The Beginning…

On the north west bank of the Merrimack River, a mile upstream from Bodwell’s Falls and a half mile downstream from Bodwell’s Ferry, was a flat moist land situated at the foot of a great hill about where Doyle and Ames streets are. It was called the “swamp”. The Indians occupied the lands on both sides. The river was called the Menomack River by the Indians.

The Town of Lawrence sprang up from land that belonged to Methuen and Andover. In 1845 a group of men formed the Essex Company. They built the dam. There were also a few dwellings, a simple grist mill, a box factory and three small school houses, but not one single church. The Essex Company upon its incorporation, also built the canals, the first streets, the first boarding house, countless number of homes and the Prospect Reservoir, the Franklin Hotel, the gas works, Lawrence Common, Bodwell Park and gave freely of land for religious purposes. The Town of Lawrence was incorporated on 1847. The Merrimack River powered new England to industrial greatness. With an original population of 200 Lawrence quickly grew to 1,000 by 1853. Many immigrants came to Lawrence from other countries to bring their expertise, work in the mills and live a new life in this great city.

The area above the swamp was called Tower Hill. The cotton gin had been discovered many years before so cotton factories were very busy shipping cotton all over New England. The children also worked in the mills 6 days a week, so had very little time for education. Many lived in company houses, had no religious affiliation, or could walk the two miles or so to the downtown churches. This resulted in many Sabbath Schools springing up isolated areas. In 1832 the Methuenites organized a church on Prospect Hill. It was called the First Episcopal church The Grace Episcopal Church became the first house of worship in 1846, and the first Catholic church the Immaculate Conception was organized about 1846, with St. Mary’s to follow in 1849. The fine toned bell in the tower of the Immaculate Conception church was the first church bell in the city.


The swamp or river-side as it was soon named, was one of the isolated areas and started a school. In The Riverside Mission School began in 1862. Ezra Booth and John Wilkinson from Lawrence Street Congregational Church felt the need for church privileges in this area, and gained support from families in the area to start the “first sabbath school”. It started in a small primary schoolhouse situated at the top of Mason Street and Hancock Street. Thirty eight scholars were present for the first session, and in a few weeks grew to seventy five. Mr. Booth became the first Sunday School Superintendent and Mr. Wilkinson, Treasurer. There were ten teachers that came from the downtown churches to teach the children.

With the rapid growth of the school and the interest of the families they decided to hold evening prayer meetings just weeks after opening the school. After nine months of success in the cramped quarters it became desirable that a more spacious and formal building be sought for the school and evening meetings. They did not have the means to obtain this on their own so a gentleman, Dean Coolidge with a large heart and Christian Liberality generously offered them the free use of the Union School House which was then standing at the lower end of Essex Street, providing they could pay for the moving and fitting up. They raised the money by donations and moved the building to Water Street on a piece of land that they rented for $15.00 a year. The donations also paid for furnishings and fitting up of their new meeting place. The new chapel was dedicated on January 7, 1863. The school progressed and donors gave song books and they bought their first piano.

Later, an organ was purchased and they also bought the land that the chapel sat on with the help of tea parties, collections and a loan from the Lawrence Street Church. A deed was made out and dated June 1, 1867.


The prayer meetings were soon expanded into a preaching service and continued until 1869 when the first Sunday morning service was held. The pulpit was supplied by various clergyman and layman, among them Mr Robert and Mr John Aldred. John Aldred had a prominent position at the Pacific Mill. Occasionally, they would invite a missionary from the Andover Theological Seminary to preach to them. The Seminary was located in Andover what is now Phillips Andover Campus. One of its graduates Samuel Smith, wrote our nation’s hymn “America” in a house on Main Street in Andover. This is also where “My Country Tis of Thee” was born. (It’s interesting that to this day, Brian plays a Patriotic song to end every Sunday service).

Soon after, officers were elected and a permanent position was filled for the pulpit. He was Mr, Crossley a workman from one of the mills. Soon after a fence was put around the property. Mr Crossley resigned and a replacement was found.Things progressed downhill from there for various reasons, low membership, upkeep that could not be performed due to lack of funds, sabbath meetings not well attended, etc.

