Fire at the First Church of Christ

Historical Article Series April 6, 2020 > Fire at the First Church of Christ

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 5, September 2002

As many of you know, the steeple of the First Church of Christ Congregational in Mansfield Center was recently struck by lightning.  Due to the alertness of nearby neighbor, Mike McDonald, and the quick response of the firemen of numerous fire departments, the church was saved from completely burning.

Founded in 1710, it is the oldest church in Tolland County and is closely connected with the founding and early history of the Town of Mansfield.  Many historic happenings and events occurred in that first meetinghouse, as it served not only as a spiritual center but a political and social meeting place as well.

The original church was outgrown and was replaced by a larger church, completed in 1754. Following the recent fire, there have been numerous questions about how the second church burned.  The only first hand account that has ever turned up appears in a letter written by Robert Porter Barrows to Lucius, his older brother, dated April 16, 1866.  A visiting revivalist preacher, Reverend Potter, had been holding four-day revival meetings commencing on March 13, 1866.  Many families around were invited to attend and “there appeared to a waking up on the part of the members of the Church.”  “On the evening of the burning of the Church the body of the house was full and 50 went forward for prayers; as it was dark many lanterns were lit in the parade and we think it was possible the Church took fire that way.”  He goes on to write:  “When first discovered the doors were open where wood chips were about.  Those in charge thought they were shut but not locked, at any rate about 12 o’clock that night it was all on fire and everything was lost.”  The date was March 14, 1866.

First Church of Christ
An early photograph of the current First Church of Christ in Mansfield that was built to replace the one that burned in 1866.

He continues:  “We mean to build a new church right away and have started a subscription paper and with insurance perhaps have six thousand dollars.”  Then in Sept. 1866:  “Our meeting house goes along nicely, the outside is all covered and painted once over, it will probably be ready to plaster by next week.  I think it will be completed by Thanksgiving time.”  The dedication took place on December 2, 1866.  “We now have a Meeting House dedicated to God.”  

Amazingly the Church was erected in the short period of eight months, certainly a decisive action to a major crisis in the Church’s history.  The builder was Ralph Chappell and it was designed by Edwin S. Fitch, renowned master builder/architect.  Thankfully this important historical Mansfield landmark was preserved by a group of fast working, skilled local firemen.

Roberta Smith, Town Historian

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