A Brief History of the Brown Church

The two churches that stand at the center of town were not always both white. The “Brown Church”, so-called because of its brown exterior, was the original color of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, founded in 1810.  The first meeting of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Society was held at the home of Jonas Sanford and services were held in parishioners’ homes for twenty more years. All that time, they made plans and saved money for the Church’s future.  

The original site for the Church was near the “Old South Burying Ground” (near Northrop and Christian Streets). Timbers were collected and building was begun, but differences of opinion as to the best location for the church caused the work to stop. Finally, an agreement was made to erect the building in a field one-half mile south of the present village and just north of the home of J. Lester Randall (today that is south of Sarah Sanford Road on Main Street). It was a barn-style structure with a bell and a steeple. That structure was used until 1859 and remained on the Randall property until it was torn down in 1948. 

As the town grew in population due to hat manufacturing, this location proved to be inconvenient and a new location was chosen in what is now the center of town. The land for the new church was donated by Glover Sanford and his four sons. St. Mark’s architecture and design were inspired by Richard Upjohn. He was an English architect who immigrated to the United States in 1829. Upjohn was a skilled draftsman who founded an architectural firm and started designing churches, especially Episcopalian. His architectural style was Gothic Revival and his most famous endeavor was Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City. He designed and constructed some 150 churches throughout his career. Upjohn even published a book, Upjohn’s Rural Architecture, to serve as a guide to the many small church communities that sought his expertise in church construction. St. Mark’s appears to be constructed from plans in this book. We don’t know the exact time of ground breaking, but the cornerstone was laid in 1859. Upjohn wanted his churches to blend into the landscape. That’s why stone was used in England for Gothic style churches. In America, Upjohn used wood and specified brown paint to better blend into the colonial landscape, which explains the origin color of St. Mark’s.

The structure was built by church member Monroe Frost and featured a ninety-foot spire with a sixty-five foot chestnut log for the finishing point. Moving that log required the work of several yokes of oxen to haul it from the land of Hiram Keeler to the new Church location. That was quite a feat! On March 14, 1860 this second Church was consecrated in its present location in Bridgewater center. The church members extended an offer to Rev. James Morton to become rector. Under his leadership improvements were made, including an organ valued at $600 – quite a sum in 1860 dollars. In the early years, a stagecoach passed the church twice a day – hard to imagine in the 21st century!

By October of 1860, the first Confirmation class was presented. There were three marriages that year with some familiar sounding names – Keeler, Randall, and Cole. The same was true of the families having baptisms and burials that year – Minor, Morris, Randall, Sanford, Mallett, Phipenny, Bennett and Youngs. Now we think of these names as only streets or landmarks, but two hundred years ago, they were real people – people who founded St. Mark’s Church and set long, deep roots into Bridgewater. 

Unfortunately, the spire was found to be unsound and it was removed and replaced with a Latin trefoil cross in 1929. During these early years, St. Mark’s often shared a Priest with Christ Church in Roxbury or St. Paul’s Church in Brookfield. It wasn’t until 1957 that there was a full time resident rector. Over two hundred years of history has marched on while the good people of St. Mark’s have observed Sunday services, holy days and many other community activities. May St. Mark’s history continue to enrich Bridgewater for another two hundred years.

© Bridgewater Historical Society

    2021 A. Wilkicki & L. Shail