Baptists, Adventists, Episcopalians, Methodists and Congregationalists were among the religious sects in Stark’s early history. Religion was important to the early families and if they were fortunate enough to own any books at all, the Bible was always nearly one and sometimes the only book. Sunday services and prayer meetings were held in the homes or in the schools for there was no church edifice.
By 1853 the population had grown to over 400 and some of the people in town decided to build a church. Knowing that there were not enough people of any single denomination to support a building, they decided a union church where all faiths could meet would be most practical.
And so it was that Solomon Cole, Andrew Cole and Benjamin Thompson were chosen as members of a building committee. Stark Union Church was soon completed at a cost of $1,050.00, containing forty-eight pews painted red, as were many of the antiques of that period. To reach any specific pew it was necessary to enter by the door to the proper isle as the divided center pews filled the entire body of the church.
To raise the cost of construction, the pews were numbered and appraised. Andrew Cole was appointed to handle their sale. Printed deed forms listing the pew numbers, the buyer and the consideration were obtained for the purpose. The pews became the property of the buyers and according to New Hampshire law the building became the property of the pew owners, their heirs and assigns.
The first list of the pew numbers and owners still exists among the papers of the late Andrew Cole. It bears the names of many of the old settlers whose homes have long ago fallen to decay. Cole, Pike, Smith, Hickey and Potter names appear on this list as do those of Alexander Dewey, and George Bell for whom Dewey and Bell Hill were named, Asa Stone, whose farm has been occupied by his direct descendants to the present day and John Massure, whose name as Justice of the Peace appears on the old deeds.
When the church was first built, the pews were numbered in sequence and filled the entire church leaving no room to cross from isle-to-isle inside. In later years, the pews were re-arranged to provide better access and the numbers were mixed.
This diagram shows the present arrangement of pews in the Stark Union Church.
Preachers of many faiths used the new church. The population increase rapidly and with it church attendance. More space was needed, so an addition was built, making room for the choir and a reed organ. A horse shed was constructed on the river side of the church where horses, wagons and sleds could be protected from rain and snow.
When the Methodist faith became predominant, they planned a parsonage, now James Gibson’s residence. The land for this parsonage was given by Mr. and Mrs. Solomon Cole and the building was constructed by Dexter Cole in 1877.
A fire of unknown origin started in a pulp pile and ignited a corner of the church in 1902. Luckily the flames were extinguished and the damage was repaired. Insurance was placed on the building after that.
With the closing of the mills, families moved away to seek employment. When there was no longer any need for the large seating plan of the church, the pews were rearranged. Two were moved to the entrance hall. Two were placed at right angles in the front. This gave space to walk across the church both back and front, made a good arrangement for the grades of Sunday school, and provided more spacious quarters to have weddings, funerals, communions and other special services.
It became increasingly difficult to raise money for the minister’s salary as the population kept decreasing. The last parsonage resident, the Reverend Walter Pierce, moved away about 1920. In 1935 the parsonage was sold by the Methodist Conference to Royal Montgomery, great-grandson of Solomon Cole, for the sum of $500.00, and the Methodist records were moved to the Methodist Church of Groveton, New Hampshire.
This is the old parsonage building in Stark center that is now a museum and heritage center.
From 1935 until 1950, services were held only on special occasions when the townspeople paid a minister to come to them. During those years, the church was a lonely place as exemplified by the following poem written by Cyril Hessenauer and recited by him at the Stark Old Home Sunday Celebration in 1938:
The Church at Stark
Why am I lonely so much,
I who have served so long?
Why do I seem out of touch
With the crowds who speed along?
I once was the valley’s pride;
Folks came to me from afar,
Braving a long weary ride,
For I was their guiding star.
The youngsters to me were brought,
And the youth on mischief bent;
All came to me to be taught
of the God I represent.
I welcomed each bridal pair,
And yearned such blessing to give
That they would go forth and dare
To live as I taught to live.
To me came the middle-aged,
Their faith and strength to renew;
Worn by the battle they waged,
They needed my message too.
To those who were white of hair
I told of the life to come;
Of what was waiting them there
When their earthly life was done.
Then, when their spirits had flown
From me they were laid away;
I stand here watching alone
For their Resurrection Day.
But why must I stand along,
Unable to play my part?
I long to point the way home
For the lonely, weary heart.
Oh, fill me with song once more;
With prayer, and praise, and light,
And as in the days of yore
I’ll brighten your darkest night.
Let me teach and point the way,
And ‘twill be no longer dark.
Let me live and serve today,
For I am the church in Stark.
On October 31, 1955 a Methodist Church of Stark was again organized with the Reverend William Wright of the Groveton parish as pastor. Regular Methodist services have been held ever since that time with the Reverends Maurice Porter and Huntley Halvorson following the services of the Reverand Mr. Wright.
During the entire history of the Stark Union Church, pew owners assisted by people of all faiths have cared for the church and paid the ministers. Ladies’ Aid societies and the Community Club have worked hard to raise money for the church. Suppers and fairs have been among the many fund raising activities.
Over the years new coats of white paint have been applied, the roof has been re-shingled, and the interior redecorated, the pews painted, and electric lights and gas heaters installed. When the reed organ came to be out of sorts, a piano was donated.
During the 1950’s a misunderstanding arose as to the ownership of the church. After much research by interested citizens, the heirs and assigns of the original pew owners were traced and a pew owners association was formed. Since then, they have been responsible for the repair and maintenance of the church, aided by donations and by the interest of an invested sum from the will of Sarah Maude Kemmerling.
Methodists and Baptists have both used the church for services and Sunday School in recent years. Weddings are performed from time to time for people who like to have the old colonial structure as part of their marriages. People of any faith are welcome to worship at the Stark Union Church.
The above information was reproduced from Chapter IV of “The History of Stark New Hampshire” published in 1974.