A Brief History
In 1653, the “Shawshin Wilderness” was first settled, and its inhabitants were recognized as the Town of Billerica in 1655, conditional upon the settling of a minister. At the 1658 Town Meeting, Samuel Whiting, of Lynn, was appointed the minister of the first “meeting house”. The meeting house was built in 1659, but the church could not be formally organized, and its minister ordained until approval of the “Half-Way Covenant” which was not until November 1663.
The first meeting house was only 40 feet square with a thatched roof. When this became inadequate in 1694, a second was built; and in 1738, a third. In 1797, a fourth house was erected because “a new and more commodious meeting house was found necessary.” At that time, Dr. Henry Cummings was pastor. In 1844, the meeting house was renovated by adding the Greek portico and the building was turned 90° to face east. This was done by jacking up the building, setting it gently on a large cannon ball, and carefully pivoting it until it faced the village green. The pulpit, pews, and other furnishings were bought from the Second Church of Boston.
*Note: the cannon ball is on display at the Billerica Historical Society Museum, located at the Sexton House on Concord Road.
Items of Note
The Fire of 1967: Two days after Christmas in 1967, this historic landmark of Billerica Center was destroyed. But the parishioners, together with concerned area residents and businesses, contributed generously to the rebuilding of the church. On November 22, 1970, the fifth and present church building was dedicated.
Pulpit: In conjunction with the 1844 renovations, First Parish purchased many items from the Second Church of Boston, which was being torn down. Among the items purchased, and of particular interest, was the pulpit which had been used by Ralph Waldo Emerson during his three-year ministry at the Second Church. Emerson’s pulpit was saved from the fire with the help of wet plaster that covered it. It was damaged but was restored to be used in the new church. Before the devastating 1967 fire, several members of the Second Church of Boston came out to get some ideas on how to rebuild their church. They took pictures of Emerson’s pulpit to make a replica and made sketches and pictures of other sections of the church. It was because of Second Church’s interest in rebuilding its church to resemble parts of First Parish Church that enabled First Parish was able to restore its own church much like it was before the fire.
Organ: Replacing the Hammil Organ, destroyed by the fire, is an organ of the tracker-type built in 1898 by Emmons Howard of Westfield, MA for the First Methodist Church in Holyoke, MA. It became available to First Parish because of a church merger. In 1969, the Andover Organ Company rebuilt and installed the organ under the direction of the church organist.
Clock: The clock was given to the Town in 1808 and was made by Abel Stowell of Worcester.
Bell: The bell was cast by a descendant of Paul Revere in 1844 and was hauled from boston by oxen.
Lamp in the Foyer: In 1957, First Parish held an auction as a money maker. One of the items for sale was an antique oil lamp which had been in the church since before it had electricity. A church member had the foresight to rescue this lamp from being sold because she felt it would be appreciated by future members. Her husband spent many hours rubbing life back into the brass of the old lamp. It was wired and reinstalled in the foyer in 1988. Lamps like this were made in 1896.
Eagle in the Foyer: Rev. William Walsh, whose ministry lasted from 1915 to 1928, was presented with a brass gold-leafed Eagle on his 50th birthday, which was placed on top of a flagpole. Rev. Walsh used the gift in the side yard of the parsonage. When the parsonage was sold in the late 1950s, the eagle was removed from the pole for safekeeping. The eagle was refurbished in 1988 and placed in the foyer.
Ministerial Legacy of First Parish Church
Recent Historical Events
1990 – A Mortgage Burning Ceremony was held to celebrate complete ownership of the new, Fifth Meeting House.
1997 – A Tree Planting Dedication Ceremony was held to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the erection of the fourth Meeting House on the current site of the church.
2007 – First Parish Church is recognized as a Welcoming Congregation.
2008 – First Parish Church celebrated its 350th Anniversary. First Parish becomes accessible to all people with a new lift to the upper floors.
Thanksgiving Day, sermon by Reverend Henry Cumings, 23 November 1773
Old Families of First Parish Church, written by Mrs. M. H. Sage, 1898
From Kings Chapel to First Parish, sermon by Reverend Paul MacMillan, 1963
Adeline Blanchard Tyler, The First Deaconess, article in Diakoneo Magazine. Mrs. Tyler was baptized at First Parish in 1806