On Sunday, the Green's Farms Congregational Church began elaborate formal celebrations of its 300th anniversary, and the milestone is one for all of Westport as well.
"The history of Westport starts right here as a discernible entity," said James Marpe, co-chair of the church's 300th anniversary committee, with his wife Mary Ellen, and Diane and Steve Parrish.
A short history lesson is in order (with all due credit to George Penfield Jennings' authoritative 1933 history, Greens Farms Connecticut, the Old West Parish of Fairfield).
In 1708, the 270 inhabitants of Machamux – Indian for "the beautiful land" – petitioned the general court of the colony of Connecticut to designate their community (now Greens Farms) as a separate parish.
It took two tries – Fairfield, of which Machamux was a part, objected to the secession – but in May 1711, the petition was granted, creating a new parish bounded by Sturges Highway and Sasco River to the east, Long Island Sound to the south, Norwalk in the west and Redding to the north.
On June 11, 1711, the first parish meeting was held in a meetinghouse that no longer exists.
Four meetinghouses later – one was burned to the ground by the British - the Machamux congregation and its successor congregations continue to meet as the Congregational Society of Green's Farms. On June 11, 2011, the parish turns 300 years old.
Among other matters attended to at the parish's first meeting was setting the salary, 70 British pounds, for its minister, Rev. Daniel Chapman.
But the creation of the West Parish of Fairfield in 1711 had secular significance as well, for the parish carried out the functions of tax collector, school board, law enforcer and all aspects of local government, later assumed by the Town of Westport. Town meetings took place at the parish's meetinghouses.
Hence, the shared town-and-church birthday.
The 10-month long celebration leading up to June 12, 2011 (the closest Sunday to June 11) is theme to three Rs – Remember, Rejoice, Renew.
In each aspect, the church in some way celebrates the community at large as well as itself.
The "Remember" component includes, among a host of activities, crews of volunteers scrubbing off the moss and mold from the church's cemetery stones – including gravemarkers of some of Westport's most notable personages from the 18th and 19th centuries. (The Westport Historical Society is having a special event there on September 26 led by Peter Jennings, a descendant of the original Fairfield Jennings family.)
The "Rejoice" component rang out on Sunday.
At the church's "homecoming" service welcoming its families back from their summer adventures, the congregation was treated to a "magical musical morning," in the words of Dr. Eileen Hunt, minister of music.
First, Jonathan Henken greeted churchgoers on the lawn in full-dress Scottish folk attire playing "gathering music" on his bagpipes.
Later, the service presented the premiere of a classic 1693 hymn with updated lyrics tailored for the tricentennial of the church by James Gertmenian, former pastor of the Norfield Congregational Church. It is titled "O Holy One and Nameless" and its contemporary message honors a deity sacred in "temple, mosque and church." Two other entirely new works will be premiered later in the fall.
The highlight of Sunday's musical offering was a presentation of "Highland Cathedral" with four instruments, Dr. Hunt playing the church's 45-year-old celebrated pipe organ, Henken on bagpipes and guest musicians Kenneth Tedeschi on trumpet (both his silver-plated piccolo trumpet and C trumpet) and Steven Collins on timpani.
The four instruments created an amazing harmony, the bagpipes speaking to the metal-and-wood organ pipes, when they closed with "Amazing Grace." The adult choir and congregation filling the stately 1853 white-steepled church joined in. The musicians were rapturously applauded.
The church's strong musical tradition is one of Westport's assets.
"It's a direct extension of Westport's culture," said Marpe.
"The congregation here is very committed to music and the arts," noted Dr. Hunt. "Music can sometimes express deep emotions better than anything else. Music speaks to your soul."
The Renew component of the tricentennial celebration calls on congregants to re-dedicate themselves to community outreach, locally and abroad.
The challenge was alluded to in a prayer by Rev. John Twiname, who called on parishioners to overcome "disaster fatigue" to aid Pakistani flood victims and invited divine intervention to heal the economy and relieve the distress of the unemployed.
A full listing of the church's 300th anniversary celebration events , all of them open to the public, is at www.greensfarmschurch.org.