AHCC has had 9 senior ministers in its almost 150 year history – each leaving their mark in the community and on the hearts of the congregation.
Rev. Joseph Hopkins Twichell (1865 – 1912)
On December 13, 1865, Rev. Joseph Hopkins Twichell became the first pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church – the only pastorate he ever held. Rev. Twichell was described by many in the congregation as a “Conservative Progressive,” and if he were alive today, there is no doubt he would be an enthusiastic supporter of the ecumenical gatherings and interfaith education in which AHCC partakes. His experiences with life and death during the Civil War gave him a depth of human understanding where differences in theology were of little importance. The following is part of an editorial from the Catholic Transcript upon the death of Twichell in 1918: “[He] had much to do with the killing off of whatever anti-Catholic sentiment existed in Hartford in former days. Eminently sane and gifted with a sense of humor, a man of heart and of natural benevolences, he frowned on rancor, and sect bigotry had no place in his life or in his dealings with his fellow men.” He had volunteered for the Army in 1861 and became the chaplain of the roughest regiment he could find, the New York Zouaves, because he had observed that men less "rough and wicked" were well attended by chaplains already, and because he thought himself well-suited to influence this kind of man. His sermons stayed away from politics, and focused on brotherhood and the loving relationship of man to God. His daughter, Harmony, married the composer Charles Ives. Though the church was home to many Hartford notables of the time, perhaps the most famous was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Although Sam Clemens was a professed agnostic, he spent much of his free time in the company of the Rev. Twichell, and Twain once referred to AHCC as the "Church of the Holy Speculators." Twichell overheard the remark and was highly amused. The two men were known to take long walks up to Talcott Mountain or along the paths of Nook Farm. The pew which Twain rented (as was common at the time), is marked with a small plate. By 1880 the membership numbered 547, about five times the original number, and in 1890 there was the largest membership of the Twichell pastorate, 789. On December 10, 1911, Rev. Joseph Twichell announced his resignation to the congregation to take effect on July 1, 1912. When he died on December 20, 1918, newspapers all over the country eulogized him for his outstanding achievements.
Rev. John Brownlee Voorhees (1913 – 1919)
Rev. Voorhees was installed as the senior minister in January 1913 and Rev. Twichell spoke at his installation service. During his tenure, Rev. Voorhees was known to offer much praise and admiration for the ministry and works of Rev. Twichell and the two were friends. Many activities and programs of the church worked to support the efforts and the troops during World War I (1914 – 1918). When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the women of the church started a Red Cross chapter. Rev. Voorhees served with his parishioners who left their homes to fight in the war. Mortally wounded just two weeks after arriving in France, he died on January 18, 1919.
Rev. Willis Howard Butler (1919 – 1930)
A great preacher and distinguished gentleman from Princeton, Rev. Butler was called often by the President Coolidge to preach at the White House. During the restless times following WWI, Dr. Butler had kept a balance, which was reassuring to the members of the church. Of his sermons, it was said, “Dr. Butler put all his strength into preparation for his pulpit work … his sermons were in the main addressed to a world in doubt and sorrow, struggling with the mysteries and difficulties of life. He often seemed to be calling upon those who had passed by to believe that, in the House of God, and in the hour of worship, they would receive, from sources of strength that are divine and infinite, both guidance and comfort for life's challenges and undertakings.” It was during Rev. Butler’s ministry that Asylum Hill Congregational Church was first referred to as a “downtown” church. After serving only 11 years, Rev. Butler, 57, at the height of his ministry, died from a severe illness on October 22, 1930. The carved doorway on the west side of the chancel was given by the congregation in his memory. Above the doorway are the words: "Commanding Preacher," "Winsome Personality," "Devout Spirit."