On June 5, 1875 the riverside Mission School became the Riverside Evangelical Church. The new church had 43 members.

Riverside became a recognized Congregational Church on March 9, 1878.


Grace Church has the first Communion service in the city and would loan it out to other churches. They eventually gave the Lawrence Street Church this service and later Riverside received a service from the Lawrence Street Church. Could Riverside be heir to the very first communion service in Lawrence?


Rev Thomas Langdale became minister in 1922. He came from the Riverside Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts. It is said that “this union must have been planned in Heaven” for both he and his wife Edith were to accomplish more for this little church than almost anyone in its history. The church flourished having church fairs, committee’s, church groups, Sunday School and events that benefited the church emotionally and financially. They were motivated to raise as much funds as possible as they had to pay the Ministers rent, pay off their debts in preparation of their fiftieth anniversary to be held in 1928. Their debt was all paid in 1927.

In May of 1928 they held their fiftieth anniversary celebration. The Andover Square and Compass Glee Club were invited to sing at the celebration.  The music was playing and everyone was singing “The Churches One Foundation” and suddenly there was a loud crack. The music and singing suddenly stopped and everyone evacuated the building. It was later found that one of the foundations gave way. This ended the celebration and parishioners wondered about their future.

A Priceless Gift…

The fiftieth celebration was such a success with over 300 people attending. Even though they were happy and proud, they still yearned for the new church they had always wanted. And now they really needed it. After a few months there was a feeling of expectancy. Few people knew what was about to happen.  In early Fall, a very special meeting was called to inform the parishioners they were about to receive a priceless gift, a brand new chapel. The donor, Mr John Edward Aldred wanted to build a memorial to his father John A Aldred, the same John Aldred who had helped start the original Sunday School and had served as teacher for many years and was an ardent supporter of the development of Riverside Church. His son J Edward in 1928 was a prosperous and wealthy banker. Born and raised in Lawrence he became one of the leading authorities on hydro-electric power in the United States and Canada and became the Chief Executive of the Shawinigan Water Power of Quebec. This plant was one of the greatest factors in the production of electricity in North America.

They were truly laborers with God and God hearing their prayers was soon to answer them, for this proved to be a major turning point in the life of Riverside Church. The same capitalistic interests that brought him to the power company brought him later into the Gillette Safety Razor Corporation. He was with Gillette when he decided to build this chapel, in memory of his father and at the same time he built one in memory of his mother at St John’s Episcopal Church in Lattington New York, a suburb of Glen Cove.

The members were ecstatic and unanimously accepted the offer to build a new church with profound appreciation. Work was to start immediately. The parishioners wanted to keep the “old house of worship” for it had served them well, it was a vital part of their lives and very dear to them, so it was moved to the back of the lot to become the Parish Hall.

Everything progressed rapidly and on January 12, 1929 the cornerstone was laid. In the box set in the stone are photographs of the old church, a list of members, officers, committees, newspaper clippings, a 1928 coin, and the key to the old front door.

The New Church Was Dedicated…

On January 5, 1930 the last service was held in the original church and on January 11 and 12, 1030 the John Aldred Memorial Chapel was dedicated to the Glory of God. All hearts were bursting with prayer, praise and gratitude as the John Aldred Memorial Choir sang in celebration. Mr John Hulme was at the console of the brand new Frazee organ built by the Frazee Organ Company of Boston. “It has many beautiful solo strips and the ensemble effect is particularly fine”. There were 21 voices in the choir. The sermon was given by Dr Emrich and at the close of the service the parishioners sang “Blest Be The Tie That Binds”. This closing hymn since that memorial day has been sung at services since 1930.

The architect for the Chapel, Ashton, Huntress and Alter, chose English Gothic for the design and over the entrance is the legend “John Aldred Memorial”.  The whole exterior is carried out in split faced granite, varying in color, and the doorways, window trim and tracery is in Indiana lime stone. The doors are of dark Oak.

The church interior reflects the Old English character of a fine church, the woodwork, the lectern and the pulpit, the Communion table and the pews all made of magnificent Oak. The auditorium has 244 seats with 44 in the balcony. This beautiful chapel was indeed a splendid gift and a very fitting memorial to a dedicated man. It is because of Mr Aldred and men and woman of his dedication and character that Riverside has survived for all these years.

