Good News from A Great City
The Heartbeat of Haverhill welcomes guest blogger, Donna Spencer Collins, Senior Pastor/Founder at Phoenix Rising United Church of Christ to speak about one tree’s glorious connection with the earliest days of the City of Haverhill and the first days of her church here in Haverhill.
The Worshiping Oak and Phoenix Rising UCC.
First Congregational Church Haverhill has had a continuous narrative that can be traced back to the puritan settlers and John Ward, the city’s founder. I stumbled across this information while researching the University of Massachusetts archives on the early history of Haverhill. The reason the research was important was that I was called by a remnant from First Congregational Church. It was their hope that like a phoenix a new church would rise again. I was hired in May 2014. Interestingly, there were only five houses available for rent in Haverhill and only one person called us back. We signed the lease at John Ward Ave. Soon after I was told Phoenix Rising UCC was about to become part of the legacy of John Ward and the first settlers, as John Ward was also the town’s first minister.
The legacy began on October 24, 1642 when John Ward was ordained. Upon his ordination he was given 16 acres of land, one cow, two pigs, a dozen chickens, six cords of wood that would be cut and stacked at his door, 400 shillings a year, and as well, a portion of the crops grown by the people would be shared with him. He would dedicate himself to the study of God’s word, preaching, and teaching.
I would be living somewhere on those same 16 acres! I couldn’t help wondering what God was doing. Nevertheless, as fascinating as this connection was, there was even more. More than once the narrative mentioned the “Worshiping Oak”.
The Worshiping Oak provided the place where the town’s people first worshiped. Someone would beat a drum to let folks know it was time to gather. This tradition lasted about two years, until the town had grown big enough to build a meeting house. However, the Worshiping Oak had become a sacred place for residents and they were reluctant to give it up. So it was decided that in the summer they would worship at the Oak and in the winter the meeting house. A few years later enough money had been saved to purchase a bell. When summer came around, the bell was rung to gather at the Worship Oak. A bell versus drum controversy arose that ended in compromise. In the summer, the drum would be used to call people to the Worshiping Oak, and the rest of the year, the bell would be rung to gather for worship, community announcements, and danger.
It was 2014, the tree was fascinating but ancient history. So imagine my surprise, when I discovered the Worshiping Oak still existed. I set out to find it. It really wasn’t much of a challenge. It stood on the site of the Buttonwoods Museum and the John Ward house. Both only a stone’s throw from where I would live.
I felt a deep connection when I found the majestic tree, that feeling when one’s awareness is so acute her senses seem to pierce the veil of here and there. I walked toward the Great Oak and imagined generations of birds, and critters that lived in the sanctuary of its branches and roots. It provided shade for worshipers. For centuries, it stood like a silent sentinel, a landmark watching one generation call to the next a future with hope.
As the Merrimack River meanders toward the ocean, I imagined John Ward standing in this very spot preaching to the first settlers. What vision did they hold for Haverhill? Had Pastor John prayed about prosperity, posterity and legacy? It became crystal clear God had led me here, which is why Phoenix Rising UCC held our first ever service on Easter Sunday 2015 and met there for most of that year. This tree that shaded the first worshipers, now shaded us. It was their beginning and now ours.
On April 21, 2017 at approximately 9:30 p.m., the lights went out on John Ward Avenue. The Worshiping Oak fell taking out electrical wires on its way to the ground. It was as though the last bastion of life and light were snuffed out. Unlike other trees that fell this winter, this one was a symbol with a long storied past, one that would be remembered like none other. I am so blessed the Worshiping Oak lived long enough for Phoenix Rising UCC to become a part of its history.
(c) Pastor Donna Spencer Collins
THOH wonders if trees have thoughts, and if this one knew it could finally rest in peace since the light it represented as a place of worship was safely in the arms of a revitalized church.
This old oak inspired poetry, too. Here is a poem written by the late Edith Silverman Karelis of Haverhill that had been made into postcards and sold as a fundraiser for the ACS and Buttonwoods Museum may still have a copy. Ms Karelis was also a member of the Greater Haverhill Poetry Society and passed away at the age of 90 in 2009.
The Old Oak
A giant oak stands tall against the sky,
NOTE: Buttonwoods Museum is contemplating ways to use the wood from the Worshiping Oak to create a memento and fundraiser. “The Buttonwoods site is in the middle of hundreds of years of Haverhill and Merrimack Valley history! A visit to the 1710 John Ward House begins a journey into life in the area during and after English settlement. The John Ward house is a please touch house, filled with reproduction red ware, tin ware, cooking utensils, and more!”
Reverend Donna Spencer Collins affectionately known in the Haverhill community as MamaD, was hired by a Search Committee of First Congregational Church Haverhill in May 2014.
Her mission was to start a new Church for a new Haverhill. She moved here and began her ministry in earnest in September of that year exploring and making connections with many. Two years later that New Church for a New Haverhill began weekly worship September 18, 2016.
Archives from the university of Massachusetts: https://archive.org/stream/historyofhaverhi61chas/historyofhaverhi61chas_djvu.txt 2014/April
Chase, George Wingate: The history of Haverhill, Massachusetts, from its first settlement, in 1640, to the year 1860, Published 1861, https://archive.org/details/historyofhaverhi61chas 2015/February
Mirick, Benjamin, Greenleaf Whittier, John: The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, printed and published by A.W. Thayer 1842