Rev. David McKeith Jr. (1932 – 1948)
Rev. McKeith was very active in the life of the community, the church, and other churches on Asylum Hill. In cooperation with the Asylum Avenue Baptist Church and Trinity Episcopal Church, a vacation church school was held in 1933. Ecumenical summer services were held with Asylum Avenue Baptist and Immanuel Churches. The church published a news sheet that provided information on upcoming events and services. It proved to be popular, and became known as the Hill Church News on July 19, 1944. In it, Dr. McKeith wrote a weekly column, "From the Pastor's Study." Rev. McKeith led the congregation through the war years of the 1940s and there were about 150 church members in the armed forces during World War II. The McKeiths wrote letters, sent packages, provided guidance, helped families in times of adjustment, stress or bereavement, offered welcomes and farewells, and helped with housing. As members continued to move towns to the west of Hartford and membership began to dwindle, some were discussing possible relocation. The decision was made to remain in Hartford and again, building on faith, to expand. The remodeling included changing the old chapel into the present Drew Hall and adding the stage, reconstructing the space on the first floor into offices and classrooms, moving the kitchen from the second to the first floor, and adding space for a large classroom, storage room, the Church parlor, now known as the Twichell Room, on the first floor, classrooms and a recreation room, now used for the Nursery School, on the ground floor and more classrooms on the second floor. In 1948, when the church membership had grown to over 1350, when the physical property, the financial status, and the church organization and spirit seemed vibrant and assured, Dr. McKeith accepted the offer of a position as Executive Vice-President of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and retired from AHCC.
Rev. Bernard Thomas Drew (1949 – 1973)
Rev. Drew introduced many inspiring religious innovations: the Maundy Thursday service was first held in 1950; in 1953 an 8:45 a.m. weekday morning worship service was begun for the staff which some church members attended on their way to work; in the same year on Thursdays, a memorial Vesper Service was introduced. In 1954, a Christmas Eve Midnight Service was begun and the Youth Church was established. Additionally, many church programs grew and many were added: a Business and Professional Women’s Group, a Young Adults Group, a Couples’ Group and a Men’s Group to name just a few. The formation of United Church of Christ through a merger of the Congregational Christian with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches was being considered at this time. On May 21, 1961, members of AHCC voted by ballot to approve the changes in the bylaws for membership in the newly formed United Church of Christ. The votes cast were 259 in favor and 78 against. As the population trend continued, the question of the possible relocation of the church arose again; and again, lay leaders and members decided to stay in the City of Hartford and to work on the issues plaguing the area rather than flee from them. At the annual meeting in February 1973 Dr. Drew announced his retirement, effective April 22. Dr. Drew's pastorate of 24 years represented the second longest of the church, exceeded only by Rev. Twichell's tenure of 47 years.
Rev. Walter Wagoner (1973 – 1978)
Walter Wagoner was an unusual choice for senior minister – at the time of his call, he was 55 years old and had never held a full-time pastorate, but was an active spiritual adviser and educator. A seminary president and author, he began an intellectual renaissance within the church and membership began to grow. Under Dr. Wagoner’s leadership, the church reorganized its structure, consolidated some boards and created others, invested more resources in the renewal of the Asylum Hill neighborhood and opened the doors wider to neighbors and community organizations. August 1,1976 proved to be one of the most auspicious beginnings in the church's history when a new interim Minister of Education started work on a part-time basis. Rev. Peter B. Grandy not only filled his new role exceptionally well, but would become an indispensable part of the church until his retirement from ministry in 2012. During those years, Rev. Grandy would serve as interim Senior Minister on several occasions, happily returning to his position as associate minister when a new senior minister was called. His pastorate of 36 years and his role as the “rock” on which all could lean, deserves special mention. In the spring of 1978 an upheaval in the church organization left the church without a senior minister for 10 months, as Rev. Wagoner took a long sabbatical, and upon returning, submitted his resignation to an astonished congregation. He preached his last sermon at AHCC in November 1978.
