In 2008, we celebrated the 275th anniversary of our parish. More than ten generations of Harvard townspeople have attended our church, and 41 ministers have preached from its pulpits. Though our current buildings are relatively new, our tradition is long.
On October 20th, 1733, the “Church of Christ”, located at the north end of Harvard’s town common, held its first service. The first meeting house was raised that year, after much debate about the location. The issue was resolved in a characteristically UU way: each townsperson was given a stone, and each placed the stone where they wished to situate the building. The town — itself incorporated only a year before — was scarcely more than a subsistence farming community in the countryside, only recently carved from the wilderness. It is not surprising then, that the record of the earliest years of our parish is somewhat hazy; the hardships of daily life in the early 18th century left little time for writing history. Of this period, one fact we do know: as was the case of many colonial New England villages, the first meeting house served both as the church and as town hall.
By 1773 the town’s population had grown to the point that the first meeting house was no longer adequate. Accordingly, the town fathers divided Harvard into five parts to apportion the timber and labor necessary for building a second, larger building. On October 20th, 1774, the second meeting house was ready for occupancy. In 1786 the townspeople built a steeple for the building and raised money for a bell.
Although by this time other denominations had gathered in Harvard, until 1824 the affairs of the original parish — referred to in the town warrants as “The Congregational Society” or “the church” — were conducted in open town meeting. Since the meeting house was still also the town hall, non-members, although exempt from the ministerial tax, had to bear their share of the building’s upkeep and repairs. While there is no specific mention in either town or church records of the actual separation of church and town, after March 2, 1824, the church—known then as the “Congregational Church and Society” began managing its own affairs.
In 1821, a minority of conservative members withdrew from the congregation to form the Evangelical Congregational Church. This group located themselves at the opposite end of the Common on Still River Road.
By 1840, the second meeting house had fallen into such disrepair that the congregation was forced to replace it. This third meeting house had a short life; in 1875 fire destroyed this building, though the bell and some of the other contents were saved. The congregation began rebuilding immediately. Shortly after the fourth meeting house was completed, a spire and belfry were added. In addition to the bell, the belfry housed the town clock, a gift of a civic-minded resident. In 1909, the church was incorporated as the “First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard,” the name it still bears.
In 1960, on land behind the former parsonage, the congregation built the Fellowship Building. This building, which houses the Sunday school, the kitchen, and the parlor, is located at the end of the lane across Elm Street from the front door of the church.
On December 13th, 1964, after a Sunday service, the fourth meeting house burned to the ground. For three years, while construction was proceeding on the present church building, the congregation attended Sunday services in the Fellowship Building. Our present church, the fifth meeting house, was dedicated on June 18th, 1967. Though cracked and darkened from the fire, the 1806 bell still tolls from the belfry.