Winthrop church celebrating 225th anniversary

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WINTHROP — A lot has changed since 1793, when a group of Quakers started regularly meeting in a small cabin here.

The number of worshipers grew, then shrank. Their meetings moved to a large tent, then to a building with stained-glass windows and a bell tower.

Their clothing has mirrored the times. Nowadays, you’re less likely to see a bonnet or top hat at their gatherings. So have the political causes they support: abolition and suffrage have been replaced by “green” energy, immigrants’ rights, and righting the wrongs that European settlers brought on Native Americans, among others.

“Winthrop Quakers stand with our Muslim neighbors,” reads a sign hanging outside the Winthrop Center Friends Church, on 219 Winthrop Center Road.

Still, 225 years after the group began meeting in a small cabin, at least one thing hasn’t changed: Its members believe that forging a direct, personal connection to a higher power can help them bring positive change to the world — and find fellowship while they’re at it.

“There’s no dogma as a result,” Shirley Hager, an active member of the Quaker group, said. “We support each other’s individual search.”

On Saturday at 2 p.m., the organization plans to celebrate its 225th anniversary with a presentation about its history, followed by refreshments and fellowship time.

Earlier in the week, Hager and other members — they’re often referred to as “Friends” — were helping to prepare their building for the celebration, troubleshooting the technology that would be required to deliver a PowerPoint presentation and moving pews.

While the formal name of their organization includes the word “church,” and while the Friends’ space resembles a traditional church, the group does not actually call itself a church, said its pastor, Maggie Edmondson. Rather, as part of the Quaker tradition, they refer to their organization as a Meeting.

On Saturday, Edmondson will discuss the history of the Meeting, which started in the late 18th century when a small group of Friends held quiet gatherings in a cabin. During those sessions, participants spoke only if they “felt like they had a message to offer worshipers,” Edmondson said.

By the late 1800s, the Christian revival was in full swing and the Winthrop group had ballooned, holding gatherings under a large tent that sometimes were attended by 3,000 people, according to Edmondson.

The group was supported by a family whose name is familiar to anyone who has lived in Winthrop for a while. Charles Bailey helped run a family business that manufactured oilcloth and, later, linoleum flooring. He also was a member of the Quaker group and a philanthropist, helping to fund the construction of buildings such as Charles M. Bailey Public Library, which still operates downtown.

In 1883, with Bailey’s support, the Friends built a new home in Winthrop, the white building where its members still worship.

Now the Friends share that space with another faith group, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which used to meet in Readfield.

About 35 people belong to the group and come from as far away as Gardiner and Chesterville, but that number can swell to almost 50 in summer, Edmondson said.

Those members are engaged in various forms of activism and community service. They’ve attended rallies, including recent ones in Augusta and Farmington that pushed the administration of President Donald Trump to reunite immigrant children with their parents. They also have joined efforts to donate locally farmed food to the poor and to support refugees from countries such as Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday, the Friends will take advantage of everything their building has to offer. In honor of the anniversary, they’ll try to ring its bell 225 times.

Pastor Maggie Edmondson on Wednesday uncovers a furl of paper discovered in a newel post at the Meeting House, the Quaker congregation in Winthrop. Members will celebrate the faith’s 225th anniversary in Winthrop this weekend. (Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)

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