Ashburnham Community Church History: An Overview
Early settlers of the area later to become the Town of Ashburnham, had to travel to nearby towns to attend church. In 1759, the township’s settlers formed a committee to find a minister and start a church. In January, 1760, the first pastor was hired, and a covenant signed, pledging to follow “the Christian Religion as contained in the Sacred Scriptures and as usually embraced by the faithful in the Churches of New England”. Ashburnham was incorporated as a town in 1765. The Rev. Jonathan Winchester died in 1767, and the Rev. John Cushing, who replaced him in 1768, served as pastor for over fifty-five years.
The Meeting House served Church and Town functions alike; the minister’s salary was a Town budget item, and a Town Meeting warrant article in 1773 concerned assigning a pew for the church choir.
In 1834, the year after Massachusetts separated Church and State, the church building was constructed, complete with its bell, cast by a former apprentice of Paul Revere. The sanctuary was on ground level; families had their own box pews; and carriage sheds sheltered their horses and buggies. Instrumental music was provided by whatever was available; violins, bugle, flute, clarinet, and string bass are listed in Ezra Stearns’ 1887 town history. By his time, there was a small pipe organ and a flourishing choir.
By 1890 the church was raised up on wooden columns, creating basement space for Sunday School and other functions. Long, curved pews replaced the box pews, and the box pews’ panels were repurposed as wainscoting in the new basement. Walls and ceilings were adorned with embossed tin sheeting, and a tall spire replaced the old low, dome-topped tower. An addition at the front of the building, with central entry door, featured two curved staircases, leading to the two old entry doors to the sanctuary. In 1890, Jacob Fairbanks donated the stained-glass window, mounted in the north wall above the pulpit.
In 1956, the town’s Congregational and Methodist congregations, having for several years joined for worship, alternating seasonally between their two buildings, incorporated as a federated congregation under the name, Ashburnham Community Church, open to all worshipers. The Methodist church was razed, and in 1958, a new Sunday School building replaced the old carriage shed behind the church.
In 1968, a major addition to the north end of the building provided minister’s study and office; social area with kitchenette; basement Sunday School rooms; choir and organ loft in the sanctuary, and generous attic space. The entire sanctuary was turned end-for-end, the walls painted in light pastels echoing the colors in the stained-glass window, which was moved to the south wall to receive better sunlight. A fine 1886 pipe organ by Boston maker George Hutching was purchased and installed in the new loft. The dark old pews and church furniture were replaced.
In the early 1970s, with Sunday School rooms in the new basement, the Sunday School building was renovated and leased as a dance studio, for which it has been used ever since.
In 2014, the congregation voted unanimously to be Open and Affirming to all persons of any life path.
In 2015, the floor tiles in the 1968 addition were covered over with beautiful hardwood in the hallway and social area, and with ecologically and visually attractive tile in the office, kitchen and other rooms. The walls were repainted with cheerful and appealing colors, and new curtains hung at the windows.
In 2017-2018, the Girl Scouts, who meet regularly in the building, did a beautiful renovation of two basement rooms, painting walls, making curtains for windows, and refinishing scarred table tops.
Besides Sunday church services and an active Food Pantry mission to the community’s less fortunate, the building is used regularly for meetings of Girl Scouts, the Ashburnham Food Co-Op, the Odd Fellows, and Alcoholics Anonymous. Since 1985, Sunday afternoon piano concerts in the sanctuary have drawn audiences from all over New England. As a longtime outreach mission, members of the congregation serve one supper a month at Our Father’s House in Fitchburg.
The present small but energetic congregation is looking at new possible uses of the building, to carry its service to the community forward through the twenty-first century.