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Noah Webster House Historical Tour to Feature West Hartford Houses of Worship

St. John's Episcopal Church, West Hartford. (we-ha.com file photo)

The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society has planned a unique architectural and historical tour this year, focused on several unique houses of worship.

Congregation Beth Israel (we-ha.com file photo)

By Ronni Newton

The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is once again reinventing its house tour – and this year’s focus on houses of worship will give the community an inside look at buildings they may never otherwise have a chance to visit.

“The idea had been under discussion for a while,” Jennifer Dicola Matos, executive director of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society said.

The nonprofit organization wanted to get back to a multi-location tour like those held in the past after last year, due to the COVID pandemic, they hosted a house tour fundraiser of just a single building – the vacant “Seven Gables” home on Orchard Road. When planning began for the event over the summer, however, the Delta variant was in the midst of its resurgence, and Matos wasn’t sure if homeowners would be ready to welcome strangers traipsing through their homes.

That made 2021 the perfect year for the houses of worship tour.

The “West Hartford House Tour – Houses of Worship” will take place on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, from 12:30-4:30 p.m.

“These are historically significant buildings in town, and you drive by them but maybe only ever go through one or two,” Matos said. Unless someone belongs to a congregation, or visits a house of worship for a wedding or other religious ceremony, most wouldn’t necessarily have occasion to go inside the buildings, even though they are open and welcoming.

West Hartford House Tour – Houses of Worship Logo featuring (clockwise from top right) the doors of St. John’s Episcopal Church; First Church, West Hartford (photo credit: Ronni Newton); and Congregation Beth Israel from a vintage postcard in the collection of the West Hartford Historical Society. Courtesy image

The curated tour of six West Hartford locations will provide an inside look at a variety of iconic houses of worship in town, representing different religious denominations. The tour will focus on the architectural features of the buildings, as well as the stories of the congregations, how and why they were established and their belief systems, and their interaction with the community over time. A commemorative program will provide more detailed history, as well as vintage photographs and other images.

First Church, West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

While the sites are not located close enough so guests can easily walk between all of them, parking is available at all and several are walkable from at least one other building. The six sites include Congregation Beth Israel and St. John’s Episcopal Church, both located on Farmington Avenue in the eastern end of West Hartford; the Quaker Meeting House at the corner of Boulevard and South Quaker Lane; Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on Farmington Avenue near the Center; First Church, West Hartford at the corner of Farmington Avenue and South Main Street; and First Baptist Church on North Main Street.

Several of the buildings are ornate, but others are historically significant in different ways.

“I think the Quaker Meeting House will be really interesting,” Matos said. “It’s not an iconic building, but it’s got a long history in town,” she said, including being the reason for the name of Quaker Lane, which runs north and south of Farmington Avenue.

Historic marker at Quaker Meeting House. Courtesy photo

The following information has been provided by the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society about the six sites to be featured on the Houses of Worship tour:

  • Congregation Beth Israel, at 701 Farmington Ave., is West Hartford’s first synagogue, built in 1936. The Reform Jewish congregation dates to 1843, and their original synagogue was built in Hartford in 1876 (today’s Charter Oak Cultural Center). The presence of Congregation Beth Israel in town paved the way to an eventual Jewish migration from Hartford to West Hartford. Today, Beth Israel is the largest reform temple in New England and one of the oldest in the country.
  • The congregation of First Baptist Church, 90 North Main St., West Hartford, organized in 1858. In 1937, when a new, more spacious church was needed, First Baptist moved to its present location but chose to keep many of the features of the original church, such as the original front columns, stone steps, bell and corner stone.
  • First Church, West Hartford, 12 S. Main St., West Hartford, is the oldest congregation in town dating back to 1701 when it was known as the Fourth Congregational Church of Hartford. Many notable West Hartford residents have been affiliated with this church. Founding father Noah Webster, was baptized in this congregation in 1758, the same year as Lemuel Haynes, the first African-American to be ordained as a minister of a major Protestant denomination.
  • St. John’s Episcopal Church, 679 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, was originally located in Hartford, where the congregation formed in 1841. Some of St. John’s more notable parishioners include author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Colt, and Gideon Welles. The edifice seen today on Farmington Ave., with its main entrance facing Highland Street, was completed on June 9, 1909.
  • St. Thomas the Apostle, 872 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, was begun as one of the town’s earliest Roman Catholic churches in 1920 by Monsignor John F. Callahan. Parishioners built the first church – a small wooden building on the corner of Boulevard and South Quaker Lane. Today’s church complex includes the Gothic-style church, a beautiful plaza lined with trees and plants, a rectory, a convent, and around the corner on Dover Road, St. Thomas the Apostle School.
  • In the late 1700s, Quakers arrived in West Hartford and established a meeting house and cemetery on today’s South Quaker Lane. By 1828, most of its members moved to Ohio and the site was abandoned. In the 1930s, a second Quaker movement started, and the group obtained the original plot of land and built the existing Quaker Meeting House in 1950 (144 South Quaker Lane, West Hartford.) An 18th-century cemetery on the grounds – the final resting place of West Hartford’s early Quakers, including the Burrs, Sedgwicks, and Gilberts – will also be featured on the tour.

Invitation for the laying of the cornerstone of the current St. Thomas the Apostle church building, courtesy of the collections of St. Thomas the Apostle Church. Courtesy image

Tickets and additional information can be found at https://noahwebster.yapsody.com/. Advance tickets are $30 ($25 for museum members).

Those who purchase tickets in advance can begin the tour at any of the six sites. A limited number of day of event tickets will also be available beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 14, at a cost of $35 each, at tables at either First Church, West Hartford or St. John’s Episcopal Church.

The museum is also creating a series of videos highlighting each location, chronicling the history well as present-day information, and including interviews and stories. A $15 contribution will provide exclusive early access to the videos as well as a digital program with information about each of the sites. The videos will become freely available to the public by the end of the year.

The West Hartford House Tour – Houses of Worship is a fundraiser for the nonprofit museum, and a portion of ticket sale proceeds will also be donated to participating houses of worship. The museum is thankful to presenting sponsor Deb Cohen of Coldwell Banker Realty West Hartford and gold sponsor JP Carroll Construction for their support.

St. Thomas the Apostle. Photo credit: Kristina Vakhman (we-ha.com file photo)

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