Another milestone had begun with this new sacred Chapel, everyone was keyed up and full of enthusiasm. Many new people joined the church and many were baptized. What a busy pastorate Mr Langdale had during all of the seven years that he had served Riverside. Both he and Mrs Langdale were responsible for the events that transpired before the giving of the great gift. They worked together long and hard. They loved the Riverside people, and the Riverside people loved them, but God in his mysterious ways had other plans for Mr Langdale. Thirty-three days after the dedication he was called to his heavenly home. What a sorrowful time this was. With heavy hearts a memorial service was held in the new chapel that the parishioners had prayer for and longed for and that the Langdale’s in a few short years had made come true. But, the life of the church had to go on and as always the first order of business was to find a new leader.

The Rev Thomas Guy Langdale was laid to rest in the Bellevue Cemetary here in Lawrence on a quiet corner under a little tree and every memorial Day a geranium is planted on his grave by Gil Hulmes. Gil, like many of the Riverside members that knew the Langdale’s will never forget them. They were both such fine, gentle people.

Eventually, photograph’s of the two Aldred gentlemen and Mr Langdale were hung in the Pastor’s study, a reminder of three men who left their mark on Riverside.

In October 1930 a call was sent to Rev Marvin Maris to fill the vacancy in the pulpit. They really felt they could be self sufficient when the endowment would come through from Mr Aldred so they cancelled the financial aid that they received from the Congregational Society. They had also bought new seats for the Parish Hall.


They were looking forward to financial help from Mr Aldred . As wonderful as the new chapel was, it would be a burden on them without an endowment. Mrs Langdale resigned as Clerk and Everett Smerdon took over her job. By 1931 the textile strike was in full swing and as bad as it was the aftermath proved to be more disastrous. All of the banks closed their doors and this was the beginning of the great depression. Rich and poor alike were to be its victims. Mr Aldred lost his holdings in Gillette and eventually went bankrupt.

Everyone was in a state of panic. The officers of the church asked everyone to take a cut in their salary. At one point they couldn’t pay Mr. Maris and took up a collection to buy their food. In October of 1932 Mr. Maris went to New York to see Mr. Aldred but there is no report of the outcome. From 1930 to 1941 Mr. Aldred did contribute to the upkeep of the new chapel, bur suddenly stopped in December of 1941 due to his bankruptcy. Mr. Aldred died on November 21, 1945 at the age of 82.

Ormston, Mr. Aldred’s estate at Glen Cove on Long Island was a typical English Country Estate with over a hundred and twenty five acres running along the sound. On a hill stood the Elizabethan Mansion surrounded by tall oaks and overlooking the expanse of sweeping blue water, patterned with yachts and sails. There were beautiful formal gardens plus a farm with huge produce gardens. It is believed that the Catholic Diocese of new York took it over. It was a sad ending for a man who had everything and shared his fortune as generously on to lose it by a quirk of fate. He will always be remembered here at Riverside.

Riverside folk were used to hard times so they started to work hard once more. They relied on their talents to pull them through. There were many social gatherings, fairs, suppers and Mistral shows upstairs in the Parish Hall on the stage during the early 1940’s.                                                          .

That very same “old house of worship” now known as the Parish Hall has not only given the early parishioners of United Riverside many, many years of enjoyment, it now houses AA Meetings six days a week, is a place for after church coffee hours and is home to a Guatemalan Church several days a week.

This little church that started in 1862 is still going strong. There were those before us that said the church was “done”, time to close the doors. They did little to keep the church going. “Close it and get on with things”. As in previous years, there were those few that insisted that this tiny church down by the Merrimack River keep going. And by the Grace of God, we are still going strong. And I do mean “The Grace of God”. There have been several instances in previous years put the parishioners to the test. Then suddenly something magical happened. It’s like the answer just descended from the heavens. Brian coming to us as our Spiritual Leader is one of them. It is our mission, responsibility and respect for those before us, to keep the doors open so everyone can celebrate the Grace of God.