Moving Forward, Looking Back / Fairfield's meeting house still going strong
Published 6:21 am, Tuesday, May 8, 2012
I was raised to believe that New York City was the center of the known universe, and that therefore, New York citizenship was an extraordinary privilege. You can understand, then, why I am appalled by New Yorkers who have never been to the places in the city that less fortunate people travel halfway around the world to see.
Now that I've lived in Fairfield for 35 years, I can proudly claim dual citizenship, but I am not so proud to admit that it was only recently that I visited the First Church Congregational. I have shamefully neglected the oldest institution in Fairfield's long history and was also ignorant of its uncanny connections to my birth city. So much for my holier-than-thou attitude.
I'd heard that the church had Tiffany stained glass windows. Tiffany glass is so quintessentially New York that New Yorkers probably have a gene for it. I figured I'd get to see them at some point. What was I waiting for?
Finally I went and was given free rein in the empty sanctuary. The windows are signature Tiffany, remarkable Fairfield treasures, a glowing delight to see. Well, I had seen what I had come for, but as I sat there, I experienced the sanctuary in a way that took me far beyond the windows in time and space. I'll try to explain this, but first, here's an all-too-brief recap of the church's history.
The Norman Gothic stone church on the Old Post Road facing Town Hall is the sixth building on that site since the first log-cabin-style meeting house was put up in 1640, within a year of the founding of the town. The meeting house served as the church as well as the venue for town meetings, in which issues of religious and secular concern were considered. In that tight-knit Puritan community, matters of church and state overlapped almost entirely.
Over time, the meeting house underwent additions and rebuilds, always on the same site. Unfortunately, those charming wooden New England churches had a propensity for catching fire. The third church was torched during the 1779 British attack on Fairfield, and the fifth succumbed to fire in 1890, an agonizing tragedy on the heels of a decades-long building project.
Construction began almost immediately on the sixth church, dedicated in 1892, but this time it would be made of stone. The Tiffany windows, gifts from the Jennings and Saltus families, were installed in the early 1900s. But even stone churches are not immune from fire. In 1940, a fire destroyed the organ and damaged the Jennings windows in the chancel.
Fast-forward to the present. As I sat in the sanctuary under the spell of stained glass, I realized that I was in a space that has been in continuous community service for almost four centuries. I imagined sitting on a splintery bench inside a crude log building, bare earth underfoot, during a day-long Sunday church service or a town meeting debating Biblical verse, witchcraft or property disputes. I transported myself across the street to watch helplessly in 1779 or 1890 as successor churches burned to the ground. The church underpins the entire history of Fairfield.
As imposing as the First Church Congregational is from the street, the sanctuary is inspirational. It's a big space, but it retains a palpable intimacy. Sturdy wood columns with intricately carved capitals support a sweeping matrix of arches and beams that complements the stained glass windows on either side. The church's windows are a personal esthetic link to my roots, but not the only one; the building itself has New York City credentials. The architect, J.C. Cady of New York, also designed the Museum of Natural History, one of my sacred places. No wonder it was love at first sight -- when I finally looked.
But I saved the best for last. A Burr family bequest enabled the 2010 installation of a pipe organ by the renowned German workshop of Klais Orgelblau. The organ console faces a stunning wall of pipes that is so architecturally respectful of the original sanctuary that it looks like it was always there. And for our purposes, it always will be; the lifespan of a pipe organ is measured in centuries. In this way, First Church has made a strong commitment to the future.
There is nothing that approaches the pipe organ as a musical instrument, and few machines approach it in complexity. There is now a world-class example in Fairfield, and I heard it for the first time at a splendid recital by the church's organist, Andrea Boudra Kotylo.
Sadly, the set of stained glass windows behind the pipes is blocked from view, but there are plans to move them to the opposite end of the church.
First Church Congregational is more than a house of worship. It carries on its 370-year tradition as Fairfield's Meeting House, a community resource of art, music, and town events, such as the Holocaust Commemoration on April 25.
Don't let 35 years pass before you go to our very own meeting house. Visit the sanctuary; see the Tiffany windows; hear the world-class organ. You'll experience 370 years of tradition there, and you might just leave in a New York state of mind.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.