WATERVILLE — Though its congregation may be small, it’s a big church with a history — and a heart, to match.

The First Baptist Church on Park Street, celebrating its 200th birthday this year, hosted a tour and tea party Sunday, honoring its illustrious past and welcoming visitors to share in its heritage.

The oldest public building in Waterville, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was built in 1826. It also is the tallest building in the city, standing 125 feet from ground to steeple top, according to Sam Goddard, who will have been a church member eight decades when he turns 80 in two weeks.

“I’ve spent my entire career from birth to my present state here,” he told about 25 people who took his tour. “Jan and I got married here in 1961. The reason that I know that is I got drafted 30 days after I got married.”

Goddard, who serves as church moderator and trustee, and his wife, the church clerk and secretary, were in the nave of the church Sunday, where parishioners and guests asked questions about the church, which also has the distinction of having as its pastor in the 1800s Samuel Francis Smith, who wrote “America (My Country Tis of Thee).” Smith was pastor from 1834 to 1841.

The church also was intricately bound to Colby College in its early years, as pastor Jeremiah Chaplin taught at Maine Literary and Theological Institution, now Colby, and organized the church. Colby President Dana Boardman also was a pastor of the church who developed a missionary program that sent people around the world, according to Sam Goddard, whose father, G. Cecil Goddard, attended Colby and was the first alumni secretary of the college. From 1827 to 1918, Colby held its annual commencement exercises at the church, as its campus was downtown.

The current church pastor, Rev. Russell LaFlamme, said First Baptist is one of the founding churches of the American Baptist Society of Maine, or the Maine Baptists.

“At one time, the offices of the American Baptist Churches of Maine were located here,” he said.

LaFlamme’s office has photos of people important to the church, including Samuel Osborne, a former slave in Virginia who was custodian at Colby for 37 years and for whom Colby President David Greene recently named the president’s house.

“The church was very instrumental in getting him here,” LaFlamme said of Osborne.

In the church vestry, visitors Sunday pored through scrap books and looked at photos and newspaper stories about the church as they sipped punch and shared a birthday cake, cookies and other treats.

Mark McPheters, 86, a church member for 60 years, said he and his wife, who died about a year ago, were married in the church and he started a chess club there that meets Monday nights.

“It’s the same as any organization — it has fewer people now but it’s good that it’s stayed as good as it has for that long,” McPheters said of the church. “It’s still in relatively good shape and kept up and painted.”

It is a welcoming place, he said, and anyone thinking about joining the church needn’t be intimidated by its grandeur as they enter the nave.

Jan Goddard, who headed up the anniversary events, said people are welcome to attend a talk by David Brown at 2 p.m. Sept. 23, “Remembering Dean Marriner’s ‘Little Talks on Common Things,'” being held as part of the church celebration. Also on tap for fall is a presentation by Maine historian Erle Shettleworth at 2 p.m. Oct. 21, “The Camera Discovers Waterville, the City’s First Photographs, 1855 to 1885.”

Both presentations will include a reception and refreshments, she said. Events held earlier this year to celebrate the church’s 200th birthday included Lenten organ concerts, a tour of the church for second graders and a meeting of the Kennebec Baptist Association.

The church nave is regal, having undergone renovations in 1950. A story Jan Goddard wrote for Discover Maine magazine, published this year, describes the history of the organ.

“The first pipe organ, which was pumped by hand, appeared in 1893,” her story says. “At the church’s 100th anniversary in 1936, the family of the late Horace Purington gave, in his memory, a large magnificent pipe organ — electrically powered. Thirty two years later, in 1958, the organ was overhauled and chimes and bells were added. It was placed in the balcony and remains there to this day.”

Sam Goddard and LaFlamme said Lenten services held annually draw dozens of people as a renovated organ is moved a few feet to the altar so people can see the hand and footwork of the organist who performs a wide repertoire of music. Don Pauley is organist in the summer months and Lynne Burney and Mary Matteson are organists during the winter months but Pauley also plays at Lenten.

Behind the drape at the altar is a baptistery, a tiled cavern with steps leading down to it that is filled with water and where the pastor performs baptisms by immersion, which the congregation witnesses as the drape is pulled away. Before the baptistery was built, baptisms were held in the Kennebec River and Messalonskee Stream.

Muriel Curtis, a church member since the 1980s, said the church has a sandwich program where people may come and get sandwiches from 3:30 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Curtis said the church has tried the last few years to be more in the public, and would warmly welcome more members.

“The thing is, the church itself is absolutely beautiful and people take pride in it,” she said.

The church over the years has sponsored Boy and Cub Scouts, served as a temporary library space when Waterville Public Library had a water problem and opened its doors to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter when it needed space. When the Salvation Army building burned in 2001, the church allowed it to be housed in the basement until its building was renovated, according to Jan Goddard. For several years starting in 2000, the church also shared its space with the Hope Korean Church which later was known as Handoll Mission Church.

First Baptist has about 70 members, 25 of whom regularly come to Sunday services, according to LaFlamme.

“I say we’re a small church in a big building now,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, because it holds 500.”

Sam Goddard said turning 200 represents a milestone for the church.

“I only wish the community would remember its heritage,” he said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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