By Pam Harnden, Staff Writer
FAYETTE — The Fayette Baptist Church celebrated its 225th anniversary this weekend with events held Saturday night and Sunday.
Hymns, songs, narrative and drama brought the history of the church to life Saturday night during a program of remembrance. Several church members wore period costumes as they read from church records or sang songs of the day.
Much of the material came from the book, Footprints of Patriots homeward bound through wilderness, written by Fayette residents Arnold and Leda Sturtevant. Church records were also used.
Pastor Russell C. Cotnoir Jr said, “Our story begins in the late 1700s when a revival swept the land after the Revolutionary War. We are here in part because of them.”
Eliphalet Smith visited Fayette in 1790 and later became the church’s first pastor. Fayette Corner was incorporated in 1795, three years after the Fayette Baptist Church was established.
Cotnoir said Isaac Case baptized Oliver and Lydia Billings and six others in May, 1792. On Case’s advice, the Billings petitioned to join the Bowdoinham Association.
Prior to the singing of the first hymn of the evening, Cotnoir invited everyone to turn around and face the choir which was located in a balcony overlooking the sanctuary.
“That was the practice of the day and may be where the phrase ‘stand and face the music’ came from,” he said.
Reading from Clerk Eleazer Goodwin’s records, 1792-1804, in the first ten years meetings were held in private homes. The first church was built in 1802.
From Clerk Enoch Watson, 1811-1834, it was learned Oliver Billings served as pastor for 42 years. From December 3, 1816 – January 3, 1817, 37 baptisms were held in nearby ponds, a real test of new found faith and the endurance of the pastor. By 1827, membership had grown to over 200.
Billings suffered ill health and died in 1842, the 50th anniversary of the church. Membership dwindled after his death.
Clerk Ezra Fisk, 1834-1839, reported the 1802 church meetinghouse had served more than three decades. By 1835 it was not big enough and needed improvements. More than $1,000 was needed for repairs but there had been a long expressed desire for a bell. By using salvage from the old building, a new one with a steeple and bell could be built.
“The church bell was a powerful symbol of American freedom and Fayette still lacked one. In 1837 Andrew Sturtevant Jr. cast the bell onto its platform where it sits today,” Cotnoir said.
Several clerk’s records from 1839-1897 noted the church was known for its music. In 1837 payment was requested for a bill to furnish strings for the bass viol. One clerk recorded the choir sang with such effect, the pastor forgot his sermon. Uncle Reuben Crane led the choir with his own accompaniment on the violin.
Cotnoir said Deacon Sturtevant, who also sang at a church in Washington, D.C., was known for the beauty of his voice and the extent of his range.
From 1827-1857 the church saw a growth plateau. Beginning in 1857 there was a slow but constant decline in Fayette’s population and church membership. The railroad left the town stranded and local industries couldn’t compete.
About 100 men from Fayette served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The town had a population of about 1,000. Church membership dropped from 200 to 85.
The church’s centennial celebration was postponed until 1894 because money needed to be raised.
Current Sunday School students then sang the words they had written to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe.
In 1974, Lester Dow became the pastor. He, his wife Mary, and their five children often sang as the Dow Family Singers.
Fayette Christian School opened in 1979 at the request of Dennis Stires. He taught the high school grades. His wife, Peggy Stires, taught the younger ones.
Earle Flagg oversaw the school construction. The foundation was poured in August and the school opened at Thanksgiving. It was heated by wood stove and had no running water. The school was open for five years.
“It was weird and wonderful at the same time,” Laura Sturtevant Quinn said. She was among the first students to graduate from the school.
Cotnoir said Stires also initiated the Living Nativity in 1979. More than 1,200 attended the 2006 program. The church became well-known for its Christmas outreach to the community, he said.
Cotnoir has served as senior pastor for 29 years. At first, he commuted two or more times a week from Augusta. In 1988 there were 200 members. Today that number is almost doubled.
In 1991 Arnold Sturtevant proposed building a parsonage. Prior to learning of the plan, Contoir said he had been mimicking God’s instruction to Jericho and walked around the property seven times seeking a place to live.
“Within a year, the new building was designed and built by the ‘cardiac crew’ to house me, Denise and our four children,” Cotnoir said.
The parsonage was dedicated on August 2, 1992 the 200th anniversary of the church.
In 1996, Cotnoir began First Light Radio Ministry. Thousands of messages have been dispersed making Fayette Baptist Church visible and accessible.
The church has since added three more pastors: Glenn Freeman, Henry Cooper and Chris Blanche. Cotnoir noted the ‘uncommonness’ of a small rural church having four pastors.
Freeman recently retired after serving 18 years.
Cotnoir closed the program with prayer after reading the words of Clerk Enoch Watson in 1816, “Never be discouraged but hope in the mercy of God and although the vision should tarry long, wait for it.”
An ice cream social was then enjoyed. Several scrapbooks of prior church events were available to look through.
Peggy Stires said, “It’s bittersweet, kind of emotional for me. Dennis was my boss at school and at home. He taught high school, I taught the younger grades.”
The 10 a.m. Sunday service featured guest speaker David Christensen. Lunch followed under the tent.
At 1:15 p.m., Pastor Cotnoir led the re-dedication. State Senator Tom Saviello (R-Wilton) made a Legislative presentation. A dessert social followed.