While passing Spring Green Memorial Church on Warwick Avenue on a summer’s day, it’s not uncommon to hear from the open windows the spirited sopranos of the choir accompanied by the rumbling hum of an organ.
Close observers might’ve realized that the music has taken on a new vibrancy in recent months, as the church welcomes a new choir director and organist, Maurice Bernier, into their midst.
“God sent us Maurice,” said Bob Houghtaling, the church deacon. “It just happened. You showed up out of nowhere.”
Bernier replaced the long time choir director, organist and all around leader at Green Springs, Gail Blair, who had been with the church for 26 years before retiring.
“It was like a divorce,” said Houghtaling about losing Blair. “And she was not going across the street, she was going to Canada.”
But Bernier quickly filled the gap. He responded to a posting on the American Guild of Organists website, and within a few weeks he was at the church.
“One of the things that impressed us other than a faithful, dedicated choir, was the friendliness of the church and the pastor,” said Bernier. “He [Pastor Shelton Rucker] preaches a very solid message and is very engaging in the way he preaches. We were so impressed that we invited some of our family to come too.”
Before coming to Spring Green Bernier lived in Florida, where he worked at a church in Orlando as choir director and organist. He had just moved back to Rhode Island to spend more time with his grandkids when he saw the new job posting.
Bernier is a native of Rhode Island, and before moving to Florida he worked as the organist and choir director at Roger Williams Church in Providence. He favors Baroque music, but not exclusively.
“The church has a very nice pipe organ,” said Bernier.
He started the job at Spring Green in April.
Spring Green Memorial Church first came together as a congregation in 1949. At first the church held services in an older school building donated by Frank Brown, a descendant of John Brown Francis, who had owned the land while Governor in the 1830s. The old building had no plumbing and a primitive heat system, but that didn't keep the congregation from forming. By around 1950 there were 55 members of the church.
In 1953 a building committee was formed and plans for a new church building were made. Designed by Ira Rakatansky, the new church, built on the same ground as the old, combined new and used materials in the construction.
The school tower bell was removed and sent to the Sgwa Karen Church in Burma, now called Myanmar, at the request of Dr. Merrick Streeter, who had been a missionary there. Dr. Streeter then worked to obtain a cross from Burma. He sent a letter to his Burmese contacts about acquiring a special, teakwood cross. Thra Po Bote, an old friend of Dr. Streeter, and a member of the church where the school bell had gone, arranged for a cross to be made and sent to Rhode Island.
Chu Ah Liang, a Chinese carpenter, did the construction and carving of the cross. The new church was done in time for Christmas.
Over the next two decades the church thrived. In 1974, the 25th anniversary of the congregation’s founding, membership numbered 360.
Church youth traveled to Wisconsin and Canada for fellowship conferences; members attended protests for nuclear disarmament in New York City; and in 1992 the church finally got a steeple after an anonymous $3,500 donation.
Spring Green is a member of the Association of Baptist Churches of Rhode Island.
In the present day the church, while still vibrant, has seen a decline in membership. There are 125 members now, with 30 to 40 people going to service each Sunday.
“We’re trying to rebound to the good years,” said Ray Thornton, the church custodian.
“We’re always trying to bring more people into the church, because the church leads you up,” said Houghtaling. “So many young people are college educated, and [the colleges] are doing a lot to turn people away from religion, and introduce them to the realities of the world, so religion becomes nothing but a mythology.”
Spring Green is active in the community, hosting a free Sunday afternoon lunch once a month, as well as different outreach ministries. The church has a food pantry and the choir goes to Scandinavian Communities assisted living the last Sunday of every month to put on a performance.
“The Bible study on Thursday night has been great,” said Linda Forster. She’s the church clerk, a choir member and a parishioner since the age of 5.
“We have some very, very dedicated people here right now,” said Houghtaling. “Spring Green is looking up.”
The church just installed a television screen above the podium to make it easier to keep along with the scripture and hymns, a sign of change.
“We have to open ourselves up to the idea that there are other ways to worship God,” said Houghtaling, referring to the new musical preferences of young millennials, who fill new-age churches with loud music and swaying arms.
“Church worship should never be entertainment. That’s not what we’re here for,” said Thornton. “We’re here for God.”