Rye: A Community Built on Connection and Collaboration
One of the first things visitors notice when they come to Rye’s town center is how the character of the community is reflected in the shops, schools, municipal buildings and places of worship that are densely packed into a few blocks along the Boston Post Road. From its earliest days, Rye was a town that placed an emphasis on education and spirituality, setting aside space in the center of town for these purposes. In studying the history of Rye’s many places of worship, a story of good will and support emerges, with interfaith relationships serving as a model for tolerance as we grow and move forward.
Rye’s religious history provides a lens through which to better understand the evolution of our town. First settled in the 1600s by Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers, Rye has a long history of different faiths sharing spaces and working cooperatively. In the early records of the town, many of the ministers were Presbyterian and services were held not in a church but in Timothy Knapp’s house on Milton Road. The Anglican church sent a minister to hold services in Rye in 1704, and even though there were no Anglicans in Rye, he drew a crowd of Presbyterians and Congregationalists.
As time went on and the Revolution changed the religious fabric of the town, new groups and places of worship formed. The Methodists, new to Rye in the 1770s, grew in population after the war when a prominent Rye resident, Ezekial Halsted, converted to the Methodist faith and started holding services in his home, which he bought from Timothy Knapp. Across town, the Square House emerged as a place to gather. The Presbyterians used the Square House throughout the first half of the 1700s, and then after the Revolutionary War, the Episcopalians started gathering there because their church, Grace Church, had burned down. They built a new church on the same site, the original Christ’s Church, in 1796.
Various circumstances led Rye’s congregations to lean on one another over time to establish places of worship. When the Methodist Church grew too big to meet in the Halsted house around 1812, they started worshipping in the Presbyterian Church. They met there until 1832, and when the Presbyterians and the Methodists were both using the space, the Presbyterians met in the morning and the Methodists in the afternoon. In the 1866, Christ’s Church was destroyed by a fire. The Presbyterians again shared their church for a few months, inviting the Episcopalians to hold their own worship before or after Presbyterian services on Sundays. By the mid-1900s, with travel around Rye made easier, the Episcopal Church no longer needed Grace Chapel, originally an extension of Christ’s Church built for the convenience of Milton Point residents. The Quakers took it over and it served as the Quaker Meeting House in Rye from 1959 to 1999.
Shifts in demographics and major world events have also played a role in Rye’s religious history, and shaped Rye to be the multi-faith community that we know today. Irish Catholic immigrants first settled in Rye in the mid-1800s, establishing the neighborhood near Maple and High Streets as “Dublin.” Around the turn of the 20th century, Italians settled in the same neighborhood, growing Rye’s Catholic population and creating a need for a new church. Catholics first met in a rented building called Morrison’s Hall at the corner of Purchase and Cedar Streets before establishing the first Church of the Resurrection on Purchase Street in 1889. The present site of the Church of the Resurrection opened its doors for worship in 1931. In the 1940s, at a time when the Jewish population was small but established, a group of ten families planned a meeting to discuss religious school for their children. The families met in the building that is now the Rye Arts Center on Milton Road in 1948. They had their first Jewish Sunday School at a large home on Forest Avenue, and then established a congregation under the name Community Synagogue in 1949, purchasing seven acres and a building known as Villa Aurora on Forest Avenue. Local churches donated supplies to help the Synagogue get its start. Growing to over 200 families in the next decade, they outgrew the original building and began building a new Community Synagogue in 1959.
In more recent years, it is Rye’s tradition of philanthropy, acceptance and interfaith practice that brings religions together. Rye’s Interchurch Council, an active group in the community, became particularly engaged during the 1960s when the country and world faced widespread conflict and uncertainty. In 1966, the Catholic Church joined the Council, joining the Episcopal, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, Quaker and Greek Orthodox faiths. The Rye Council of United Church Women led the town’s participation in a World Day of Prayer in 1967, and the annual Interchurch Workshop featured themes such as Paths to Peace and Operation Understanding. Around the same time, an interdenominational youth program known as Youth Quake debuted, expanding this sense of openness and cooperation to the younger generation.
One of the most moving examples of the faiths working together to make a difference was in the 1970s, when refugees from Laos, looking to escape Communist control found support and a new home in Rye. The first family fled Laos, facing persecution because the father’s father had worked for a U.S. agency. They settled in Rye after immigrating, with help from the Presbyterian Church to rent a house and get supplies. The Church of the Resurrection then sponsored another family from Laos, and soon the Rye Refugee Committee formed, counting members from all faiths and throughout the community. Seven families, with 42 people in all, came to Rye over the next few years. The Committee supported them by providing supplies, education and even a network for job opportunities.
As Rye looks at its past to inform the future, it is important to foster our history of groups supporting other groups, of learning from differences, and of a town that drew its strength from mutual respect. Using these lessons from places of worship, they can be applied to schools, businesses and other institutions throughout town. Rye is a place where people work together and help their neighbors.
Thank you for visiting the Rye Historical Society’s blog. For more information on sources for this story, please contact us on our website or visit the Square House Museum.