Canton’s First Parish celebrates 300-year milestone

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Rep. Bill Galvin and Senator Walter Timilty present a state resolution to Rev. Roger Peltier as 'Paul Revere' looks on. (Jay Turner photo)

Rep. Bill Galvin and Senator Walter Timilty present a state resolution to Rev. Roger Peltier as ‘Paul Revere’ looks on. (Jay Turner photo)

History came alive at Canton’s oldest church on Saturday as First Parish Unitarian-Universalist marked its 300th anniversary with a town-wide celebration on the parish green.

Held on a picture-perfect day under bright blue skies, the event featured a “living timeline” exhibit, narrated tours, games and activities for children, a live outdoor concert, and presentations from local and state officials. The colonial heritage of the church was also on full display with several members dressing in period attire and a reenactor in attendance portraying Paul Revere — the famed Canton patriot whose copper mill forged the bell that still rings in the church steeple on Sunday mornings.

Standing on the steps of the church, Selectmen Chairman John Connolly officially proclaimed October 28 as “First Parish Unitarian Universalist Day” and congratulated the church on its historic milestone. A lifelong Canton resident, Connolly emphasized the central role that the church has played in the town’s history and recalled his own fond memories of attending its “huge” annual yard sales.

“I came home with more goodies and more things that I’m happy to say I still have half of them at home,” he said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.

State Representative Bill Galvin and state Senator Walter Timilty were also on hand to present a resolution from the Massachusetts General Court formally congratulating First Parish on its tricentennial. Each legislator read a portion of the resolution, which detailed the rich history of the church, including its ties to the American Revolution — notably in the reading of the Declaration of Independence by Rev. Samuel Dunbar in 1776 — as well as its connections to historical figures such as Revolutionary War hero Richard Gridley and former Cantonite and founding father Roger Sherman.

“Three hundred years of excellence and 300 years of being one of the fundamental underpinnings of this great town is something to celebrate,” noted Senator Timilty, “and Selectman Connolly, Representative Galvin and I are very proud to be here with you today to ring in this marvelous anniversary and we expect 300 more wonderful years from this wonderful parish.”

Rev. Roger Peltier, the newest minister of FPUU Canton, graciously accepted the framed resolution and thanked those in attendance “on this great and historic occasion.”

“It means the world to us that you are all here,” he said.

In a follow-up interview after the ceremony, Peltier said the anniversary has given the parishioners an opportunity to dig deeper into its own history and to reflect on its place within the Canton community.

Noting that the original church, First Congregational, predates the establishment of Canton by several decades, Peltier emphasized that the town owes its existence, in large part, to the precursor of FPUU.

“Back in the 1600s and 1700s, you couldn’t have a town unless you had a church, so this was the first parish, the church that founded the town,” he said. “To this day the warrant system that we use for town meetings is from this church. We do the same thing in our annual meetings because they used to be one and the same.”

The current church is actually a consolidation of two churches, First Parish Unitarian, which has its roots in the original Congregational church that was founded in 1717, and the First Universalist Church, which began with a series of meetings in the early 19th century and was previously located on Washington Street at Mechanic Street. The two churches began a period of shared ministry in the 1960s and celebrated their formal union on July 1, 1974.

Rev. Peltier said the church has evolved considerably from its Puritanical origins to become the liberal voice and conscience of the local community.

The current church was built in 1825 and houses a Revere bell. (Jay Turner photo)

The current church was built in 1825 and houses a Revere bell. (Jay Turner photo)

Joe Amster, who is now the president of FPUU, said that he and his wife had been looking for a church to call home 15 years ago and decided after two visits that this was the right fit for them. “It was really the community [that drew us in],” Amster said. “It’s the people who are here … they’re a great group of people to be with. They are really the foundation, the congregation members and our friends.”

Amster said the current congregation, although smaller in numbers, maintains a vibrant spirit and still plays an important role in the community, including as a place of comfort in times of national tragedy. “There has been major world events and we’ve opened our doors and folks from around the community have joined us for that,” he said. “Everybody needs to find some peace and understanding about what’s happened so that’s an opportunity that we have as a congregation.”

Amster said the members have also learned a great deal about the history of the church in preparing for the anniversary, and some of the members took the opportunity to dress in colonial attire at last weekend’s celebration.

Among those who wore their own handmade costumes were Richard and Debbie Radovsky, who were married at First Parish 10 years ago. Debbie, who was raised in a Unitarian church in Natick, became a member when she moved to the town with her mother and has been an active participant for the last 40 years.

“We found this one as very much to our liking,” she said. “The people, the sense of community, the social action, it just all fit.”

Don Seaman, who also dressed in colonial attire and led tours of the church, said he too has been a member for several decades and has been ringing the Revere bell since he was “probably 10 years old.” Seaman shared information about the current church buildings, the oldest of which dates to 1825, as well as notable features such as the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, which document much of the church’s history.

In addition to the tours and living timeline exhibit, visitors were also treated to a free concert featuring musician Andrew Smith on Saturday afternoon. The church also held an anniversary service on Sunday, and the Canton Historical Society, located just down the street, celebrated the milestone with a two-day open house featuring displays of First Parish artifacts, including the transcript of the 1776 sermon by Rev. Samuel Dunbar.

To learn more about the history of FPUU Canton, visit fpuucanton.org/about-us/our-history.

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