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Like a rock

A source of strength and faith, First Parish of Westwood marks its 200th anniversary on Sunday

Selectwoman Nancy Hyde, a member of the First Parish of Westwood, with a piece of the rock that emerged from the sanctuary floor after a circa-1900 lightning strike. Selectwoman Nancy Hyde, a member of the First Parish of Westwood, with a piece of the rock that emerged from the sanctuary floor after a circa-1900 lightning strike. (Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / September 24, 2009

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WESTWOOD - For generations, First Parish of Westwood has drawn a faith community together, bearing witness to thousands of baptisms, weddings, and funerals within its four walls.

The “Meeting House on the Rock,’’ as the old church building is called, has also withstood the forces of nature from its perch on the highest point in town - including a circa-1900 lightning strike that knocked the building off its foundation and thrust a boulder through the sanctuary floor. It is the oldest meeting house in continuous use in Norfolk County.

On Sunday at 10 a.m., First Parish will hold a communitywide service to celebrate the building’s 200th birthday. More than 250 parishioners are also joined in an effort to raise funds for repairs that will keep the church doors open for decades to come.

“We believe the church is the people,’’ said the Rev. Chris Dodge, who took over the pulpit in January. “But we also want to give thanks for the building itself and those who had the foresight to build it here. It has served people well.’’

First Parish did draw the weather, he joked, pointing out a small piece of the offending rock that still sits in the church today, a symbol of what the congregation has survived and a reminder of scriptural teachings of the rock on which Christ built his church.

The meeting house is a lightning rod for faith and justice, principles that have ensured its survival in an uncertain world, Dodge said. First Parish today remains committed to love, compassion, caring, and concern: “We look beyond ourselves and have each other and God to rejoice in,’’ he said.

The parish’s roots actually reach to early 1630s Dedham, long before a number of parishioners moved away and the present congregation was established by law in 1736. Westwood town fathers such as Ebenezer Fisher, Willard Gay, Captain Benjamin Fairbanks, and George Ellis oversaw construction of the meeting house at the corner of Clapboardtree Street and what is Nahatan Street today that cost roughly $5,500, according to church records.

A list from 1809 showed expenditures on the construction, although only one item has a price attached: “37 cents for drawing paper, hogsheads of lime, carting a load of stone from Quincy, 2 journeys to Maldin [sic], attending Dedham Courts, entertaining the men at the raising of the Bell, and powder for blowing the rocks.’’

The original Westwood parish, called Clapboardtree Parish or Third Parish, was Unitarian, but by the end of World War II it had joined with Congregationalists in a federated congregation. That became a single United Church of Christ congregation a few years later.

The present campaign to raise funds for repairs is being carried out by the Meeting House 200 Committee, headed by Westwood Selectwoman Nancy Hyde, a 15-year member of the church. Committee members and Dodge formulated plans this summer to kick off the initiative to pay for new front doors and other improvements, such as exterior painting and siding repairs.

Some of the work has already been done in preparation for the birthday celebrations.

“The meeting house is a beautiful building that has welcomed thousands over the years,’’ Hyde said. “It’s a warm and embracing place that just brings people together.’’

Parishioner Fred Lea has sought spiritual nourishment here for nearly 60 years, after returning from a five-year World War II tour with General George Patton’s Third Army - time spent “from the beaches to Czechoslovakia,’’ Lea said.

In 1950, after several years living in a Norwood apartment, Lea and his wife, Martha, moved their two children to Westwood. They have been members of First Parish ever since.

The couple recently moved to a retirement community in Walpole but still attend services at the Meeting House on the Rock every Sunday.

“I guess I’m just about the oldest one left,’’ said Lea, who will turn 94 around Thanksgiving. He said two things are critical as people age: You should live close to your doctor and to your church.

Lea recalled his parish’s post-war rebirth when scores of young families scrambled to get settled. Land was eventually purchased across the street to build a parish hall, but it took four years of volunteer labor to get it finished, he said.

The parish didn’t have the money to hire someone to do the work, said Lea, but parishioners were so dedicated to the cause they were glad to do it themselves, even if it meant working every available hour on nights and weekends.

“But there was such a spirit of cooperation, it was really quite unusual,’’ he said.

Soon, First Parish bought a parsonage and another 18 acres, which was a welcome change for the pastor at the time, who had to commute from a home the church owned many miles away. The purchase brought all the parish’s needs into one location.

As part of the birthday commemoration, Dodge has had parishioners read a series of historic sermons during services in recent weeks. While they honor the past, his talk on celebration day will also be recorded for the future.

There will also be a number of surprises, he said, including some unique thoughts from children about what the number 200 really means, and appearances by old friends of the parish.

In “The Meeting House on a Rock,’’ a book by Marjory Fenerty, the Rev. George W. Cooke, who led the church from 1880 to 1887, pegged the timeless value of a church to its community’s history: “When we remember the influence of the New England meeting-houses, in developing the character of her people and in fostering the spirit of liberty, even one of the unpretentious of them obtains new significance. For the life of the present is the product of the life of the past.’’

That is so true, mused Lea, of the meeting house where he has spent two-thirds of his life. First Parish has done its job, he said.

“A church building is a symbol of the belief of a community,’’ he said. “In the spire, we are reminded that there is a power greater than us. And that we aren’t alone.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.