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Church’s 300 years is celebrated in exhibit at Portsmouth Athenaeum

June 18. 2014 10:18PM

PORTSMOUTH — It’s been 300 years since 25 women and 18 men petitioned to organize a church in Kittery, Maine.

Three centuries later, the spirit of that first congregation still shines in a free exhibit at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

“First Congregational Church of Kittery Point and the Pepperrell Family” runs through Sept. 6 in the Randall Gallery, 6-8 Market Square.

Sir William Pepperrell was a wealthy merchant who became the first American to be created a British baronet for his role in the Siege of Louisburg in 1745. His wife, Lady Mary, would outlive him by three decades and build a beautiful mansion across the street from the church.

“She was a regular worshipper and had a box pew lined with worsted and curtained, with a bear skin carpet on the floor in defense against the cold,” according to the history on the church’s website.

The first church building, built in 1727, burned in 1730 or 1731 “during a violent thunderstorm,” states a historical summary recently compiled by church member Sara K. Rhoades. “It was replaced that year. William Pepperrell agreed to send the ruins of the bell to London to be recast.”

Sandra Rux is co-curating the exhibit with Athenaeum Curator Elizabeth Aykroyd and Keeper Tom Hardiman.

A library assembled by the Pepperrell family and Benjamin Stevens, the second minister, and his successors has been on loan to the Athenaeum.

The exhibit will feature most of those volumes — a bookcase is being moved to the Randall Gallery — as well as a silver baptism bowl, an original pew door, early record books and a variety of Pepperrell family items.

The church’s first minister was particularly beloved.

Harvard graduate John Newmarch was hired by Kittery to preach in 1694 and served the church from its inception to his death in 1754.

“He was 60 years a preacher in the town, during which he underwent many pressing difficulties,” Newmarch’s Boston Post obituary reads. He was credited with having baptized 1,796 people in his lifetime, including William Whipple, New Hampshire’s signer of the Declaration of Independence.

There will be a gallery talk at the Athenaeum on June 26 at 5:30 p.m. It will focus on the ministerial “revolving” library that included Andrew Pepperrell and Rev. Benjamin Stevens’ books, the parish library formed in 1827 and the Sabbath School library created in the mid-19th century for the instruction of the church’s children.

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