Mashpee Congregational Church To Join August Ranks
By: Elsa H. Partan
In a list of Congregational churches on Cape Cod, the one in Mashpee stands out. Its first worship service was just two and half years ago, but it keeps company with parishes that have operated on Cape Cod for centuries.
This Sunday, when the church is accepted as a full member of the United Church of Christ, it will be the first UCC church established on Cape Cod in 80 years. It will join West Parish, whose members established a church in 1616 in Southwark, England, and fled to the New World in 1620, settling in Barnstable. It will also join First Church of Sandwich, established 1638, and First Congregational Church of Falmouth, established 1708.
Unlike those churches, the Mashpee Congregational Church has its origins in the Starbucks in Mashpee Commons, dating back to January 2007. “I set up a family photo on a table, sat here, and waited for someone to make eye contact,” said the parish’s organizing pastor, the Reverend James S. Scovil, as he sipped a cup of coffee at the coffee shop more recently. A red enamel comma on his lapel served as a conversation starter, Mr. Scovil said. It is part of a 2002 UCC advertising campaign called “God is still speaking,” which was inspired by the quote from comedienne Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”
Nearly four years later, the parish has grown from a single worshiper, Mr. Scovil, to a community of 130. A choir of about 25 and two handbell choirs provide music for Sunday worship at the conference center building at the Popponesset Marketplace.
A busload of church members will make the trip to Marion on Sunday to appear before a combined meeting of 78 Congregational churches from eastern Massachusetts. There the Mashpee church will request full membership and standing in the UCC organization.
The church was buzzing with activity Wednesday evening as the handbell choirs, the singing choir, and the prayer shawl knitting group gathered for their activities.
“Are we excited?” said Bonnie S. Towle as she pulled out her knitting. “Yes, we’re excited.”
The parish will become the first Congregational church in Mashpee since 1840, when Wampanoag tribe members ran the preacher Phineas Fish out of town for refusing to allow them to conduct worship services in their own meetinghouse.
“That history helps explain why this town didn’t have a Congregational Church for so long while all of the surrounding towns did,” Mr. Scovil said. “It’s a very different mission today, a different focus.”
The Congregational denomination is the modern-day descendant of the churches founded by Puritans, but it would be unrecognizable to them. The Puritan emphasis on personal and group piety and purity of doctrine has given way to a liberal theology with its roots in a 1957 union of various strands of the church. Today, many Congregational churches make a special effort to welcome gay and lesbian members.
“We are an open and affirming congregation,” Mr. Scovil said. There have been openly gay ministers of UCC churches since the 1970s, he said. “This is not an issue that is tearing our church apart.”
The Mashpee church has become known for its community service projects. Church members handed out 100 Christmas food baskets to families in Mashpee last year and built an award-winning float for the Christmas parade.
Before the congregation even began meeting for worship services, church volunteers began to cook dinner each Friday at the Boys & Girls Club of Cape Cod. Other parishioners help at food pantries in the area, and occasionally serve lunch to Habitat for Humanity volunteers.
“I’ve never met such a friendly bunch of people,” said church member Richard A. Nelson, who has participated in several projects.
“There’s such a warm feeling,” agreed his wife, Birgit M. Nelson. “You walk in and you feel welcome.”
Besides the fellowship, church member Deane B. Turner credits the pastor, Mr. Scovil, with maintaining parishioners’ interest in Sunday services. “He can connect current happenings with a spiritual idea,” Mr. Turner said. “He leaves you with a message you can use in the next week.”
By coincidence, when the congregation gathers in Marion on Sunday, the pastor of the oldest Congregational church on Cape Cod will be the one recommending that the youngest church on Cape Cod be accepted into the group.
“Before now, we were considered a project of the United Church of Christ,” said Diane R. Scovil, a member of the church and the pastor’s wife. “So to be recognized as a church, it’s very important to us.”
Church member Bradford R. Sweet added that the last three years have been filled with joys. “There’s nothing we can’t do now,” he said.
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