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Parish History

Emmanuel Episcopal Church traces its history to the first services according to the Book of Common Prayer held in South Reading in 1849. Twenty years later, in 1869, an Episcopal mission was formally organized in the vestry of the Universalist church. The name “Emmanuel Church” was selected and the Rev. Samuel Slack called as the first rector.  The first official services were held on Easter Day in 1870. In these early years the situation was challenging. With the parish unable to meet its financial commitments, the membership voted to close in 1875. Prospects improved later that year, however, with the appointment of the Rev. George Walker as the second rector. In 1880 the congregation was renamed the “Mission of the Good Shepherd” with the belief that a fresh start was necessary for the church to flourish.


Emmanuel Church became a fully self-supporting parish early in the rectorate of the Rev. Stewart C. Harbinson in 1926.  Particularly important was the work of the Women’s Guild, which undertook projects to earn money to support the parish during the Great Depression and World War II.  In view of their important ministries the rector asked Mrs. Virginia Henkel and Mrs. Alice Wiswall to join the vestry in 1950, the first women to serve in that capacity. Mr. Harbinson ministered in Wakefield for 25 years before retiring to Ireland in 1951.


The next rector, the Rev. John V. Thorp, led Emmanuel Church during a period of rapid growth.  Several building projects were undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s to enhance the church’s beauty and better meet its needs, including the installation of new stained-glass windows, designed by parishioner Wilbur Burnham, and the addition of a new office complex and narthex. The Canterbury School was established in 1966 (later the Canterbury Children’s Center). In 1979 the parish elected Mrs. Olga Packard as senior warden–the first woman to hold the position. After 29 years at Emmanuel Mr. Thorp retired in 1980.


Despite considerable turbulence in the 1980s important ministries began, including outreach to the wider community through participation in the Bread of Life ministry and the Wakefield Interfaith Food Pantry. The parish stabilized and grew again during 1990s with the ministry of the Rev. Stephen Ayres, later Vicar of the Old North Church in Boston.  In 1999 Emmanuel chose the Rev. Katharine C. Evans to lead it into the 21st century, the first woman to serve as rector. During her tenure parish diversity increased and mission and outreach ministries were expanded.


The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell was elected the church’s 20th rector in 2008. A chancel renovation, completed in 2011, is the latest among recent efforts to update and enhance the beauty and worship of the parish.  Monthly Community Dinners were inaugurated in 2016, increasing our ministry to our neighbors.


Now Emmanuel Church is writing a new chapter in its story. God has drawn together a diverse family of all backgrounds who find a welcoming home for faith formation, friendship, inspiration, and service. We are harvesting the fruits planted by the saints of generations past, while anticipating opportunities for growth and abundant life long into the future.  

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Land for a permanent church building was donated by Daniel Walton on Water Street in the center of town. The first services were held in the new building on August 21, 1881 and the name “Emmanuel Church” was reestablished. In 1893 the chancel and choir room were added, designed by the architectural firm of Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Goodhue. By the turn of the century the parish continued to grow and members desired a more favorable location. A prominent parcel near Lake Quannapowitt was secured.  The original building was moved to the new property in 1901. The Parish House and Rectory were built in 1902 and 1903, donated by Mrs. Lydia Wright Pearson.

More details and beautiful photos from Emmanuel Episcopal Church’s history are available in our parish history God With Us: The Story of Emmanuel Episcopal Church. It was written by the Rev. Dr. Matthew P. Cadwell and published in 2016. Copies are available through the church office.

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