St. Marks Episcopal Church on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Center Street won the Easton Historical Commission‘s Clement Briggs Award last week. The award goes to the property owner who has done something out-of-the ordinary to preserve a historic property. Clement Briggs, our first English settler, built the first European style home in town along the banks of the Queset in Eastondale.
The historic church’s congregation has worked hard over many years to maintain this little gem, and in 2012 a particularly nice job of repainting their building in a two-toned Victorian style caught the eye of Historical Commissioners. What the Historical Commission discovered at its awards ceremony was an inspiring story of perseverance well worth sharing.
The story begins next door to the church lot on Center Street where sometime between 1889 and 1891 Samuel Judson Howe built “Sunnyside” the large house that is today 89 Center Street. Howe was born in Chatham in 1845. Like many Cape people, Samuel’s father mixed farming with the sea. The Howe family moved to Middleborough in the 1850s, and it was there that young Samuel met and married Susan Abby Sanford in 1866. By 1870 both Samuel and his father were listed as sea captains in the census, and at some point Samuel became a captain in the United States Revenue Service, a precursor of the Coast Guard. Howe, a devout Baptist lived at Sunnyside until his death in July, 1917 and his wife continued there into the 1920s.
Next to Sunnyside were two small lots that were part of a subdivision set out by Lemuel K. Wilbur and Josiah Goward in 1890. Howe bought these lots in May,1892, and in June, 1893 donated them to the First Baptist Church of Easton. The new church was completed by 1895 in the simple, but elegant late 19th century version of the Queen Anne style. A recent historical survey calls the church an “intact and distinctive example of late 19th century church building in North Easton” and “an important architectural and cultural landmark in the town.”
The Howes were leading members of the new church, but unfortunately, as the original members of the church faded away, the younger generation couldn’t keep up its financial obligations. In 1909 the members deeded the church to the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society which continued to own the property until 1928.
Meanwhile, on February 13, 1916 a group of Episcopalians met in a private home in North Easton to participate in a service led by Reverend W. W. Love. The service was so well received that the little group decided to establish themselves as St. Mark’s Mission and to rent Lake’s Hall, a small room above Lake’s Store on Main Street at the northwest corner of Mechanic Street. The group met there until October 1926 when it began to rent the Baptist Church on Center Street. The Baptist Society sold the church to three trustees who were to “hold and manage” the property for St. Marks. The church was consecrated in May, 1928 and the trustees soon transferred title to the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts with the condition that the building be used for “a church, chapel, or rectory” for Episcopalians.
Always a small congregation, the people of St. Marks have had to work hard to carry out the mission of their church and to preserve their beautiful building. All went well for fifteen years until Halloween night 1943 when around 9:30 P. M. a fire destroyed most of the interior of the building. Giving the date suspicion arose that the fire might have been caused by a prank gone awry, but close inspection pointed to defective electric switches as the cause of the disaster.
With damages of $9,000 in 1943 dollars a lesser congregation might have given up on the building, but the frame was sound and the people got to work. Five local churches offered help, and the congregation met at the Swedish Lutheran Church on Williams Street for eighteen months. Professionals restored the damaged structure while the men of the church cleaned and repainted the sanctuary. Services resumed in the spring of 1945. The beams in the roof still bear the scorch marks of the great fire.
With the building structurally sound and usable the next decade saw a complete renovation of the interior often through gifts and memorials. The sacristy was restored and a new organ added. A new altar, public lectern, chancel rail, prayer desks, vases, and altar hangings all were added during this time. The exterior required continued maintenance, of course, but the only major change was the replacement of old windows. In 1952 Sunnyside was acquired as a rectory and parish hall. A decade later the barn on the property was converted into a parish center with Sunday school rooms in the basement.
Throughout the 1960s membership grew, and the congregation made many small improvements to the property. The decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s saw a decline in membership, but the congregation remained committed to maintaining its building. During this time Sunnyside was sold to create an endowment to maintain the church building.
The mid 1980s marked a positive turn for the little congregation. The undercroft of the church was renovated with a kitchen, bathroom, and meeting space added. The members then met in the undercroft while the sanctuary was restored and an office and sacristy added. Once again these changes did not affect the buildings lovely exterior.
An exterior change did occur in the new millennium. A revived congregation used the undercroft for many charitable and community projects, but it only had a single exit making it dangerous in case of fire. Granted parish status for the first time by the annual Diocesan Convention in 2001, the congregation was able to receive a small loan from the diocese. With the loan and a lot of “sweat equity” from the members a second exit was added, and the building was brought up to code.
Still, the congregation is a small one with a strong commitment to charitable work including support for HUGS II and a program for providing backpacks filled with school supplies for kids in need so financing even general maintenance requires creative thinking. At one point prisoners on work release painted the church, but by 2012 the building needed a new scrapping and paint job. Money was again in short supply. In fact, the job was likely to be postponed until a call was placed to Painter’s Pride in Framingham, a painting company that specializes in churches and other large projects. The owner, Bud Killam, visited the church even though he was told it was unlikely the church could afford his services. Mr. Killam, a fellow Episcopalian, fell in love with the little building and decided to donate a painting crew for a week. Church women banded together to feed the crew who worked through Holy Week 2012. Mr. Killam had the idea to add the golden sunburst in the gable for a touch of Victorian splendor. That sunburst attracted the eyes of the Historical Commission, but it was the congregation’s dedication to preserving this little gem through decades of good times and bad that proved the choice for this year’s Briggs Award winner was one of the best ever.
Painter’s Pride provides free consultations for churches, senior centers, and other large painting jobs. Mr. Killam can be reached at 1-800-600-6472 or firstname.lastname@example.org.