Apponaug’s early churches
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 summer time 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 Dorothy Mayor Park, where couples often come to have their photographs taken in a pleasant area.
While the park has been created in the last 10 years, 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 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. The history of the lovely, tall 1½-story church building at 3262 Post Road dates back to 1835. In the previous years 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 Warwick Central Baptist Society consisted of a number of interested individuals who were not necessarily church members. The society and the church itself were separate entities 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 Martyn of the Old Warwick Six Principle Baptist Church “to form a church at Fulling Mill.” During that period Apponaug was known familiarly as 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 is on an eminence, east of the village, most probably close to 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 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.
Reverend Benjamin Phelon and four others organized the Warwick Central Free Will Baptist Society in 1835. They sought to baptize “in the manner of Jesus in the Jordan River.” The Rev. 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 Rev. 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 effort of the 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.
The Warwick Central Free Will Baptist Church continued to grow and reach out into the community through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1908 the name of the church was changed to the Warwick Central Baptist Church of Apponaug.
Like so many of the other churches in Warwick in the first half of the century, this church was very active in helping its members and neighbors struggle through the Great Depression, the hurricane of 1938 and World War II. During the Great Depression many church members prepared meals and gave them to the destitute workers at the Apponaug Mills. During the height of the Depression in 1935, the church was able to celebrate its 100-year anniversary by installing a new pipe organ and a new baptistery.
In 1946, at the end of World War II, many new residents came to Warwick with a variety of needs. The church found it was time to make the former church parsonage a Sunday school building. In December 1948 the Warwick Central Baptist Society deeded all its real estate holdings to the Warwick church.
As the rapid growth of Warwick continued in the 1950s, the church purchased the Compston property adjacent to the building and the house was used for additional Sunday school rooms. Within two years, on Columbus Day 1956, not long after the church name was changed to the present one of Warwick Central Baptist Church, the Compston Sunday School building was destroyed by fire. In 1958 the church voted to erect a new building, and in 1958 the cornerstone was laid for the large building, which contains the church office, two large classrooms, a nursery, a kitchen and a large auditorium that can seat 200 people. This auditorium, Judson Hall was named in honor of Adoniram Judson, an early Baptist missionary. Today, this hall is one of the most popular centers for May breakfasts, church dinners and other community related programs.
The church has been blessed with a number of excellent pastors and deacons. 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, says, “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.”
In 1967 Reverend Covell came to Warwick Central Baptist Church and served as its pastor for the next 25 years. Under his leadership Warwick Central Baptist Church has promoted the concept of “love thy neighbor” through service to the community. In 1973 the church initiated a program for geriatric day care. This program began with three clients but grew so fast that by 1979 more room was needed for the geriatric center and an entirely new building was built. It was attached to the rear of the church and can accommodate 50 clients per day. A large multipurpose room was built under the geriatric center, and the church office area was enlarged to three offices and a new rear entrance and ramp installed to make the facility easily available to the handicapped and the elderly. Members of the church were also instrumental in getting the Trudeau Center on Post Road organized.
While time and the spirit of community service has seen Warwick Central Baptist Church add new buildings, the basic interior of the church remains faithful to the early, simple, basic 1835 house of worship.
The stories of Warwick’s Houses of Worship will be continued.