It’s been 201 years since a well-meaning attempt to rid St. Paul’s Episcopal Church steeple of pigeons led to a fire that would burn the building down.
The church was rebuilt a year later and this Oct. 6, on the 200th anniversary of the “new” church, St. Paul’s parishioners are inviting the entire community to learn about and celebrate the church that is at the center of the city’s earliest history and continues to be a vibrant contributor to Shelton.
The Oct. 6 celebration near the Huntington Green includes a chili cook-off, guided tours, artifact displays and more. Costumed tour guides will lead visitors through the burial ground beside the historic church, where Civil War veterans and many important players in Shelton’s history are buried.
While the building is 200 years old, the church itself started earlier, in 1722, when Huntington was called Repton (later Ripton) and pastors were paid in pounds and loads of wood.
“Ripton was the center of what became Huntington and then Shelton,” parishioner Knute Hansen said.
A major part of organizing the event was researching the facts. That was what parishioners Byron Peterson, Lily Beall and Knute Hansen have been busy doing and they’ve uncovered a lot of interesting information that will be shared with visitors to the event.
The church started as an offshoot of Christ Church of Stratford, an Anglican Church.
“I was surprised to see the role the church played in the development of the area — its links with the Sheltons, the Brownsons and how much land we had,” Peterson said, “recognizing the impact the Revolutionary War had on the church and how they survived and made it.
“It was a dogged willingness to continue to practice their faith.”
The church was forced to close during the Revolutionary War, because of its association to the Church of England. The church’s first minister, the Rev. Christopher Newton, was put on house arrest and not allowed to practice his faith. But, unlike many other Anglican priests, he was not put in jail or worse.
“That didn’t happen to Rev. Newtown because he was a local boy and he was a storekeeper who was generous with store credits,” Peterson said.
Beall worked with Tracey Tate of the Shelton History Center, to research a lot of the early Huntington history. She was surprised to learn it was an affluent church and not as much of a farming community as she thought. Parishioners had businesses and some owned slaves. In fact, the “slave gallery” where they sat during services will be part of the guided tours. Some of the slaves’ engravings may still be seen in the gallery.
“I wouldn’t have considered this a very strong church but it was,” Beall said. “It emanated style, wealth and some education.
“I thought of it as farming country but now I see it differently, as a strong center.”
The parish has a long and interesting history that extends to the present day. The church is no stranger to struggle, according to Knute Hansen. In the 1940s the diocese considered closing the church until many young families began moving to Huntington from Bridgeport and Stratford and joined the church.
In 1986, the historic church was robbed of some of its precious possessions, including a Scottish Reformation-era chalice that was on loan to the parish.
Since St. Paul’s built a chapel to accommodate a growing congregation in 1992 — across the street from the 1811 church — the historic church remains open for one service every Sunday and for special occasions.
A link with the past is important to the parishioners.
“As we struggle along, like every other church, we would still never consider giving that church up,” Peterson said.
The parish avoided putting the 1811 church on the National Register of Historic Places only because it would restrict how the space could be used, Peterson said.
The Oct. 6 event also marks the 30th anniversary of the Christian Counseling Center, right beside St. Paul’s parish center and chapel, on 25 Church Street. Church members started the family counseling center, which is now a non-profit and separate from the church.
St. Paul’s continues to support Christian Counseling and other city organizations like the Spooner House and the Boys & Girls Club.
The celebration is an effort to welcome newcomers and share the history of the parish.
“We just want the community to know we are still here and vibrant 290 years later,” Peterson said.
The Saturday, Oct. 6 event runs from 12 to 4. The chili cook-off will be in the parish hall. Local fire companies will be among the competitors and a sampling of chili will be available for $5.
Tour guides of the old church and cemetery will also be available. Visitors may also partake in indoor activities for elementary school children and a tour of Christian Counseling.
In cooperation with the Shelton Historical Society, Saturday’s schedule has been planned so visitors might have time to attend the Civil War Re-enactment by Company F, 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry on the grounds of the historical society, which is just up the street on Ripton Road.
For more information call Nancy Wilson at 203-929-1722.