First Parish in Portland is the oldest place of worship in the city, rich with history dating back to the founding of Portland and the earliest settlers of the area in the early 1600s. The church was established in 1674, but did not call its current location home until 1740. The first building on the current site was called “Old Jerusalem”, in which the Peace Treaty with the Norridgewock Indians was signed in 1749 and also where the State of Maine Constitution was drafted in 1819. Despite being made of wood, Old Jerusalem survived British attack during the Revolutionary War. The building served the congregation until 1820, the same year Maine seceded from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and became a state.
Construction of the current granite building began in 1825 and was completed in 1826. The 1802 Simon Willard clock tower and the internal gallery clock were transferred to the new building along with the 1810 steeple bell. The Simon Willard clock tower is the last remaining and functioning of its kind. The steeple was built in 1825 and was beautifully restored in 2012. All are still in use after more than 190 years. Because of its granite structure, First Parish was one of few structures to survive Portland’s Great Fire of 1866.
During demolition of Old Jerusalem, cannonballs from the British bombardment were found in the walls. One of the cannonballs is embedded in the chain of the exquisite 600-pound glass chandelier in the center of today’s Meeting House. The church pews are numbered as they were originally owned by parishioners. Several of them still have the names of their owners – the most distinguished being the Longfellow family pew. Over the years, pews were given to the church and became free for anyone to use. The last pew was given in 1943. First Parish was added the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
The first floor of the adjacent Parish Hall was built in the 1890 and the second story was added in 1958. The Trustees of First Parish own, maintain, and preserve the Meeting House and Parish Hall through a trust that was created in 1906.
Our faith tradition is steeped in history as well. We grew from the union of two radical Christian traditions: the Universalists, who organized in 1793 and from whom we take our principles of faith, hope, and love, and the Unitarians, who organized in 1825 and from whom we take our principles of freedom, reason, and tolerance. These two faith traditions consolidated into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in 1961.
First Parish, in many ways, is a church of contrasts – we worship in an old, formal building with a commanding mahogany pulpit and fixed pews, and yet we espouse progressive religious ideas of inclusion and service that are on the cutting edge of progressive spiritual practice.
Here at First Parish, we also have a long history of traditions. One of those is the Nativity Pageant and Vespers Service that has been running every December since 1926. Non-denominational in nature, this historic Nativity Pageant makes no political or religious statement. Rather, it uses a combination of music, historic text, and tradition to honor the birth of one of history’s great prophets and the birth of each child. After a short vesper service which sets a contemplative tone, the story of the Nativity is told in music and readings while the cast, bit by bit, creates a tableau that replicates a Fra Angelico-style painting. Some of the costumes have been created from fabrics brought back from the Holy Lands by nieces of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Light bulbs in the 30 sconces in the church are replaced by candles. It is a truly magical hour in which we stop, quiet our hearts, and remember the spirit that this holiday represents. This special worship service was written by the Reverend Vincent Silliman, minister of First Parish from 1926-1938 and later minister of the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth.
This history of First Parish draws heavily from the history researched and written by Professor William B. Jordan during the 1970s.