The origins of our church and the city of Gardner began in colonial times. The city was settled in 1764. The first Methodist services began in 1797. These early worship services were held in homes and used circuit rider clergy who traveled to the various towns in New England.
In the early 1800’s, Gardner quickly grew into a lumber and furniture making industrial center. By 1826, a formal Methodist Society was established in Gardner. Regular services were conducted by a preacher whose parish encompassed several of the nearby communities.
In 1869, the first Methodist church was organized in Gardner. Services were held at an independent church on Parker Street. This church soon became inadequate. Later in 1877, a new Methodist church was built at our present site on Chestnut Street.
By the late 1800s, the population of Gardner grew to almost 10,000 people. By 1902, membership at the Chestnut Street church had grown to about 175.
As the population of Gardner grew, a second Methodist church (The Swedish Methodist Church) was built in 1892 on the corner of Jay and Peabody Streets. This church was built to service the people of Swedish descent who had come to Gardner. Within one year of building this church, there were 57 members. This church would be renamed the Hillside Methodist Church in 1957
Challenges & Tragedy
Through out the early 1900’s Gardner continued to grow as an industrial center. Membership at the Chestnut Street church also grew steadily. In 1929, space was added to the church to support growing social and youth needs. A new addition was added that included a gymnasium, bowling alley, kitchen, meeting rooms, and classrooms.
The Depression years were hard on Gardner and the church. Residents and the church struggled financially. However, the area rebounded in the post-war years. By 1955, membership at the church peaked with over 500 members.
But in the early morning hours of February 25, 1959, fire totally destroyed the Chestnut Street church. The only thing to survived the fire was the church tower bell, which now sits outside our church. But the members and leaders were determined to rebuild. And in October 1960, a new church was constructed on the same site.
In 1966, the 55 members of the Hillside church were unable to keep up with the rising costs of building maintenance. The two congregations were merged in 1967 into the Chestnut Street Methodist Church.
A New Church for a New World
In 1968, the future looked bright for the newly merged churches. In that year, the global Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to form the United Methodist Church. With that change our church became the Chestnut Street United Methodist Church. In 1969, the church celebrated its 100 year!
However, the church along with the people of Gardner struggled through the economic hard times of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Most of the furniture manufacturing had stopped production and moved operations to the South and overseas. Population declined in the 1980’s as the city struggled to find a new footing.
Gardner has been able to reinvent itself as a local services hub (college, hospital, shopping) for northern central Massachusetts. However, as in most of our country, our church attendance continues to decline. An aging population and lack of priority in spiritual faith with younger people seems to be what’s driving this decline. This country-wide trend is causing more church closures and consolidations.
In 2011, the East Templeton United Methodist Church merged with the Chestnut Street United Methodist Church. This merger along with monetizing our facility for other users has helped maintain our viability.
Our history shows that our ancestors faced challenges and met them with determination and God’s help. We may have smaller numbers now, but we remain determined to maintain our faith, to worship God, and to continue to do His work in the Gardner community. With His help, we remain a viable faith community in Gardner.