Here follows a copy of The History of Clare Congregational United Church of Christ: Clare, Michigan, a church history lovingly written by Ronald Cooper. (Ron, a beloved member of this congregation, passed from this life in 2009, and is sorely missed. )
Our First Minister
Rev. Austin H. Norris
Austin Hull Norris, son of William Clark and Rachel (Hull) Norris, was born in Essex, Connecticut, August 3, 1845. He studied at Williston Seminary and Yale Seminary, graduating in 1872. His ordination took place at Farwell, Michigan, December 28, 1872. On September 30, 1874, he married Mary E. Peck at Northfield, Connecticut. Rev. Norris was the minister at Farwell, Michigan from 1872 to 1876 and Clare, Michigan from 1872 to 1880. Other pastorates he served were at Ada, Richmond, Newaygo and Ithaca, Michigan. He was at Terringford, Connecticut from December 1, 1892, until his death by a train at Burrville Crossing, Connecticut, January 4, 1903, while on his way to his church.
History of Our Church
On September 8, 1872, a young “Connecticut Yankee,” Rev. Austin Hull Norris, and Rev. Leroy Warren, State Superintendent of Congregational Churches, came to investigate the prospects of organizing a church in the village of Clare. Due to the lack of people the outlook was discouraging. It had been only five years since a small group of sturdy pioneers came to Clare County with intentions of either lumbering or settling. The village of Farwell and Clare had been settled during 1870 and 1871 with laying of the Pere Marquette railroad.
It was a time of more human significance that a young minister, just fresh out of Yale Seminary would venture into Clare County that was still an unbroken wilderness with a few roads and trails. The main street of the village was McEwan Street which still contained remains of pine stumps. The “forest primeval” extended down to Thurston’s property on Fifth Street, west and east beyond what was called Calkins Hotel. The woods extended beyond what was called McKeevers building (southeast corner of McEwan and Sixth Street) North on McEwan Street.
Rev. Austin Norris left Clare that day with an appointment for the following Sunday. His first worship service took place Sunday evening south of the village in a small building which was being prepared in early 1872 for a school building. He preached with no knowledge of Congregationalists being in the congregation. Afterwards he discovered there was one, a Mr. William Waldo. The next Sunday morning service brought to light a Mr. M. L. Converse, who was later appointed the first deacon. A few weeks later a family from Charlotte, Michigan reinforced the congregation. Such was the promise of a Congregational Church in the late fall of 1872. The completion of the school house gave the church more room for a larger congregation. Three months from the first visit of Rev. Austin Norris, steps were taken to organize a Congregational Church. The Church was recognized by council on December 22, 1872.
The names of the original nine members, according to the church record book, are the following:
- Mr. M. L. Converse
- Mrs. Jennie Converse
- Mrs. Carrie G. Brewer
- Mr. Dwight J. Brewer
- Mrs. Laura A. Ross
- Mr. Albert A. Shaver
- Mrs. Ella A. Shaver
- Mr. Wallace S. Cooley
- Mrs. Harriet Cooley
The preparation for building a church began to take place. There was no enthusiasm to build a church, for some thought that Clare was just too poor to support a new school and a new church building. But Rev. Norris was not so easily discouraged. He found out that two lots on West Fifth Street, lot number 11 and 12 of block number 16 in the village of Clare, were held in trust for the Presbyterian Society by William McEwan and John McEwan of Bay City, Michigan. The Presbyterians were willing to relinquish their claim. A “bee” was announced to clear the lots of the big trees and the process of building a church was started.
A contract was made for the carpenter work in July, 1873. At the end of Rev. Norris’ first year in Clare, the frame of the church building was up and enclosed, and the spire finished and painted. The panic of 1873 made money more scarce than expected and it slowed the building process. By the summer of 1874, the building was ready for seats, pulpit and painting. On September 5, 1874, an indenture was made between Mr. and Mrs. William McEwan, Mr. and Mrs. John McEwan, the Congregational Society and the Church of Clare in consideration of the sum of one dollar to them. Such warranty deed of lots 11 and 12 are recorded in Liber five, page 564 at Register of Deeds, Clare County Court House.
After the completion of the church, Rev. Norris visited his old home, Northfield, Connecticut, and married Mary E. Peck on September 30, 1874. Rev. Norris and his new bride returned to Clare. However, they lived in Farwell, Michigan, for Rev. Norris was also the minister of the Farwell Congregational Church during 1872 to 1876. They moved to Clare in 1876 and served only the Clare Church until 1880. Their next pastorate was at the Congregational Church in Ada, Michigan.
