One of the most pleasant aspects of a walk through Apponaug on a weekend is noticing all the activities that are centered around the village’s three churches on Post Road. It is especially interesting in the summertime as the June brides, with their entourage, fill the air with that special happiness that comes from the excitement of starting new lives and continuing the traditions of the past. All the churches, Catholic, Episcopal and Baptist, share in this experience, as does the recently created Dorothy Mayor Park, where couples often stop to have their photographs taken in a pleasant area.
While the park is of recent duration, the churches were landmarks in Apponaug during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fortunately, they have been preserved, and Apponaug generates a feeling of the past that few areas can duplicate. The late Dorothy Mayor’s paintings and research have helped to bring these structures into a proper historical perspective.
Warwick Central Baptist, St. Barnabas and St. Catherine’s all trace their origins back to the 19th century. The oldest of the three is Warwick Central Baptist. This history of the lovely, tall, one-and-a-half-story church building at 3262 Post Road dates back to 1835. In the previous year, the Warwick Central Baptist Society, which preceded the actual organization of the Warwick Central Free Will Baptist Church by a year, was chartered and began the work of building a meetinghouse in Apponaug. The society, which consisted of a number of interested individuals who were not necessarily church members and the church itself, were separate identities until 1945. At that time, the society dissolved and turned its authority and power over to the church.
While the church traces its existence as the Warwick Central Free Will Baptist Church directly back to 1835, it actually had its antecedents in Apponaug as early as 1744. In that year, Benjamin and Ezrickman Peirce and their wives, along with John Budlong and a few others, asked permission of Elder Manasseh Martin of the Old Warwick Six Principle Baptist Church “to form a church at Fulling Mill.” Permission was granted, and Benjamin Peirce was the first minister of the new church.
It was common at that time to build churches that were simple and took the shape of a large rectangle. This one was a 28-foot long and 26-foot wide meetinghouse. It was “on an eminence, East of the Village, most probably close to the location of the Thomas Wilbur house at 3188 Post Road. This early church went out of existence before the Revolutionary War and the building fell into decay. In 1785, another Baptist church was organized and the old 1744 building was repaired. This church dissolved in 1810.
Ten years later, Thomas Wilbur purchased the land and built his fine home on the site. This home, which stands today, contains some of the material from the meetinghouse. According to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission Report of April 1981, Wilbur was a housewright who constructed the residence for himself. It is one of the village’s finest early 19th century dwellings.
The Warwick Central Free Will Baptist Society was organized in 1835 by Reverend Benjamin Phelon and four others. They sought to baptize “in the manner of Jesus in the Jordan river.” Phelon preached in the gable-roofed structure, with its belfry and tall steeple, at 3262 Post Road from 1835 to 1837. He returned again to take up his duties from 1849 to 1869. Under Reverend Phelon’s ministry, the church grew steadily, as did the village. In 1875, the membership was recorded at 87 and continued to rise throughout the remainder of the 19th century. By the first decade of the 20th century there were over 120 members.
In 1905 a fire caused by lightning severely damaged the building and nearly destroyed the roof, attic and pews. The church was quickly rebuilt and much of the original building has been preserved. Thanks to the efforts of Rev. Thomas Rowe and church members, the same company that installed the roof for the City Hall Chambers was contracted to put a new roof on the church, and the members were able to celebrate their 70th anniversary before the end of the year.
One of the most colorful members of the Warwick Central Church was Daniel J. Lambert, a longtime deacon of the church and superintendent of its Sunday school. “Uncle Dan” Lambert, regarded as the “dean of New England’s poultry fanciers,” had a farm on Cowesett Road and taught “hen-craft” at the University of Rhode Island. Lambert, along with his intense devotion to the poultry industry, had a great zeal for religion. He was much sought after as a fill-in preacher at country churches and often officiated at funerals.
Columnist David Patten, who wrote about Lambert in 1955, said, “His zeal for religion so consumed him that when he went about lecturing on poultry he never let his audiences go without a strong dose of piety. He seldom talked with anyone for five minutes without working in a bit of religion, making a plea for temperance. He was strong against liquor.”
Throughout its long history, Warwick Central Baptist Church has promoted the concept of “love thy neighbor” through service to the community. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many church members prepared meals and gave them to the destitute workers at the Apponaug Mills. Members of the church were also instrumental in getting the Trudeau Center on Post Road organized. That tradition of service continues today under the pastorate of the Reverend P. Bishop Covell and his associate pastor, Rev. P. Liberty.
In 1973, prompted by the interest and enthusiasm of Adeline Verry, a part-time assistant to Rev. Covell, a Geriatric Care Center was started at the church. At the time there were only three in existence, the other two being in Philadelphia and Hawaii. Within a short time, a senior citizens nutrition program, Retired Senior Volunteers, a senior transportation system and a nursery school and day care center were added.
As the needs of the church expanded, new additions and buildings were added. Today, the church continues its active participation in reaching out and caring under the reverend.
The story of Apponaug will be continued.