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Tabor Lutheran Church: Remembering the Move from Hopson Ave

In the 1950s, Tabor Lutheran outgrew its Hopson Avenue building and moved to Tabor Drive, an area of Branford that is surrounded by controversy. Was there controversy about the church's original move?

Tabor Lutheran Church has a great section of its website devoted to the church's history, which readers SolarPete and Susan Barnes both pointed me to. In fact, Tabor Lutheran's history goes back 125 years, when immigrants from Sweden and Finland, who had settled in Branford to work for Stony Creek Quarry or Malleable Iron Fittings, founded a congregation in the basement of the First Congregational Church. Their first building, the Hopson Avenue location, was built in 1889, and held its first service in 1890.

By the 1950s, it was clear that Tabor Lutheran (then called the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran church) had outgrown its building. In the late 1800s, the church had purchased a lot of land from George Field, to be used as a cemetery. That cemetery is located opposite where the church is now. Pastor Bryan Myers, the current pastor at Tabor, explained that the Tabor location was not the original choice:

[R]ather than move to Tabor Drive the original plan was to move to Main Street opposite St. Mary's Roman Catholic church, the present location of Swirsky Insurance, or so the old timers in the church told me. Fortunately, I think, the bank would not lend them money to build at that location because of lack of parking. It is indeed a blessing that they chose the site on Tabor Drive opposite our cemetery.

To learn more about the town's feelings at the time, I reached out to retired Rev. Timothy R. Swanson, whose father was the pastor of the church at the time of the move. He wrote with many stories about how he and his brother explored all over the area -- including the dump there at the time -- and talked about the reactions of other Branford residents to the move. According to Pastor Swanson,

When Tabor moved to the location in question, it was at a time when the neighborhood was just being built.  There was no objection whatsoever.  The location provided almost a park like setting.

Pastor Swanson remembered the strip of land on the property that was used by a trolley car to run down to Pine Orchard to take people to the beach and the hotels -- one owned by Ebbie Carlson, who was a member of Tabor church. 

The first unit of the church was built in 1957. Pastor Swanson recalled that many of the residences now located in that area were just being built at the same time, many by Tabor members (including the Carlsons and the Uljen families). He wrote some fond memories of the marshy property:

When we built the first unit and when the pond part was frozen over, the church put a spot light out on it and piped music while the Uljens put on spot light on it from their house so that we could skate at night and return to the church building for hot chocolate and refreshments. I remember when they had to dynamite the concrete support for the trolley bridge that spanned the road right where the entrance to the present parking lot is located.  It was cool to watch that as a kid. The bridge part had already been gone for some time.

The architect for the Tabor location, Douglas Orr, was a prominent architect based in Stony Creek -- he also designed Willoughy Wallace Memorial Library. At Orr's prompting, the altar at Tabor was built from Stony Creek marble. (Orr was one of the architects who was appointed to redo the White House while Truman was president; he also worked on the Capitol building and several buildings at Yale, as Swanson recalls.) The construction of the church was performed in large part by members who donated their time and sweat to get the building off the ground; Orr was so impressed by the work put in by members that he charged only a portion of the amount he was due. According to Swanson, that aspect of volunteerism, and the inspiration it created in others, 

may explain more than anything else of the importance of Tabor's new building. [The parishoners] actually took delight in what they were doing and their excitement carried quickly into finishing the new worship area and other parts of the building.

Pastor Swanson shared many other stories with me about the building's initial construction, including the parade from the Hopson Avenue location to the Tabor property, as well as his sadness that some of Tabor's natural, park-like beauty has been lost over the years.

A final note from Pastor Myers: the 125th anniversary celebration will take place in a special worship service on January 27, 2013. All four hymnals used during the life of the church will be used during the service, so if you are interested in experiencing the music of yore or just a moment of history, all are welcome to attend.

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