December 17, 2014
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Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian: A church for Conimicut
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

One of Warwick’s most significant churches, Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian, celebrated its 100-year anniversary during May 2007. The celebration was marked by a series of events culminating with a special worship ceremony and a banquet on May 20.

While May 21, 1907 is the date Woodbury Union Church received its charter, the history of the church can be traced back to August 1906, when Mr. Frank Sainsbury interested a number of villagers to establish a Sunday school in Conimicut.

Excellent early histories of the church by Grace N. Safstrom (1942) and Grace Tarring (1982) tell us of the need that was felt at the beginning of the 20th century. Changes in the village were evident with the coming of the Warwick Railroad and the electric trolley. Now with easy access to Providence and other areas of the state via the trolley lines, Conimicut was being regarded as the ideal suburban setting.

A great deal changed from the middle of the 19th century as Conimicut, already a fashionable summer resort, was attracting many of Providence’s more affluent citizens as well as many who preferred to work in Providence but live in the more spacious Conimicut area. By the late 19th century, the railroad station at the intersection of Beach Ave. and Transit St., long since demolished, was one of the busiest on the Warwick/Oakland Beach line.

During the early 20th century people came to Conimicut not only by horse and buggy as in the previous century but also by trolley and (for the wealthy) by automobile. Substantial homes, such as those on Beach Ave. in Conimicut, grew in number during the 20th century as Providence’s affluent merchants, doctors and lawyers found it fashionable to have a summer home along the Warwick shore. The number of more modest dwellings grew as well. Thanks to the electrification of the line and the increase in the number of trolley cars, it was possible to work in Providence and live in Conimicut.

The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed Conimicut’s transition from a rural area to a well-established summer colony and then to a fashionable suburban community. The change was gradual as the old and new mingled. The main streets in the village were West Shore Road and Beach Ave., and they were still unpaved. Attending religious services meant traveling to Providence or other areas of Rhode Island. For much of that period, West Shore Road was still commonly called “Apponaug Road” and the slaughterhouse, located just south of Mark Rock, was known for its old-fashioned “shindigs” in the fall.

Much of the credit for the change can be traced to the beginnings of Woodbury Union Church. The church began with a small gathering in the Conimicut School in 1906. Many residents, led by Frank Sainsbury, wanted to counteract what they felt were the temptations of the shore resorts and the hotels. They saw a need for religious instruction for the children. Mr. Sainsbury obtained permission from the Warwick School Department to use the Conimicut School for that purpose.

The first meeting took place on a very stormy Sunday on Sept. 30, 1906. As weather reports and forecasts were in their infancy at the time, it is possible that Warwick may have caught the tail end of a hurricane or tropical storm. In any event, only six people attended the meeting because of the weather. They were Mr. and Mrs. Sainsbury and their daughters, 14-year-old Ethel and 8-year-old Marion and Elsie Coleman and James R. Moore. The weather, not lack of interest, accounted for the poor start. The word spread through the community, and on the following Sunday 33 people, children and adults, attended and five classes were formed. By December of that year the number had grown to an enrollment of 55.

The growth and success of the Sunday school prompted discussions among Conimicut residents in relation to establishing a church in the village. At first this seemed impossible as there was no established religion in the area and the residents were divided among Baptists, Episcopalians and a scattering of nearly every other religious persuasion found at the time. Undaunted by the great variety of religious beliefs, on April 9, 1907 Mr. William Jamieson, a well-respected resident, called for a meeting to discuss the building of a church for all people of all religious persuasion and of all ages. He asked for a meeting on spiritual rather than established religious grounds.

With a Sunday school well received in 1906, many of the residents in Conimicut decided that it might be time to see about establishing a church in the village. William Jamiesen led the way by calling for a meeting to discuss the building of a church, which would attract people of all ages and all religious persuasions. The meeting took place at the home of Mrs. Beulah S. Parker on Beach Ave. It was an immediate success, and a church corporation was formed with Sainsbury as president, with plans made to erect a suitable building. Mrs. Ida Wright donated the land for the building as a memorial to Mr. Woodbury, her father. The church corporation soon after selected the name “Woodbury Union Church of Conimicut.” The name was appropriate, as the Woodbury family was very prominent in the village. Grace Tarring, in her 1982 history, tells us that Woodbury, Charles and Frances Streets in the village are all named for family members.

The stories of Warwick’s Houses of Worship will be continued.


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