Oconto, Wisconsin: “The First Temple for Christian Science Worship”

Circa 1906 postcard view of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Oconto, Wisconsin. Longyear Museum collection.

“My Beloved Brethren:

“…Guided by the pillar and the cloud, this little church that built the first temple for Christian Science worship shall abide steadfastly in the faith of Jesus’ words: ‘Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’….”

So wrote Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, about the little church built by Christian Scientists in Oconto, Wisconsin, in 1886 — the first edifice in the world erected specifically for the purpose of holding Christian Science church services (see Miscellaneous Writings, p. 149).

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Oconto, began with a healing in the early 1880s.

In 1882 a prosperous saw-mill operator named Hugh McDonald, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, heard of Christian Science through a business friend whose ailing wife was improving markedly under Christian Science treatment. McDonald, whose own wife, Emma, also was ill and failing fast, urged her to try this new treatment.

Laura E. Sargent, photograph, Longyear Museum collection.

She consented to go to Milwaukee, where, under the care of a Christian Science practitioner, she, too, began to improve. Mrs. Laura Sargent of Oconto, a near-invalid, joined her there, and both women were healed.

Upon returning home, Mrs. Sargent showed her sister, Mrs. Victoria Sargent (they were married to two brothers), the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy. Victoria took an interest, whereupon the two sisters presented it to their mother, Minerva Adams, a serious student of the Bible, who exclaimed, “I believe it is ‘the second coming of the Christ.’ I want you to study it.” Soon Mrs. Adams, too, who had been laid up with a broken ankle, was healed.

In May 1884, Emma, Laura, and two other students from the Oconto area entered the only class taught by Mary Baker Eddy in Chicago. Some months later, several Oconto students attended Mrs. Eddy’s Primary Class in Boston, and on their return home, began practicing Christian Science.

At this time, Oconto was a prosperous lumber town with a population of over five thousand, located on the edge of the pine belt. As the number of Christian Scientists in the community increased, informal meetings were held in the double parlors of the home belonging to one of the leading merchants, Thomas Milledge. They conducted regular meetings on Sunday afternoons, and maintained a dispensary (a sort of precursor to the Reading Room) weekdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. When the group outgrew these accommodations, five prominent business men — James and Henry Sargent, C. T. Pendleton, Thomas Milledge, and Edwin Hart — formed and incorporated the Christian Science Association of Oconto on June 10, 1886.

Encouraged by Mrs. Eddy’s counsel to “Go right ahead and build,” the group found that funds and gifts were provided as needed, and, on land given by Victoria’s husband, Henry Sargent, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Oconto, was built, holding its first service on October 31, 1886, at 10:30 a.m. After the small remaining debts were paid off, the church was dedicated the following February. The total cost was $1,197.79.

The early services were conducted by Laura Sargent and Edwin Hart, whose sermons consisted of reading from the Scriptures and Science and Health, ending with the “Scientific Statement of Being” from Science and Health. Within two years a pastor was appointed, in 1888: Reverend Lanson P. Norcross.

Rev. Lanson P. Norcross, photograph, Longyear Museum collection.

However, the new pastor was not to remain long at the little church in northern Wisconsin. One year later, when Mrs. Eddy stepped down from her position as Pastor in Boston, Laura, aware of her Leader’s need of a replacement, offered to send Reverend Norcross. He accepted the call, and promptly left for New England.

Touched by this example of selfless generosity, Mrs. Eddy then wrote the letter of appreciation that appears, in part, at the beginning of this article. The first half of that letter reads:

Lips nor pen can ever express the joy you give me in parting so promptly with your beloved pastor, Rev. Mr. Norcross, to send him to aid me. It is a refreshing demonstration of Christianity, brotherly love, and all the rich graces of the Spirit. May this sacrifice bring to your beloved church a vision of the new church, that cometh down from heaven, whose altar is a loving heart, whose communion is fellowship with saints and angels. This example of yours is a light that cannot be hid.

Following Norcross’s departure, Victoria Sargent was chosen to “read” at the Oconto Church, serving for the next five years. While visiting Mrs. Eddy soon after she had begun, Victoria informed her of their use of the Bible and Science and Health for the sermons at Oconto. “This is of God,” Mrs. Eddy said and, her face lighting up, added, “Oh! You have the divine and right idea.” That same year, the Bible and Science and Health became the pastor for all Christian Science churches.

Notes


This article was adapted from an original version published in the Autumn 1965 Longyear Quarterly News.

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