On Sunday September 25 Second Congo celebrated its 180th birthday. The special worship service featured four historical characters from the church’s past, and four “Grasshopper Tales” (five-minute stories, in the style of Moth Radio stories, each told by a member of the congregation who participated in a “leap of faith” in the church’s history). The adult choir sang and the handbell choir rang, both under the direction of Sue Green. Vintage photographs and newspaper clippings from events such as the explosion of the church organ, continue to be on display in the social hall.
Originally part of what we now know as “Old First Church,” the congregation divided into two in 1836 because many women were no longer willing to walk up the hill several times a Sunday for worship services at the Congregational church on Monument Avenue. Parishioners down in the valley built Second Congregational Church, a tall and traditional church in New England style, on the corner of School and Main where the TD Bank now stands.
In 1959, when that building became too expensive for the congregation to maintain, the congregation sold it and built an architecturally radical church building on Hillside Street. Only 18 months after its construction, the church was heavily damaged by an explosion caused by a gas leak. On August 6, 1961 the Bennington Banner carried front page news and photographs of the walls of the sanctuary blown out and lying on the ground, the interior of the church exposed to the outdoors. Another memorable explosion in Second Congo’s history was of pressure cookers containing the ingredients for a chicken pot pie supper.
In 1965 Rev Thomas D Steffen was called to be the church’s new pastor. He served for 29 years that included the church being the site of draft counseling during the Viet Nam War, and the church undergoing study and discussion that led to its officially declaring itself “Open and Affirming” to LGBTQ people (the first church in Vermont to do so).
After Tom Steffen retired in 1994, the church called its first woman pastor. With Rev Mary Lee-Clark as pastor, Second Congo has continued active involvement in the Bennington community both as a congregation and with individual members volunteering at many community endeavors including Sunday Suppers at the church, the Free Clinic, the Kitchen Cupboard, the Seedlings Program to nurture elementary school children in after school program, and many others. Long-running annual events such as the Snowball Bazaar, now in its 68th year, attract locals and others. The history of Second Congregational Church is indeed interwoven with the history of Bennington.
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