On June 10, 1884, an indenture was made between Clark H. Sutherland and his wife Rosa B Sutherland and the First Congregational Church of Clare to purchase lot number 13 on West Fifth Street, village of Clare, and having a dwelling thereon for the sum of $500.. The church under the pastorate of Rev. Van Camp now owned three lots on West Fifth Street that contained a parsonage and a church.
In the latter part of 1907, a decision was made to build a new church. Rev. W. S. Frost was the minister in charge. A building committee was formed: C. H. Sutherland, L. E. Davy, A. S. Rhoades, W. H Elden and J. S. Bicknell. It was loyally supported by the trustees: Dr. J. A. Reeder, A. A. Shaver and W. D. Dennis.
The society worked very hard in the process of building a new church. Rev. N. J. Myers became pastor in April, 1908, and utilized his 29 years experience in building 12 churches and installing seven pipe organs.
The wood church was moved to the back of the present Roy Cimmerer property and eventually used as a cow barn. The church bell was sold to the St. Johns Evangelical Lutheran Church on McEwan Street. All of the stained glass windows were removed and later place in the new church. Mrs. Laura Ross, who lived near the church, watched the building of the new red brick church trimmed in white bedford stone and surmounted with a root painted slate and the dome roof painted copper.
The beautiful new $8,000 church was dedicated November 21, 1909. The new church with its 45 foot dome and with a star from each octagon is a miniature of St. Peter’s at Rome and in composite architecture of the Corinthian, Romanesque and Gothic period.
In 1958, a new addition was completed during Rev. Hugh Kennedy’s pastorate. It was composed of Sunday school rooms, minister’s study and dining room.
In 1965, the old parsonage next to the church was torn down and a new parking lot replaced the home of so many ministers and families. Simultaneously, a new parsonage was purchased at 402 Glendale Avenue, on a spacious setting about one mile East of the Church.
The First Congregational Church of Clare voted to merge with the United Church of Christ during the administration of the Rev. Fletcher Van Gorder Parker on Sunday, January 14, 1961.
“Those sturdy pioneers with only nine members and a minister without a wife took on the project of constructing a church in the village of Clare which at that time was considered too poor.” May this congregation continue with steadfastness ever to glorify God as our sturdy pioneers did in 1872.
“Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord has done for thee.” (Mark 5:19)
Architectural Features of Our Church
The Clare Congregational Church is a cross-gable, Greek cross-form building capped with a low, octagonal dome. Built with red brick walls and limestone trimmings, the church stands on the north side of Fifth Street, between Beech and McEwan in Clare’s central business district.
The church’s four facades, except for modern additions, are virtually identical. Each facade is divided horizontally by a limestone belt course separating the high, rusticated basement from the main story and vertically by shallow piers with limestone trim which, extending up into the gable, flank a broad, central area above the belt course containing three side-by-side, round-head windows. Double bands of raised header brickwork outline the windows and form a segmental-arch cap to this central portion of the facade. Chevron-pattern brickwork fills the area between the window arches and segmental arch above. A single row of three small recessed panels of Greek cross form in the brickwork punctuates each side of each facade between the buttresses and returns of the simply detailed classical cornice. The window contain stained glass saved from the earlier frame church. Lower segmental arch-head windows aligned with those above pierce the basement-level walls.
The main entrance, at the building’s southeast corner, is a small hip-roof structure whose front barely projects beyond the main facade’s wall plane. It was enlarged with a lower front addition in 1958. A primary feature of the church is the broad and low octagonal dome which stands at the crossing. It rests on a vertical-sided base that rises to just above the roof ridges. The four sides facing the building’s corners each is pierced by a rectangular, stained-glass window. Each face of the dome contains a round-head dormer containing a stained-glass rondelle. The dome and its base, like the church’s main roof, were originally clad in wood shingling. Old photographs show that the dome had a delicate balustrade with urns and spindle work balusters ringing an octagonal space at the dome’s apex, but this was removed by 1950.
The auditorium or sanctuary occupies the building’s entire main floor. It has a Greek cross form with the central dome springing form broad arches that span the openings into the cross’s four arms. The arches are supported by square-plan piers with gold-leafed Corinthian capitals.
The church building became a Michigan State Historic Site on March 17, 1994, and a National Registered Historic Site on December 9, 1994.