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Despite collapse of historic New London church, hope remains strong

The former First Congregational Church of Christ on Union Street after a collapse on Jan. 25, 2024, in New London, Connecticut.
New London Mayor Mike Passero
The former First Congregational Church of Christ on Union Street after a collapse on Jan. 25, 2024, in New London, Connecticut.

To the New London community, the height of the First Congregational Church’s Union Street steeple was a testament to the city’s resilience and storied past.

Formed in New London in the 1600s, the church and state were not separated in New England and every resident’s taxes would go toward the church.

“You could go to another church, but you were [still] supporting the Congregational Church. It was that dominant. It was that powerful,” said Tom Couser, the board president of New London Landmarks.

In 1851, the First Congregational Church erected its Union Street location. Its towering size signified the city’s growing wealth as a whaling capital. In its heyday, the congregation’s Sunday afternoon crowd would fill the mansion-lined streets of State Street.

The church also held civic importance. Its steeple’s bell was used to call people to meetings and sound fire alarms.

Today, that steeple no longer mantels the New London skyline. On Jan. 25, the structure collapsed, rendering it permanently impaired. The masonry ruins remain on the Union Street property more than a month later.

“It was a significant representation of the history of our city. The First Congregation[al], as it became more populous and affluent…built that magnificent structure,” said Michael Passero, mayor of New London. “We've lost a significant piece of our history with the collapse of the church.”

The cause of the collapse is still unknown. However, warnings of the steeple’s structural integrity were sounded by Lepold Eidlitz, the church’s architect, according to revelations initially made by David Collins, a columnist for The Day.

“He wrote a letter … to the to the congregation, and said, ‘Look, your contractor’s not doing this right,’” Couser said.

City street in New London, Connecticut
Denis Tangney Jr.
/
Getty
Before it fell, the spire of the First Church of Christ rose 150-feet over the town of New London.

As time progressed, the church’s congregation gradually decreased. Its size was too large for its dwindling attendance and maintenance of the building became a greater task. In 2015, First Congregational sold the building to Enaging Heaven Ministries for $250,000, according to city officials.

The mortgage, privately held by First Congregational, required Engaging Heavens to spend at least $25,000 a year on maintenance and hold proof of insurance, according to The Day.

However, the city placed a $240,000 lien on the church, which totaled the cost of cleaning up the site. In the wake of the collapse, hundreds of city officials worked overtime to ensure the grounds were safe for demolition.

As of March 1, Passero said the church has not communicated how it plans to pay back the lien. The church’s limited communication has raised city-wide concerns that Engaging Heavens Ministries did not hold adequate insurance nor does First Congregational maintain mortgage security.

Neither First Congregational nor Engaging Heaven Ministries responded to interview requests made by Connecticut Public Radio.

“There's going to be a point where they're going to have to address this financial issue … There are things in place that will protect the city if that financial issue is not resolved,” said Felix Reyes, director of economic development and planning for the city of New London.

Despite what’s lost, Passero believes that New London is in an upward direction. Recent investments from High Tide Capital have revitalized parts of the city’s downtown. Newly built luxury apartments are beginning to permeate throughout the city, thanks to the influx of jobs from Electric Boat.

“It's a memory, but it'll be a memory that's preserved. And hopefully, that parcel right in the heart of our downtown will be redeveloped into something that's an honor to that location,” Passero said. “There has not in my lifetime been so much interest by developers and investors and our historic structures downtown.”

Terell Wright is a Larry Lunden News Intern based in New London. He attends Connecticut College, where he is studying political economy and history. Wright has reported for various outlets including The Day, American City Business Journals and WABE.