Shawomet Baptist Church 2: Progress & pain
Then and Now
The Shawomet Baptist Church building that stands so majestically today on the corner of Armstrong St. and West Shore Road was built in 1888 after the earlier edifice was consumed by fire in 1886. During the following years, the church carried on its ministry by reaching out to others in the community and bringing the spirit of tolerance and spirituality to all sections of Warwick. During the pastorate of Rev. Alfred Millington (1892-1895), a baptistery was finished and a Young People’s Society was formed. In addition to ecclesiastical cares, the pastor addressed the practical problems of finances and of building much-needed horse sheds.
During the first half of the 20th century, Shawomet Baptist Church had its share of progress and pain. While it was able to weather the difficult years of the decline of the textile industry in the state and to continue to make improvements on the church, it also suffered the loss of one of its pastors, Rev. G.B Cowell, who succumbed to the flu epidemic of 1917. Church histories tell us that Rev. Cowell, “a great leader and preacher,” was an excellent example to his congregation and went to his reward singing. During the following years, new classrooms were added, and again there was a setback when a fire broke out in 1927 and severely damaged the building.
In the 1940s the church became free of debt and saw its pastor, Rev. James Curie, leave the church to become a chaplain in the Armed Forces during World War II. In 1953 its pastor, Rev. Lincoln H. Barr, left his pastorate to become a chaplain in the Air Force during the Korean War. Rev. Barr, like Rev. H.G. Stewart, who left Shawomet Baptist Church to become a chaplain in the Civil War, and Rev. Curie, who served in World War II, became the third Shawomet Baptist Church pastor to serve his country in time of war.
In 1957 fire once again took its toll on Shawomet Baptist Church. The vestry was gutted and the sanctuary suffered heavy smoke damage, causing the congregation to hold services at Gorton Jr. High School and the Lambskin Club until repairs were made.
As the latter half of the 20th century progressed, Shawomet Baptist Church saw the building of the Drolette Christian Center building on West Shore Road, which at times attracted as many as 100 teenagers on a Friday night and played a very active role in extending its services to the community. Much of this was done while Reverend Donald N. Valentine was pastor (1978-1988). Reverend Valentine believed that serving the community was part of the congregation’s ministry as church members. During his pastorate, the church buildings were used by many groups ranging from self-help groups to aerobic dancing groups and from senior citizens through scouts and infant care services.
In 1997 Reverend Henry A. Pedersen began his pastorate at the church. Rev. Pedersen brought with him a great deal of experience, as he was a Navy chaplain, a chaplain in a prison system and an administrator in a chemical abuse program. In February 1999 Reverend Nancy Phelan became co-pastor with Rev. Pedersen. In the following year, Rev. Pedersen retired and was named pastor emeritus by the church and “Pastor Nancy” became the full pastor of the church. She is the first woman to hold that position at this church. Prior to being ordained in 1998, Rev. Phelan spent 20 years as a nurse working with the elderly.
Her present pastorate ties together the long evolution of the religious experience in Warwick from the time of Samuel Gorton, who advocated the idea that women and children should be allowed to preach in churches, through the time of the Six Principle Baptist community to the present day ecumenical movement and community service.
Pastor Nancy stressed the many different services of the church in Warwick. One of the well-known activities of the church is the Sunrise Easter service, which attracts about 300 people and is an ecumenical event with participation by many of the churches in Warwick. In referring to Gorton, Rev. Phelan noted that Shawomet Church not only has women preach but also has a Children’s Sunday, where once a year children interested in becoming ministers preach to the congregation.
As in the past, Shawomet Baptist Church continues to practice baptism by total immersion, is part of the American Baptist Churches USA, Westbay Community Action, Rhode Island Family Shelter and various other community projects. The church has continued its tradition of outreach to the community as well as meeting the spiritual needs of its members. Shawomet Baptist Church is one of the most enduring visual reminders of the ecclesiastical heritage of Warwick and the vital part churches play in the modern city.
The stories of Warwick’s Houses of Worship will be continued.