Was there a special message from God in the sermon delivered in the Wilmington Congregational Church on Aug. 7, 1887?
“It seemed as if the old and respected minister had received some heaven-sent inspiration,” said the Boston Daily Globe, “for there was but one feeling among his hearers, and that was that they never thought he could preach so wonderfully.”
It was not the custom of the Globe to put comments on a sermon on the front page. But shortly after the minister had concluded his remarks and the offering had been collected, came a rumbling from above. Then, with a thundering crash, the clock weights came down through the church ceiling.
Perhaps it was a divine comment on the offering.
The Globe reported that the weight fell at the head of the aisle, just missing the deacon and choirmaster and completely wrecking the organ, or the exterior of it, anyway.
The article made several references to the new church bell, but it was not the bell that crashed down. Had the bell come down, it would have landed in the vestibule, the entry of the church, directly below the steeple.
The choir, at the time, was at the front of the chapel, and the clock was driven by weights hanging behind the pulpit. This system was changed about 1952 when an addition to the church was built. The clock was converted to electric operation. In the original installation, cables ran above the ceiling, the length of the chapel.
The misfortune was the third to strike the church in a quarter-century.
The first disaster took place in February 1864. A magician was performing in the church vestry, when there was a sudden commotion. A short distance away, the two Bond cracker bakeries were burning, one opposite Glen Road, the other near the beginning of Church Street. Some people stayed but others went to watch or assist with the fires.
Before the night was over, the 50-year old church was also reduced to ashes. A spark had set the steeple afire, and there was little that those parishioners could do but watch. At its early stage, the fire could have been easily extinguished, but there were no pumps or hoses, and nor was there a ladder. There was, however, adequate time to save some items from the church, including the “parson’s communion set.”
The present-day church was dedicated exactly two years after the fire. It is the third church building there. The first was built in the 1730’s. About 80 years later, though, the townspeople voted to tear down that church and build a bigger one. That second church was the one that burned.
In 1876, the church encountered calamity number two when the steeple blew down. A new steeple was built with timbers milled at Clapp’s Mill, which was at Wood Hill, near the Burlington town line. William Henry Carter 2nd hauled the timbers from the mill to the church.
Dr. France Hiller announced that she would pay for the new steeple. She and her husband, Dr. Henry Hiller were newcomers to town at that point. He had a highly successful business in Boston selling patent medicine.
Sabra Carter then announced that she would pay for a clock for the new steeple, including an 80-pound bell. These, of course, were mounted in the steeple. There are three three faces on the clock. There is no record of that transaction, but it can be assumed that she did pay for the clock. Miss Carter had built a successful business selling packaged seeds. There was also family money from the Jaques family, and from the estate of her brother, Timothy J. Carter, a railroad builder.
However, once the new steeple was built, Dr. Hiller did not pay. It is not known why she refused to pay, but it may have involved Sabra Carter upstaging her donation. Mrs. Hiller later made substantial contributions to the town.
In June 1876, Benjamin Buck put up $5,000 to pay for the steeple, taking a mortgage on the church parsonage. Two months later, he forgave the mortgage.
Another decade passed, with Wilmington residents enjoying the church bell ringing on the hour. On Sunday mornings, someone would ring the bell, summoning townspeople to worship. Ropes hang down in the vestibule, and the person ringing the bell would put great effort into grabbing the rope and giving it a great pull. Fascinated children would watch, pleading to try ringing the bell. They usually found that it took great weight and strength to do the job.
The minister of the Congregational Church in 1887 was Rev. Elijah Harmon. The Globe article did not name him, but made reference to the “old and respected” minister. Rev. Harmon was 52 at the time. It is possible that another minister was in the pulpit that day, as the church would usually have a schedule of visiting ministers during the summer. Four previous ministers were alive at the time.