New London churches merge, promise stronger congregation

By Kathleen Edgecomb Day Staff Writer

New London - Just about a year ago, the pastors of the First Baptist Church of New London and the First Hispanic Baptist Church of New London got together for lunch to discuss issues facing their congregations.

The Rev. Tom Hogsten, pastor of the nearly 210-year-old First Baptist Church downtown, was facing a dwindling congregation, a cavernous worship space and a nearly unused four-story addition.

The Rev. Daniel Martino, pastor of the 35-year-old First Hispanic Baptist Church, had a different set of problems. His congregation was expanding. He was running out of room at the Redden Avenue church, and he wanted to expand the ministry to include services in English.

"I said we're at the point we have to do something, and I think that something involves you," Hogsten recalled telling Martino.

Martino said he almost fell off his chair. He and some of his members had been working on a strategic plan to guide the expansion of the congregation, which had grown to more than 300 members, including many who do not speak Spanish.

"We said, 'Bingo! This is it,'" Martino recalled.

On Sunday, the two churches, each affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA denomination, will merge into the Church of the City, New London. A merger celebration service will start at noon at the Redden Avenue church. It is open to the public, and a reception will follow.

The name of the new church was inspired by a plaque on the State Street Church: "The church with a heart in the heart of the city." Both congregations voted unanimously for the merger.

"It's gratifying that we had a vote that will have an impact on our church for centuries,'' Hogsten said. His church had been facing the real possibility of closing its doors for good, he said. "This changes the courses of both our churches."

Martino will be senior pastor and Hogsten will be executive pastor of the new church. They will be assisted by Pastors Aracelis Vazquez Haye, Belisca Destra and Daryn Ortiz.

The plan is to have four Sunday services overall at the two churches - one in Spanish, one in French Creole, one in English with traditional music, and one in English with contemporary music.

The merger isn't about saving money or reducing space. It's a decision that the pastors and those who worship at the two churches hope will create a more diverse congregation that will be welcome to anyone, no matter what language they speak.

"We're trying to be more inclusive,'' Hogsten said. "For one or two hours, people can worship in a service that feels right for them. The other days of the week, we will be one church, one board, serving all the people in the city."

The new congregation will continue programs for children and youth, expand programs for seniors and concentrate on a ministry downtown.

"What is amazing is the willingness of both churches to do something bigger for New London," Martino said. "I believe in unity and unity of the church. What is happening with both churches is a beautiful example of how other churches can come together and join forces, resources and assets. ... There are so many churches, especially Anglo churches, struggling and dying. There is a power in unity."

Shrinking membership

The State Street congregation was founded in 1804, as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church in Waterford. Fifty members held Sunday services at the courthouse at the top of State Street and at private homes in the city. The congregation eventually raised $25,000 and built the church at the corner of State and Washington streets, dedicating it on March 13, 1856. It was designed by American architect W.T. Hallett and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

After World War I, the church was one of the largest Protestant churches in New London, and it expanded further, building a four-story addition at the rear of the building, according to the church history archives. By World War II, the First Baptist Church was the largest Protestant denomination east of the Connecticut River and the second largest in the state.

Membership is now about 100, Hogsten said, with about 50 attending Sunday services. The average age of worshipers is 70, he said.

But the congregation has continued, despite the declining membership and scant resources to offer programs.

A storage area in the basement of the church has been renovated with the help of the New London Rotary - and is now a youth wrestling room where volunteers from Kent Ward's Heavy Hitters and cadets from the Coast Guard Academy routinely show up to coach and mentor 20 to 30 youngsters. The church also, with the help of other Baptist churches in the region, serves free dinners on Saturday nights.

Those programs will continue in the new congregation, and new outreach programs will be added, Hogsten said.

In 1977, First Baptist hosted a group that offered services in Spanish. That grew into Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, or the First Hispanic Baptist Church. The Spanish-speaking congregation moved into a building on Smith Street in Fort Trumbull and thrived there until redevelopment took the property. About 10 years ago, a new church was built on Redden Avenue.

Today, there are more than 300 members, with an average age of 35. Services are well attended - there were about 600 at Easter services last spring.

Martino said his church has been wanting to do more outreach, especially downtown.

"Everything is new," he said. "We don't know how it will happen, but it will happen. We have the resources, the ministers and the passion to do it."