About First Parish

Welcome

 Thank you for your interest. We hope you will visit us on a Sunday morning. We are also happy to answer requests for information by email at , or telephone at 617.924.6143. Please let us know if you would like additional information about the church community.

At the First Parish of Watertown, we try to encourage personal and spiritual growth through worship, social action and outreach, fellowship and education. We take pride in our long history as a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and believe it is our responsibility to inspire and assist one another towards greater compassion, justice, and beauty.

We hope you will feel warmly welcomed, and will consider becoming part of our congregation.

Our church is home for approximately 125 members and friends, and about fifty-five children. We have a reputation of being a friendly, open church, which is a reflection of our beliefs about what religion should be.

We come to church with different needs and aspirations; but the desire to receive comfort, insight, and hope, as well as an opportunity to contribute to something larger than ourselves is universal. Together, we do provide both reassurance and new possibilities, and we welcome your participation.

Again, if you have questions about the church and its programs, please feel free to call on me.

I hope to see you in church!

Rev. Mark Harris

Mission

We, the members of the First Parish of Watertown seek to honor our religious heritage by providing a spiritual home for reflection and growth in a diverse, intergenerational, caring community for all.

We commit to being a force for social change by working with others in the larger community to promote justice, equity and compassion.

History

First Parish 1842

The First Parish of Watertown is one of the oldest congregations in the United States.

Puritans, who were seeking religious freedom in England, left there in 1630 on a flotilla of ships with the Arbella as the flagship for the fleet. A model of the Arbella can be found in our sanctuary. It also serves as a symbol of our long history and advocacy of freedom, and can be seen on our newsletter and church banner. Those Puritan immigrants arrived in the New World to found three communities, and their respective churches. These were Charlestown, Boston, and Watertown, the first inland community in the Massachusetts Bay colony.

First Parish 1842

In Puritan times every resident was required to belong to the geographical parish and pay taxes for its support. The Watertown congregation gained a reputation for non-conformity very early in its history when its first minister George Phillips said that churches other than Puritan ones were legitimate congregations, and residents of the community affirmed a revolutionary rallying cry of no taxation without representation. Our present Congregational form of church government owes its foundation to these Puritan times, where the members of each congregation, in democratic fashion, have authority over property ownership, membership rules, and the call of the minister.

The First Parish of Watertown has worshipped in eight different meetinghouses since 1630. The first building was constructed near present day Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, where the original Watertown settlement was located. Subsequent meetinghouses included sites at the corner of Arlington and Mt. Auburn Street, on Hillside St., at the top of Common Street, and then in 1755 a fifth building was erected at the bottom of Common Street on Mt. Auburn Street. This structure became the meeting place for the Provincial Congress during the American Revolution, when Watertown was the capital while Boston was occupied by the British. The four cornerposts of this meetinghouse can be seen in the Common Street Cemetery.

The sixth, seventh and eighth buildings have all been located near the corner of Church and Summer Streets. After the separation of church and state in 1833, the old Parish Church was required to separate from the town, and it built a new church, now officially Unitarian, in 1836. This structure burned and was replaced in 1842. In 1889, the church built a new parish hall called, The Unitarian Building, designed by Charles Brigham. This building was converted into a church, when the old wooden Gothic building (1842) was torn down in 1975, after the church had declined in numbers. In recent years (1996 and 2003), capital fund drives have enabled the congregation to construct an accessible addition to the building with an elevator, and more recently install structural steel supports and remodel the sanctuary to ensure the preservation of this historic structure.

Known for non-conformity in its early years, the First Parish of Watertown was guided into the Unitarian faith during the ministry of Convers Francis. Francis was active in the Transcendentalist movement, and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became the mentor of famed preacher and abolitionist, Theodore Parker, who taught school here in Watertown. Francis sister was the abolitionist and writer Lydia Maria Child, who is best known for her Thanksgiving poem which begins, Over the river, and through the wood . .. Francis was followed in the ministry by John Weiss, another abolitionist preacher. Weiss was one of the first theologians to follow a scientific naturalism for his faith. He was also the founder of the Free Public Library of Watertown.

