" was performed on May 20, 2011 by members of our Church family spanning all ages and featured music from Broadway to Pop to Country. Marsha Hall directed the program that included Pastor John Livingston, his wife Judi and the Senior Choir.
John Livingston's 25th anniversary as our Pastor was celebrated on October 30, 2011. As each person arrived for worship she or he was given a small flag that said "Celebrating 25 Years With John." Clergy friends spoke during the service; the celebration continued during Fellowship Hour and featured the Senior Choir singing special lyrics written to the tune of "My Funny Valentine."
The United Church of Rowayton's House of Worship was dedicated on September 30, 1962 and in 2012 - 50 years later to the date - we celebrated that significant event in the life of our Church. Twelve Charter Members of the original 318 were still alive, but only one - Myrtle Eleck - was able to attend. The Norwalk Hour (as it was then named) headlined an article in 1962: "Boldly Modern Rowayton Church Hailed as Inspiring and Practical." In culmination a time capsule was buried and is to be opened in 25 years, on September 27, 2037.
On April 21, 2013 another celebration occurred with the Caregiving Ministry reaching its 10th anniversary. As Pastor Livingston pointed out, "Today we show our gratitude for those who have been trained as part of this vibrant ministry, and rightfully so."
Some Other Beginnings
Since 1986 Judi and John Livingston, with Marsha Hall's superb accompaniment and direction, have presented six concerts for benefit of our Church. Their seventh, after a nine-year interval, took place on November 9, 2013 and was titled "The Finale." For the most part they presented songs from Broadway musicals, and did so marvelously.
Tributes were paid to Associate Pastor Carla Dietz on September 29, 2013 before she delivered her last message to us. Carla had announced her resignation several weeks earlier because she had accepted a call to become pastor of a church in Worcester, Massachusetts. In her 11 years with us she contributed significantly to Christian education programs for our young people.
On April 6, 2014 Sally Stansbury, a member of our Church, was introduced during worship as our new Director of Christian Education. With a background of many years heading up Sunday school and youth groups at other churches, she has plunged into her new role with gusto.
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As John Livingston continues his dynamic leadership with an ongoing emphasis on love and his inspiring, meaningful, joyful and fun worship services, others contribute importantly also. Sally Stansbury adds her vigorous oversight to our children's Christian education, Judi Livingston stimulates the small fry as she directs the Children's Choir and Marsha Hall embellishes worship with her unique musical talents as she leads the Children's Handbell Choir, Adult Handbell Choir and our glorious Senior Choir. Additionally, young people are encouraged to contribute their unique talents as vocal and instrumental soloists.
Michael Ziegler, Church Historian - October 2014