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Kittery Church Featured in New Exhibit

Kittery Congregational ColorTHRU SEPTEMBER 6, 2014

It's been 300 years since 25 women and 18 men petitioned to organize a church in Kittery, Maine. Three centuries later, the spirit of that first congregation still shines in a new exhibit at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. "First Congregational Church of Kittery Point and the Pepperrell Family" opensJune 18in the Randall Gallery, 6-8 Market Square.  (Click title to read more) 

"An elegant new meeting house was built in 1727, after much debate, and paid for largely through subscription by various well-to-do members including both Pepperrells, Timothy Gerrish, Elisha Gunnison and Robert Cutt," states a historical summary recently compiled by church member Sara K. Rhoades.

Sir William Pepperell was a wealthy merchant who became the first American to be created a British baronet for his role in the Siege of Louisburg in 1745. His wife, Lady Mary, would outlive him by three decades and build a beautiful mansion across the street from the church.

"She was a regular worshipper and had a box pew lined with worsted and curtained, with a bear skin carpet on the floor in defense against the cold," according to the history on the church's Web site.

 Kittery Congregational Church

The first church building burned in 1730 or 1731 "during a violent thunderstorm," the historical summary states. "It was replaced that year. William Pepperrell agreed to send the ruins of the bell to London to be recast."

Sandra Rux is co-curating the exhibit with Athenaeum Curator Elizabeth Aykroyd and Keeper Tom Hardiman. "The Pepperrells were the most important members," Rux said. "After the Revolution and the demise of the Pepperrell family in America, the church fell on hard times."

A library assembled by the Pepperrell family and Benjamin Stevens, the second minister, and his successors has been on loan to the Athenaeum. The exhibit will feature most of those volumes -- a bookcase is being moved to the Randall Gallery -- as well as a silver baptism bowl, an original pew door, early record books and a variety of Pepperrell family items.

The church's first minister was particularly beloved. Harvard graduate John Newmarch was hired by Kittery to preach in 1694 and served the church from its inception to his death in 1754.

"He was 60 years a preacher in the town, during which he underwent many pressing difficulties," Newmarch's Boston Post obituary reads. He was credited with having baptized 1,796 people in his lifetime, including William Whipple, future signer of the Declaration of Independence.

According to the church history, Newmarch's body was exhumed from "an unkempt grave at Kittery Foreside and brought to the Old Burying Ground across from his beloved church" in 1936.

Over the years, the church has undergone numerous renovations, including being lifted and moved during a road-widening in the 1870s. A fire after Christmas Eve services in 1908 led to a massive remodeling. Through it all, the structure survived, becoming the oldest church building in continuous use in Maine.

There will be a gallery talk at the Athenaeum onJune 26 at 5:30 p.m.It will focus on the ministerial "revolving" library that included Andrew Pepperrell and Rev. Benjamin Stevens' books, the parish library formed in 1827 and the Sabbath School library created in the mid-19th century for the instruction of the church's children.

The free exhibit runs throughSept. 6. An opening reception will be heldJune 18 from 5 to 7 p.m.at the Athenaeum. For more information, go to www.portsmouthathenaeum.org

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