The 20th century brought many demographic and religious changes to Watertown, and the congregation declined, while the meetinghouse fell into disrepair. Thanks to the work of Helen Robinson Wright and others the congregation refused to die. Wrights memory is preserved in a fund that assists non-profit organizations and individuals in need. One of the better known ministers from the 1960s, David Rankin, helped revive the church, and also hid draft dodgers in the parsonage attic during the Vietnam War. In the meantime the Unitarians consolidated with another liberal religious movement, the Universalists, in 1961. After the present meetinghouse was converted from a parish hall, the congregation experienced slow but steady growth. Much of this was achieved after the church called its first woman minister, Andrea Greenwood in 1992, who later served as co-minister with her husband and our present minister, Mark Harris. The congregation celebrated its 375th anniversary in 2005 in a beautifully refurbished sanctuary.Below are links to two papers that Mark Harris presented at conferences:  The first is on the early history of Watertown and Congregational polity; the second is on Convers Francis and John Weiss, and some of their contributions to the UU movement.

Charles Brigham designed our current building. Below is a link to  a biography of him by David Russo:

FP Watertown 1842 Meetinghouse in Winter

First Parish 1842/Unitarian Bldg. 1889

Unitarian Building 1889 interior

Helen Robinson Wright Charitable Trust

On the far left of the fireplace, near the door, is a bronze plaque that honors Helen Robinson Wright, who was a longtime member and supporter of First Parish. Her father, G. Frederick Robinson, was one of the authors of “Great Little Watertown,” a Watertown history published in 1930 at the 300th anniversary of the founding of Watertown.

Mrs. Wright served as Treasurer of the parish for many years. She not only made many generous contributions to First Parish, but frequently helped individuals. She had a standing arrangement with a local fuel dealer to provide fuel to needy families at her expense.

When she died she not only left a generous bequest to First Parish, but also left her house to an unspecified charitable organization.  After much discussion the house was offered to  First Parish.

The First Parish already had a parsonage, so it tried to sell the house to an organization that would use it appropriately. There were no takers. Finally, it was decided to sell the house on the open market with appropriate preservation covenants. It was eventually sold and converted for offices and condominiums. The house is the Miles Pratt House at 106 Mt. Auburn St. Its preservation is supervised by SPNEA.

The proceeds of the sale were used to endow the Helen Robinson Wright Charitable Trust. (former Trustee John Lathrop deserves much of the credit for the idea that the proceeds be put into a charitable trust rather than simply added to the existing endowments).

There is an annual income of $8000 – $12000. This income is disbursed by a committee appointed by the Parish Committee. The guidelines are that the donations be local and not to well-financed “commercial” charities. Over the years, the fund has helped both local charitable organizations and needy individuals.

When the Project Literacy, a program of the Watertown Public Library, was about to go under for lack of funds, Helen Robinson Wright Charitable Trust made a donation of $2500 plus a matching grant of $2500 to put it back on its feet. The fund has supported the Watertown Food Pantry and Bristol Lodge, a homeless shelter. Guidance counselors and school nurses in the Watertown Public Schools have been provided with a discretionary fund to pay for medical exams, eyeglasses, and even winter coats for children.

And yes, through local oil companies, fuel assistance is still provided. The generous spirit of Helen Robinson Wright lives on.

In recent years as individual needs have increased in an economy where there is greater disparity between rich and poor, the Fund has made most of its grants to individuals and families who are considered “the most vulnerable.”  These requests are usually for fuel oil, electric bills, rental assistance, food, medical expenses and other personal needs.  In 2012-13, the Fund received several grants from community organizations, especially the Watertown Community Foundation.  This allowed the Fund to disperse nearly $18,000.  If you would like to make a donation to the Fund to help a Watertown family in need, please send it to: Helen Robinson Wright Fund, 35 Church Street, Watertown, MA 02472.  Nancy Dutton is the administrator of the Fund.