Woodbury Union Church: A calm oasis in a troubled world
Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian has guided and sustained its congregation through some of the most trying times of the 20th century. These included the Depression, hurricanes in 1938 and 1954, World War II, the Cold War, and the Korean, Vietnam and Desert Storm wars as well as times of domestic and spiritual unrest.
After Reverend McMullen left Conimicut, Reverend Vernon W. Tuxbury became pastor and led the church through the trying times from Pearl Harbor to 1944, when he became a Navy chaplain. During World War II, the church was again used by outside agencies such as the Red Cross and the kitchen was used as a canteen.
After the war the difficulties faced by the church included getting and keeping a pastor. In 1946 a retired Presbyterian minister, Rev. A. Mason Brown, served as interim pastor. During his short six-month stay, the congregation began to feel a close affinity toward the Presbyterian denomination. Rev. Brown was succeeded by Rev. Wilbur Siddens, an ordained Baptist minister. Rev. Siddens understood the plight of the church in getting a full-time pastor and worked with the church members in attempting to get a denomination that would be approved by the church body. In February there was a special corporation meeting, which voted that “Said Corporation shall be known by the name of Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian, Conimicut.” The days of a union church now became the past. The church became part of the congregation of Presbyterian Churches U.S.A. but retained the word “Union” as it was still an ecumenical congregation and that point was emphasized.
On June 20, 1948 Rev. Frederic B. Ackley was called to become pastor. He remained in that position for the next 24 years and is generally regarded as the first Presbyterian minister to lead the church in its Presbyterian years. During the Korean War, Rev. Ackley was in the Chaplain’s Reserve Corps, and the fear was that the church would once again lose a pastor to the armed forces. This was not the case, however, and Rev. Ackley brought the church to the last quarter of the 20th century.
Richard Deering, in his history Our Presbyterian Years, tells us of the imagination and charm of Rev. Ackley. He wrote, “I have been told that Mr. Ackley had a box with a piece of wood in it that had termites. He walked up and down the aisle showing everyone what was happening, while Arthur Mansfield chewed on a piece of celery into the mic. The results were that they raised all the money they needed to hire an exterminator that day.”
Under this imaginative pastor, the church extended its activities to the community and to other churches as well. In 1957, when Shawomet Baptist Church burned, Rev. Ackley offered them the use of Woodbury Church for their Palm Sunday service. With the additional services, some of the older church organizations, such as the Jolly Dozen and the Ladies Aid Society, merged and a board of deacons was ordained and installed. By 1957 the additional clerical work made it necessary to hire a secretary and the increase in the church school called for a Christian education director and more room for the Sunday school, which had been in the church basement since 1935.
In 1960 the church purchased land diagonally across from the church and in 1962 erected the Christian Education building. The Sunday school now had a building of its own. It was the need for religious education in the village that prompted Frank Sainsbury in 1906 to bring about what was eventually to be Woodbury Union Church.
The joy of all the progress was accompanied by a degree of sadness as Rev. Ackley, who had led the church for 24 years, became very ill and died in the spring of 1972. In the quarter century he had been an inspiration to the congregation and to Conimicut Village as well. Rev. Johannes Jespersen became the interim pastor until Rev. William Lover was installed on Nov. 25, 1972.
Rev. William G. Lover preached his first sermon at the church on the first Sunday in December that year. Richard Deering notes that while the pastor was preaching the lights went out. Undaunted, Rev. Lover continued and when he reached a point in his text that read “Let there be light” the lights came back on. It was later learned that a squirrel had gotten into a transformer and short-circuited the wiring. It certainly made a dramatic beginning for the new pastor.
As in the past, the church, under Rev. Lover and later under Pastor Beth Appel, opened its doors to many organizations including Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous, to name a few. In addition, church members have helped with Meals on Wheels, Well Baby Clinics the Elizabeth Buffum Chace House and in many other projects that have contributed to the community.
Pastor Appel, along with the church elders, planned a number of activities to celebrate Woodbury Union Church’s 100th anniversary. Once a month since July 2006, the congregation takes time out for a minute of history where some members share a story of the history of the church.
Rev. Appel noted that when the celebration series started off with a choir and bell concert in July, over 100 people attended. She noted it was great as people from the church and the community came with lawn chairs and enjoyed the music and the spirit of community. The anniversary celebration culminated on May 20 with a special worship service at 10 a.m. at the church and a banquet at 3 p.m. at Warwick Country Club.
Without a doubt, and with much enthusiasm, Woodbury Union Church serves as a vital part of the community as it did in 1907 when it was first organized.
The stories of Warwick’s Houses of Worship will be continued.