PAWTUCKET — Back in 1951, Rev. Newell J. Smith decided that the numerous young married couples and adult single folks who belonged to the Woodlawn Baptist Church were not adequately being served with parish social activities as they existed. So, on Sept. 30 of that year, the pastor and his wife, along with another couple, Deacon and Mrs. Kenneth Arnold, who served as counselors, organized a fellowship.
That “Young People's Group” as it was originally called will soon be celebrating its 60th anniversary, and its remaining members are planning a special banquet on Saturday, Oct. 1, at 6 p.m. in commemoration. Past and present fellowship members are invited to attend the dinner at the Country Kitchen in Greenville, where they will watch a video of highlights and events held over the years and have a chance to reminisce about a parish activity that played a key role in many of their social and personal lives.
The fellowship attracted 48 members at its first meeting. Rev. Newell cleverly dubbed the fellowship Alpha Chi Phi, with the Greek letters representing the first letter of each word in “After Church Fellowship.” In the beginning members met each Sunday night following the evening church service at the homes of the group members. In later years, the schedule was cut back to twice a month, on the first and third Sunday.
According to the minutes from that Sept. 30, 1951 organizational meeting, the fellowship meetings were to be “devotional in character with varied programs each week, which include a monthly forum, a Bible study class and addresses by speakers from outside the parish.” There was also to be a monthly newspaper related to the activities that would be “sent to the parishioners in the armed forces,” and a monthly social.
Recently, several of Alpha Chi Phi's longtime members, James and Traudie Campbell, Jane Hilton, and Helen Burrill, sat in the church's community room and reflected about the fellowship and its impact on the parish for the past six decades.
Burrill and Hilton were among the founding members who had been present at that organizational meeting, and Burrill was the group's first secretary. The other original officers included Arnold Smith as president, Barbara Heeks as vice-president, and Wesley Farnsworth as treasurer.
“A lot of our members met and married through the fellowship,” said Jane Hilton. Already engaged to a fellow parishioner, Leslie Hilton, she attended the first Alpha Chi Phi meeting as Jane Reynolds. “We got married a week later,” she noted, adding that she and her young husband immediately embraced the concept of a social gathering of like-minded folks.
Members said that Rev. Newell, who served as pastor from 1948 to 1963, came up with the fellowship idea in part to increase church attendance among the younger age group, as well as to foster friendships among the parishioners, who lived not only in Pawtucket, but also in surrounding communities such as Lincoln, Cumberland, Central Falls, Providence, and Cranston.
The concept worked. The young adults found that attending the fellowship meetings, held at various members' homes and featuring coffee, sandwiches and desserts, was an inexpensive “night out” as well as a fun way to get to know one another. The dues when the fellowship began was fifteen cents per person or two for a quarter. At the end of the year, the fellowship would use the money to sponsor a camp scholarship or some other parish or charitable cause.
“We did form our fellowship and our friends at the church,” noted Hilton. She said that she and her husband, like many married couples in the fellowship, began having children and liked the fact that they were in contact with other parents in a similar age bracket and who shared the same religious views. The children of many of the Alpha Chi Phi members also became friends and would play together, with many of them staying in touch as they grew up.
“We got involved in the friendships that we made,” agreed Traudie Campbell. “Because we were spread out in different areas, that was a way for getting us to get to know each other better.”
However, members also noted that the fellowship meetings were for adults only. It was a reason to get a babysitter and mingle with other grown-ups—something enjoyed equally by both the men and the women of Alpha Chi Phi.
James Campbell said the hosts and hostesses of the fellowship would always try to make the meetings fun and interesting with thought-provoking speakers, parlor games, and sometimes songs, skits and musical performances. “Everyone was involved,” he noted.
Campbell recalled once playing in a fictional band called “The Crickets,” a take-off on the Beatles, back in 1964, and fellow member Bob Black would delight the attendees with his performances as “The Umbrella Man.”
The bonds of friendship remained intact as the fellowship members grew older. The Alpha Chi Phi participants were there for each other in good times and in bad. “We've gone through our joys and sorrows together,” commented Helen Burrill, whose late sister, Edith, had also been a founding member.
However, the members noted that times have changed and younger church members today aren't as interested in socializing at one another's houses like they did years ago. As such, the Alpha Chi Phi group, with many members now in their 80s, has dwindled. Many have given up driving, have moved away, or are limited due to health issues or other concerns.
The remaining members feel that it is time to celebrate the six decades of good times and fond memories that Alpha Chi Phi provided and to let the younger church members forge their own path toward fellowship. “Our desire is to fade it out,” said Campbell. Whatever is left in the Alpha Chi Phi treasury will go one last time to a worthy parish cause.