Rev. James L. Kidd (1979 – 1998)
From the very beginning, Rev. Kidd made it clear that AHCC now had a pastor whose mission was not only to serve the Lord but also to build a bigger and better downtown church. Rev. Kidd’s previous record on that matter was impressive – in his four years as minister of the First Congregational Church in Pelham, New Hampshire, attendance increased 80%; then wanting to try an urban ministry, he accepted the call to become senior minister at a UCC church in downtown Chicago, where he doubled membership, tripled Sunday attendance and attracted a congregation of young business and professional people in an environment where all the other churches were either losing members or closing their doors. Rev. Kidd was focused on increasing attendance and membership at AHCC and was known for asking first thing Monday morning about how many were in worship. In response to those reports he might say, “Did you know that so-and-so is expecting? Count that as 2;” or something similar. His infatuation with numbers extended all the way to his memorial service, held at AHCC in 2012. He gave very specific instructions to count the number in attendance – and to count him as 1. During the first full year of Rev. Kidd’s ministry at AHCC worship attendance increased over 30%, Sunday School over 40%, 62 new members joined, and the church reached its fundraising goal and presented a balanced budget. Rev. Kidd’s legacy is that of the preacher who brought together so many of the strengths of his predecessors and defied the odds, building this inner city congregation when the only growing congregational churches were in new suburban communities. He launched this congregation on the path to becoming one of the top 5 or 6 in the denomination. But as significant as these numbers are, Rev. Kidd was proudest of the programs within the church: the exciting worship services, the theology classes, the Christian Sharing Groups, the outstanding music program, and growth in faith and fellowship of the members. Rev. Kidd retired from the ministry in 1998.
Rev. Gary L. Miller (1998 – 2011)
Known fondly as “The Rev," Gary Miller brought a neighborhood vision and personal touch to the ministries of AHCC. A seasoned urban preacher, Rev. Miller served large parishes of the United Church of Christ in Florida, Illinois, and Michigan prior to being called to AHCC. During Rev. Miller’s tenure, he took seriously the words of his predecessor that AHCC is “a church in the heart of the city with a heart for the city.” There was tremendous focus and energy placed on working with our neighbors in Asylum Hill to build or rehabilitate homes that would be owner-occupied. Additionally, a very successful building campaign begun in 2003, provided $750,000 seed money to fund the Boys and Girls Club on Asylum Hill. Attendance and membership increased again during Rev. Miller’s ministry through his kind presence, his comforting messages, and his firm belief that all should feel reborn through their common experience of worship. His strong belief that music and the arts are “windows to the presence of God” created an atmosphere where creativity thrived, and music, art, dance and drama were welcomed into the worship life of the congregation. Rev. Miller – the trumpet playing preacher – also introduced the congregation to traditional jazz worship services with The Rev leading the band and the congregation in joyful praise. Gary's friendly and welcoming manner touched the hearts of his congregation, and allowed people in turn to be in touch with God and the Spirit that transcends all of human life. By 2011, AHCC was bursting at the seams because of the ministry of Gary Miller: a man of faith, a man of wisdom, a man of energy – pastor, priest and prophet all in one. Rev. Miller retired from full time ministry in May 2011.
Rev. Matthew Laney (2012 – present)
Today AHCC is blessed with the Christ-centered and visionary leadership of Rev. Matthew Laney, called to serve as its ninth senior minister. Prior to AHCC, Rev. Laney served as associate minister of First Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont and senior minister of First Congregational UCC in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. Both congregations experienced increased attendance in worship, increased membership, worship alive with artistic expression, and expanded community involvement and outreach initiatives. Rev. Laney has created an inspiring mission for AHCC: to help people grow in faith and love as disciples of Jesus. Our vision of growing Christians today for the Church of tomorrow, connects this large, diverse and talented staff and congregation to focus on being “unapologetically Christian and unabashedly inclusive.” Rev. Laney is a stirring preacher who deftly combines biblical teaching with everyday issues and problems. He is also a compassionate pastor and a strong spiritual leader, ready to challenge Asylum Hill Congregational Church to grow in new and exciting ways.