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Williston-West Congregational Church and Immanuel Baptist Church


Our Story

A History of Two Churches

Williston-Immanuel is a United Church of Christ congregation and an American Baptist Churches in the USA congregation...joined by unanimous vote of each to merge and do mission together in a stronger, better and more ecumenical way than either could do separate from the other. The new, united congregations, officially use the chosen name "Williston-Immanuel United Church." The new church is neither one nor the other, but both, bringing together the best of two historic American denominations.


Williston-West Church 1873-2011

Williston-West Church began as a mission church of State Street Congregational Church in the late 19th Century. Officially gathered in 1873 to serve the burgeoning West End neighborhood of Portland. Today, it is difficult for us to imagine life in Portland over 142 years ago. While the distance between State Street Church and the West End neighborhood of Williston-West seems small today, in 186l the route was not so easily traveled, especially by children.

In 186l, with the West End of Portland growing, a community-based Sunday School was started in the Walnut Street school house under the direction of State Street Church. By July 1866, a chapel had been built at Danforth and May Streets by State Street Church for the 150 children attending the Walnut Street Sunday School. The first service in the new Williston Chapel was held on July 1, l866 for 22 members.

The church, as we knew it, was officially formed as Williston Church on February 5, 1873 with 17 of the original 22 members coming from State Street Church. Burke Fay Leavitt was ordained and installed as the first pastor of Williston Church in May 1873 and served until 1876. 

Leavitt’s replacement, Francis E. Clark, had just completed his studies at Andover Theological Seminary. Twenty-five years old and energetic, Rev. Clark accepted his first ministry and the condition that a new church be built. 

The architect chosen for the project, Francis Fassett, was born in Bath and trained as an architect in Boston. Fassett’s previous projects in Portland gained him a reputation that lasts to this day.

Rev. Clark’s seven-year career at Williston Church saw the installation of the organ, and in 1881 he founded the nondenominational Christian Endeavor Society, a worldwide organization that is still in existence. Upon leaving Williston Church in 1883, Clark became the first president of World Christian Endeavor. 

In 1904, the architect John Calvin Stevens, who trained under Fassett and was his partner from 1880-1883, was hired to design the parish house. ...Both Fassett’s and Steven’s long architectural careers and their significance will long be felt, not only within this historic neighborhood, but throughout the Greater Portland area. 

On February 3, 1931, flames swept through the chancel. The organ and several stained-glass windows were destroyed. Repairs were completed by November 1931. The replacement organ was the 1875 organ from the Williston Chapel on Danforth Street. 

Combining forces and congregations with West Church, which was founded in 186l, the church adopted a new name, Williston-West Church UCC in 1970, expanding its community base. …Through the years the UCC has been enriched by the presence of many different racial and cultural traditions who have joined these four faith streams as well. 

The fourteen stained-glass windows represented a complete history of the art of making stained glass, for every method of the glassmakers’ art is represented: the laborious antique method; the less time-consuming cathedral method, and the opalescent and drapery glass method, developed in the United States and popularized in the l880s, in particular by the Tiffany studio. The church’s newest memorial window, dedicated in 1936, was made by the renowned Boston stained glass artist Charles Connick, a major promoter of the antique technique. 

Williston-West Church’s 138 years of organization carry with them much history. In recent years, the church housed a soup kitchen as a major community outreach project. Another mission activity was the International Play Group. The focus as a church community grew from a small local community Sunday School in 1861 to a membership that in 2011 stretched from Old Orchard Beach to Brunswick. 

On June 26, 2011, with the merger of the congregation of Williston-West with Immanuel Baptist Church, came something new: the blended Williston-Immanuel United Church. The Williston-West property was then sold for redevelopment.

Photo credit:

Immanuel Baptist Church 

This is the story of three individual Baptist churches. Each of them began in Portland, Maine; two of them standing separately, but then joining together to become the third.  Each believed that such a unified and reborn fellowship could accomplish a more significant and vital ministry in a common and central, urban location, as that ministry clearly reflected a personal discipleship in Jesus Christ.  Another common denominator which made their union possible was a commitment religious freedom. 

One of them was the First Free Baptist Church, often referred to simply as, “The Christian Church.” It grew out of a missional effort, emerging from its discipleship to Christ, in 1810 by Elias Smith. What he started as a free and Baptist-like church predated, and was arguably the pattern for, the First Free Baptist Church, and it involved a good many of the same people. It grew and ministered over the succeeding 112 years until 1922, despite a few experiences of disorganization, inactivity, and resuscitation.

The other was the Free Street Baptist Church, which was founded in 1836, when 55 members of what was known as The Federal Street Church—but was actually the First Baptist Church of Portland—voluntarily requested dismissal in order to begin a new ministry. Like the First Free Baptist Church, anchored to a profound discipleship in Christ, the Free Street Baptist congregation also grew, continuing its mission until 1922 when it and The First Free Baptist Church united, selecting the name Immanuel Baptist Church. 

To accommodate the combined ministries of these churches, 2 adjacent lots at the corner of High and Deering Streets were purchased and where Immanuel’s facilities were constructed. This included a modified-English-gothic Nave, Parish House, and Chapel, with a connecting, cloistered garden, and a small parking lot.  

Groundbreaking and the placing of a cornerstone took place in 1926 and a copper capsule was placed in the cornerstone, containing historical records from each of the churches of the merger. The completed structure was dedicated in 1928. 

Within a year an exceptionally fine organ was built for the Sanctuary, twenty percent of which incorporated selected stops from the pipe organs of each of the two former churches.  Also, the installation of a series of magnificently beautiful, stained glass windows was begun. 

During the eighty-plus years that followed, the property was carefully maintained and regularly improved.  This included the completion and dedication of all the stained glass in the 1960’s and 70’s; the 1990’s installation of a state-of-the-art, institutional kitchen; the 2001 upgrading and digitalizing of the pipe organ; the 2002 creation of an efficient administrative center; the 2007 acquisition of a concert grand piano; and the 2008 restoration of the church’s handsome, stone tower. 

Immanuel’s priority has always been to establish a dynamic, working facility rather than an ornate, monumental edifice, with the desire that it would help the church, as committed disciples of Christ, serve the community in the best, possible way. 

In the year 2010, Immanuel Baptist Church of Portland, Maine celebrated the bicentennial of a continuing, colorful, urban-oriented, soul-libertarian, ministry-for-Jesus Christ, which began in this city, in this spirit, and in this Name, 200 years earlier…in 1810.

On June 26, 2011, with the merger of the congregation of Williston-West, Immanuel became something new: the blended Williston-Immanuel United Church.​

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