History

      In October 1860, David L. Aldrich, a prominent manufacturer, paid $350 for 36 acres of land between the Wood and the Pawcatuck Rivers, on which he proposed to build a mill village. Mr. Aldrich’s mill was up-to-date in every respect and ran entirely by water power for years. The highway was laid out and along its sides a few tenements were built. Because of its location, the village was called Plainville.
   In 1866, Aldrich sold his property to William A. Walton for $1000. Mr. Walton was born a poor boy in England and was trained to be an expert weaver and dreamt of owning a mill. When this became a reality, he wanted to create a model village. One of the first acts of the new owner was the planting of 200 maple trees as well as laying new sidewalks. More mill tenements were built. At the general store, mill families were allowed to buy groceries and merchandise at cost. Each household was supplied with an acre of land for a garden. Mr. Walton had used his influence in getting a post office for the village, and thereafter the village was known by his shortened name, Alton.
   The history of the mill and the church intertwine. In 1865, before Mr. David Aldrich sold the mill property, he deeded a lot on which to erect a place for worship. A group of subscribers, who had pledged funds, met and appointed a committee. They were to collect the subscriptions, select the style and builder. There were some eighty-eight people subscribed to the list circulated for the purpose of erecting a place of worship and holding of Sunday school. They incorporated under the name “Wood River Chapel Society”. The building cost $1,205.60 and the Chapel was completed in August 1878.
   The chapel was for many years the social and cultural center for Alton. If the building could talk, it could tell the complete story of Alton’s social life. The greater part of its funds came from socials, fairs, festivals, and suppers; and rentals for clubs, singing schools, and lodges; and from entertainments, readings, lectures, concerts; and shows by local talent and traveling troupes. The hall could be used for anything not judged to be immoral. The Society always operated on a shoestring, depending on social affairs to put shingles on the roof, wood in the stove, or to buy a new piano. They always put emphasis on their music. What really eased the budget was a new form of entertainment called moving pictures. These were first shown in November 1912 while an evening’s profit ran from $3 to $10.
   In 1912, an annex was built to the rear of the chapel for use as a kitchen and social room. During the years of World War I, things had been pretty quiet at the Chapel. The Red Cross met here as did the Weavers Union, The Triple Whist Club, and the Richmond Lace and Social Club. Sunday school was carried on, and preaching services held, at least spasmodically, during which the plate was passed. A waning religious interest showed up in 1929 when the preacher was paid $46, while the janitor earned $65, but the duties of the janitor included that daily chore of bell ringing at 6:30 P.M. After the years of World War II, the Alton Chapel on Church Street in the village of Alton stood almost unused.
    In 1948, under the leadership of Bishop Bennett of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, Canon Parshley and Deaconess McNulty surveyed the community to see if it would be feasible to start an Episcopal Church in the Alton chapel. Most Episcopalians in the Alton area attended services at Christ Church in Westerly. As a result of the survey, the use of the Alton Chapel property as an Episcopal Church was accepted by the Alton Chapel Society. St. Thomas Church was started as a “mission church”, partly supported by the Diocese. Holy Communion was offered once a month, with Morning Prayer on the other Sundays. The first priest-in-charge was the Reverend Arthur Leaker, who also served two other mission churches at the time, St. Elizabeth’s, Canonchet, and Church of the Holy Spirit, Shannock. Morning Prayer was usually led by a layman, Mr. Calbraith Perry, who traveled each week from Bristol.
   Annual reports from 1949 to 1971 show a congregation ranging from 23 to 64 communicants. During the 1960’s and 70’s, the church membership grew gradually in numbers. A Bishop’s Committee of parish officers was established. A Sunday School for the children of members was opened. An Altar Guild and chapter of the Episcopal Church Women were formed. In 1953, an organ from St. Mary’s Church in Warwick was installed in the church to replace the piano that had been in the Alton Chapel. In 1967, pews were donated from St. Matthew’s Church in Jamestown.
   In 1986, ground was broken for an addition to be built for the use of the Sunday School and for other church functions. Other major building projects were undertaken in the late 80’s and early 90’s, including the restoration of the building’s exterior with new siding, repair of the vestibule, including new front doors, and installation of a new heating system. The addition was finally completed in 1994.
   St. Thomas has been served by many dedicated priests during its  history as an Episcopal Church. A plaque listing each of priest and the years of their service hangs in the parish hall. Our current priest, the Rev. Bettine Besier, has served since January 1997. Although serving on a part-time schedule, her leadership has been energetic and unfaltering. The current active membership is 38 families. Outreach to the local community has always been important to St. Thomas congregation. This is based, in part, on the church’s origins as a local community center in Alton. Once a month, parishioners donate food to RICAN who distribute it to the hungry in our area. For over twenty years, the congregation has donated Christmas gifts to local families. There are many other outreach projects that are described in the Ministries portion of this website.
    In January 2017, the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island changed the status for St. Thomas from a mission congregation to a parish.  It is a small parish, with a part-time priest, but it is financially self sufficient and is home to important ministries.
   For almost 140 years, this building we gather in today has been a center of community and worship in the village of Alton. For nearly 70 years, St. Thomas Episcopal Church has been the spiritual center of Alton. Our history is still being written……