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The Churches of Totokett

by David Driessens

Branford’s people are now served by more than a dozen churches. The oldest, and the church that literally founded the town, is the First Congregational Church. Gathered at the time of the settlement in 1644, it continues to play its role in the life of the town.

Three hundred and fifty years ago, some of the inhabitants of Puritan Wethersfield, Connecticut, led their settlement of nine years, and took possession of newly purchased lands on the Long Island shore. The area called Totoket, acquired some six years earlier by the new settlement of New Haven, was offered to the dissident members of the Wethersfield church, who repaid New Haven the purchase price, said to be “betwixt 12 and 13 pounds”.

One of the first priorities of the new settlers was to build a place of worship. A meetinghouse was erected for worship and to conduct the affairs of the plantation. The meeting house served the town for nearly sixty years and was located in what is now Center Cemetery, where an ancient millstone marks the spot.

A second meetinghouse was built in 1701 on the site of John Taintor’s home lot, which he bequeathed to the town in 1699.  This new meetinghouse stood in front of the present Town Hall, and was the first building on the Green. The present Congregational Church, its fourth building, was erected in 1843.

An Episcopal society was active in town, as a result of disagreement within the Congregational Church. A permanent Episcopal was organized on Dec.11th, 1784 when some 52 persons signed a petition to Branford’s First Ecclesiastical Society, indicating their intention to form themselves into  a new Society based upon Episcopal form and rite. They also petitioned for relief of the town’s authorized tax for the support of the Congregational Church, and its minister’s salary.

The Ecclesiastical Society rejected the appeal, and the Episcopalians sued. The General Court rejected their suit, and they were required to continue their support of the Congregational Church. By the year 1818, the toleration Act had become law throughout Connecticut, and discrimination against any religious tradition was now illegal.

The families of many of the town’s original settlers were instrumental in the organization and support of the new Episcopal Society, and so the names appear in the records of both churches now occupying the Green. Their original edifice was a simple white frame building which stood on a small knoll behind the present building and was the early site of George Baldwin’s blacksmith shop. The present Trinity Church was built in 1852, in the gothic style.

Another denomination became a force in town when the Baptists built their church in 1838 on the site of the Puritan’s old whipping post hill. Though the Baptist Church was the third denomination to be established in town, theirs is the oldest church building on the green. And so three churches stand side by side by side in a town that was once so Puritan, that none but Puritans were permitted to reside here. 

In 1854, some 210 years after the first Puritans erected their meetinghouse in the colony, the Roman Catholic Church was established. Their first church was a white frame building on Montowese Street next to the Philemon Robbins House. The site of the building was, for many years, the grocery store of Charlie and Vernie Baldwin whose families were early settlers of Branford and Stony Creek. It is now a picture frame shop. Because of the small Catholic population in the town, services were held about every three months by a traveling priest. In the meantime, many of Branford’s Catholic families rode horse and wagon…or walked to New Haven’s St. Mary’s Church.

As the town’s population grew, it became necessary for the Catholicss to build a larger church. In 1900 their new church, of cathedral like proportions, was built on Main Street where the present church now stands. It was damaged by fire in 1904 and rebuilt the same year. The large, Romanesque, yellow brick church served the congregation for some 70 years. In 1972, a disastrous fire struck the church, and damaged it so badly that ir had to be razed. In its place rose the present brick church of colonial design.

It is interesting that, even as the fire consumed was consuming the building, the Rev. Roger Manners, Pastor of the Congregational Church called St. Mary’s Pastor and offered the meetinghouse to the parishioners for as long as necessary. The offer was accepted, and many of St. Mary’s people attended their Saturday evening services there for about a year and a half.

The Short Beach Union Chapel, a small non-denominational church, was built in 1883, situated appropriately on Pentecost Street. Though its membership is small, it is a dedicated group of people who continue to be a vital presence in the village. Perhaps its most famous member was the renowned poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who attended the Chapel when she resided in Short Beach.

In the chronology of the churches, the next to appear is one that serves he large Swedish community. Tabor Lutheran Church, founded by the Scandinavian community in 1888, held its first services in the Congregational Church. Their first church, built on Hopson Avenue was damaged by fire in 1892, and rebuilt the following year. They built their current brick and glass church in classic, modern Scandinavian design in 1957 on a tract of land adjacent to their cemetery on Tabor Drive. The Hobson Avenue building became the home of the Evangelical Free Church whose members later built a new house of worship in Stony Creek. The church on Hobson Avenue is now the home for the Congregation of the Good Shepard.

The original Stony Creek Congregational Church was a small wooden chapel erected in 1866, which burned to the ground in 1900. The present church constructed of Stony Creek granite, built in the Norman Gothic style, was built in 1903.

After World War I, in response to the needs of Branford’s black community, St. Stephen’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was dedicated, and their small wooden church was erected on Rogers Street in 1919. It served until their growing congregation necessitated a larger building and they built a new, modern, brick church in 1970, adjacent to their first church. St. Stephen’s has, for many years, maintained a pulpit exchange with the Congregational Church, twice yearly. St. Stephen’s continues to serve the community as they celebrate their 75thanniversary.

A small group of Methodist’s built a church on South Main Street in 1875. The church disbanded in 1878 and the building was later used as Gaylord’s Opera House, and is now an apartment building.   A new Methodist congregation gathered in 1966 with 40 members and erected a church building on the eastern side of the town, near the Guilford line. Today their membership is more than 200 persons, and they built a large addition to the original church building to accommodate a growing membership.

 The most recent religious group to locate in Branford, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, dedicated their newly constructed Kingdom Hall on Aug.27th 1988. Located on Baldwin Drive, just off East Main Street, the red brick church of colonial design was constructed in a joint effort of members and friends. The Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation first located in New Haven in the 1950’s. When they outgrew facilities their, a group, mostly shoreline residents, built a new facility on High Street in East Haven. When that too was outgrown, the decision was made to build in Branford. The congregation today numbers 120 members.

There were churches that once served the town that are no longer here. Most served summer community when Branford was a shoreline resort town, and were used only during the summer months. The Chapel of Grace at Branford Point was built in 1880 and last used in 1919. It was demolished in 1924.

The Pine Orchard Chapel, built in 1897, was used for many years by summer residents. The building still stands but is no longer used for worship services. It isa maintained and administered by a Pine Orchard Chapel committee and is used for community activities.

The Academy on the Green, built as a “select school” for children in 1820 has often been used for worship services. Today the Branford Bible Chapel worships here on Sundays.

Last Updated: Thu, 06/20/2019 - 12:05pm