History of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield

Historical Text - #5
The Unitarian Church of Chicopee
February 1995

 

In 1831 a group of Unitarians began meeting in Chicopee, then part of Springfield, in a room loaned by the Cabot Manufacturing Co. Jonathan Dwight Jr. was a director of the company. It was his father who donated the building to the Second Congregational Society, now the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Springfield.

In 1841 the Chicopee group organized formally and built a small church at the corner of Cabot and Dwight Streets. The installed the first organ in Chicopee, creating quite a stir.

The small group backed cultural functions and established a library, raising money by inviting Unitarians. such as Horace Greeley. Ralph W. Emerson and P.T. Barnum to lecture.

In 1948 George Stearns, son of the Unitarian minister of Rowe, finished Harvard Law School and came to Chicopee to teach school and practice law. He began his career by sweeping out the law offices of John and Royal Wells for ~50 a year. Be became prosperous and by 1868 his income was. $1,714. In 1886 he was appointed by President Grover Cleveland to be the district attorney for Western Massachusetts. He led the fight to separate from Springfield and became the first city solicitor. He helped write the charter when Chicopee became a city. He died in 1894 at the age of 83. A newspaper article at the time noted that "even the Irish mourned." Stearns' body was placed in city hall and people from all over the state attended the funeral. He donated $3,000 for a memorial gate to be erected at Fairview Cemetery. It was designed by Meizar Mosman, who also cast the brass doors on the nation's capitol.

Another man prominent in the Chicopee church was George Dexter Robinson. In 1853 a state law was passed requiring schooling for children from seven to 14 years old so Robinson, who graduated from Harvard in 1856 came to be the principal of the high school. He also became a lawyer and helped with the city charter.

Robinson served in the state legislature in the 1870's and was also a congressman. In 1883 he was elected governor. He represented Lizzie Borden in 1892 in one of the most notorious murder trials in history. He got her off, but for years children chanted a ditty saying Lizzie had given her mother 40 whacks with an axe, following with 41 for her father.

The Unitarians built a new church in 1893 at the corner of Grape and Fairview Avenue. Robinson donated two magnificent 150 foot stained glass widows as well as four smaller ones said to have been designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The Spalding family, besides bringing a major industry to the city, also supported the church. However, when Albert Goodwill Spalding died in 1912, that support was gone.

The Unitarians continued to suffer. The church became very conservative and membership dwindled. It was heavily endowed so managed to survive. However, in 1972 it voted to sell the building and merge with the larger Unitarian group in Springfield.

John Broderick, Holyoke entrepreneur, bought the building and sold the windows to Edward Sacks, sheriff and auctioneer. Eventually the windows found a home in a restaurant call Monk's Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. There the diners enjoy beautiful Tiffany windows which had once been the joy of a Massachusetts governor and the pride of a group of Unitarians in far off Chicopee.