The First Congregational Church of Warwick has reached an important milestone for a religious organization in today’s world. As many churches are closing their doors for good, the Oakland Beach-based church will celebrate 100 years of worship with a service of celebration on Sunday at 2 p.m.
“It’s hard because so many don’t make it,” said Diane Hall, administrative assistant at the church. “We don’t have a huge congregation, but the congregation we have is amazing.”
Pastor Warren Marble has been pastor of the church for four years but he has been connected to the church since he was young. His father was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Warwick when Marble was a teenager in the 1950s, and Marble served as minister of music for 50 years, beginning in 1969.
“Without the people, what would we be?” said Marble.
Sunday afternoon’s service will be a celebration featuring a guest organist and vocalist, as well as many leaders from the Protestant religion in the state. Conference Minister Reverend Dr. Beverly Edwards from the Rhode Island Conference United Church of Christ (RICUCC) is expected to speak, as well as Conference Minister Emeritus Reverend Dr. Daehler Hayes.
Reverend Raymond Bradley, who served as interim pastor prior to Marble, is also expected to attend the celebration.
To prepare for the celebration, Marble and Hall have worked hard to piece together a history.
“We have a lot of archives we’ve been searching through,” said Marble.
The First Congregational Church of Warwick was founded in 1913, originally called the Oakland Beach Union Church, as a non-denominational group. Marble explained that the area on the Horseneck Peninsula, near Oakland Beach, was considered to be a desirable summer destination, but there was a number of year-round residents. The nearest churches at that time were two miles away, and then four miles away.
“They decided they needed a church here,” said Marble.
The church received its charter on May 12, 1913 and met in various buildings in the community until they acquired the land that is now on Oakland Beach Avenue in late 1913. The groundbreaking occurred on Oct. 19, 1913, so Marble decided the celebration would occur close to that date.
“It seemed like an opportunity, and we took advantage of it,” said Marble.
And the church has been changing ever since it officially opened its doors in early 1914. In 1952, the church joined the Congregational Christian Conference, which eventually merged to form the United Church of Christ in 1957. In 1991, it was renamed the First Congregational Church of Warwick. There have been a total of 12 pastors at the church, not including interim pastors.
Physically, the church has also undergone changes. Although the sanctuary is the original building from 1913, the porch was enclosed shortly after opening, pews were brought in from Block Island in the 1920s, a new steeple was installed in the 1980s after the original was damaged in the Hurricane of ’38, and the pipe organ was installed in 1971 and expanded in the 1990s. “It’s always being worked on,” said Hall of the building. “Thankfully, we have people who know how to do things.”
Hall and Marble have also been collecting old photographs, which are being displayed in the downstairs of the church, including some on the very first alter from 1914.
“People have brought in pictures,” said Marble, adding that one individual brought a box full of photos.
In total, Marble and Hall estimate that their congregation consists of 50 people, with a weekly service attendance of 40. “To me, this is another family,” said Hall. “Everyone knows everyone.”
There are a lot of events this “family” is able to participate in together as well.
“It’s a very active church for the size of the church,” said Hall.
The church runs a Sunday School program for students, as well as a Vacation Bible School during the summer months. There is a Handbell Choir for adults, and a Chime Choir for children. The church hosts monthly suppers as well. They also serve as the meeting place for Cub Scout Pack #383 and hope to host a Brownie troop in the near future.
In keeping with its mission to help those in need, the church has also been a meeting place for a Narcotics Anonymous group once a week for the past decade. The congregation also comes together to help a number of organizations or groups. They recently hosted a Champlain’s Coffee House to support troops overseas, and often take part in donation drives for Neighbors In Need. Finally, they support Oakland Beach Elementary School’s annual school supply drive and food drive for the Rhode Island Food Bank.
“Again, we are a small part of this, but we support it,” said Marble.
The church also has hosted a number of special services in their history. Each year, the church joins with St. Rita’s and the Edgewood Congregation for an Easter Sunrise Service on Oakland Beach. In the past, they have also hosted a live nativity scene on Christmas Eve, complete with live sheep. Marble recalled one year when the sheep escaped from their enclosure and needed to be chased throughout the neighborhood.
As for the future of the church, Marble says keeping up with the times is key to survival.
“It has evolved,” he said. “We try to keep up with the times, staying true to what Jesus taught us but changing.”
Marble has the same hope for the Protestant religion as a whole.
“For religion, for Christ, I hope that we continue to thrive, continue to bring people in, and continue to come together to worship God as Christians,” he said.
It would appear that they are doing something right. Marble said they have had a number of longtime members, the longest continuous member having been with the church since the 1950s. He also pointed out that he has seen a number of people returning to the church after being away for a while, whether they left the area and have moved back or have found their way back to the religion for different reasons.