Woodlawn Baptist celebrates 125 years of outreach

Woodlawn Baptist celebrates 125 years of outreach

The Rev. Lawrence Smith says one reason Woodlawn Baptist Church has made it to 125 years old is that it has remained relevant to the people in its neighborhood. (Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)

PAWTUCKET – While some churches steeped in tradition and history lose sight of their mission, leaders of Woodlawn Baptist Church say they’re taking the best of that past and building on it.

The Rev. Lawrence Leroy Smith, known as Pastor Larry, told The Valley Breeze that the church, first incorporated in 1893, has taken numerous steps over the years since he arrived to grow its membership and expand its reach in a community where it has the natural advantage of most everyone knowing it.

Newer programs such as Wednesday night Awana and church mainstays such as summer vacation Bible school (VBS), where dozens of local children come to church when they might not otherwise, are a yearly reminder of how important Woodlawn Baptist is to this area of Pawtucket, said Smith, who serves as the 12th pastor of the church and first pastor of color.

Attendance at Woodlawn Baptist continues to make a resurgence after a bit of a downturn, with numbers fluctuating between 75 and 120 people for a Sunday morning service.

Of primary importance to the Conservative Baptist church’s continued relevance is a consistent adherence to preaching the entire word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, said Smith.

“We have committed to preaching the word from the pulpit, and we have not committed to doing business as usual,” he said, explaining the church’s continued vibrancy.

Beyond the commitment to finding new and creative ways to communicate the teachings of the Bible, Woodlawn Baptist’s other significant strength is its “senior saints,” those who set the foundation for what happens here, said Smith.

“They are the treasures of our church,” he said.

On Sunday morning, May 6, at 10:30 a.m., Woodlawn Baptist at 337 Lonsdale Ave. will host a celebratory service and luncheon. Though services typically last about 90 minutes, this one will be two hours or longer, and celebrate the church’s rich history.

On a weekly basis, Smith hosts a “potluck and praise” event at 5 p.m. on Sundays, allowing congregants to participate in a more informal style of meeting, with conversations about that morning’s sermon.

Smith and others have also taken a more active role in community causes in recent years, in hopes of showing the love of God through action. Smith serves on the board for the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association and was also asked to be part of the committee seeking a new DPW director.

Woodlawn Baptist’s location, with some 12 elementary schools within 2 miles, gives it every advantage for outreach, said Smith. When he gets stuck behind one of the many buses that pass by here, he said, he always reminds himself to pray for the children and families represented on that bus.

“It really is our mission field,” he said. “This church has always held to its original mission.”

During summer VBS, Smith and others can be found under a tent, distributing Oreos and water to parents of students in the program and striking up conversations about anything they’re interested in.

In addition to the local focus, the church that started out as a mission maintains a strong global approach to missions, sponsoring 18 or 19 missionaries with some $25,000 to $30,000 in donations each year. Giving remains strong at the church, which, unlike many Catholic churches and other denominations, maintains strong independence as an entity.

Everything, from the organist to office administrator, is paid for through generous giving from worshipers.

Cindy Murphy, longtime church secretary and administrator at the church, and a member for more than 50 years, said the importance of Woodlawn Baptist was perhaps best summed up by a neighborhood couple set to move away from the area who urged church leaders to never sell the church, saying it brings stability to the neighborhood.

“People feel free to come here, to phone here,” said Murphy. Many who attended VBS even once as a child still feel that this is their church.

“There’s an ownership in the neighborhood,” said Murphy.

The church maintains an open-door policy, with its food closet and other programs remaining a vital resource for the community, said Murphy. Many neighborhood residents attended Pioneer Girls, Boys Brigade, Boy Scouts or some other program.

“It’s open to the community even though the community changes,” Murphy said.

Longtime member Janice Wunschel said it’s been easy preparing for the May 6 celebration because of all the history maintained in the rooms and winding hallways of the church. She said the church has always done a good job of saving that history while staying focused on the present.

Displayed here are newspaper clippings from when the children of Woodlawn Baptist put on a “Jack and Jill Wedding” to raise funds for a new stained glass window, a wall celebrating all the real weddings that took place at the church over the years, trophies from big softball wins, and pictures of VBS through the decades, among other items.

Smith said he personally loves the old church hymns, but recognizes the importance of modern music in attracting people to the church and giving them an experience they enjoy. TV monitors now erected in the old sanctuary display the words of modern worship songs.

Also a strength at this church is its diversity, said Smith, a quality that has become increasingly rare in many churches. On any given Sunday, he’ll speak to people of as many as 10 nations, including Cape Verdeans, Haitians and others. Old pictures tell the story of a church that always welcomed people of all nationalities, he said. Though the church was once predominantly white, more people of color began attending as local factories began hiring minorities.

Adding to the diversity within these walls, the Inglesia Evangelica Bautista Manantial de Vida meets on Sunday afternoons at the church.

The mother church of Woodlawn Baptist was the nearby First Baptist Church of Pawtucket. The history of Woodlawn Baptist begins with its organization on May 10, 1893, but the Woodlawn Baptist Sunday school began all the way back on July 4, 1875. The Rev. George Bullen, of the First Baptist Church, “took up the matter of establishing a mission in the westerly section of the town,” states a history of the church. That Sunday school began in the abandoned Fairmount Engine house on Washington Street.

Numbers kept increasing, and, in the spring of 1878, with the city establishing a permanent fire department, the school had to vacate the premises. That abandoning of the hall and break in the enterprise led to talk about building a chapel, which was erected and then dedicated on May 4, 1879, built on land purchased in 1873 on the old Smithfield Road, now Lonsdale Avenue, for $1,500. That $1,500 was donated by 57 people.The first year of Sunday school in the new building was successful, with membership reaching 176 and average attendance hitting 78.

In 1887, the school had a membership of about 300, straining the capacity of the building. It was decided in 1889 that a lot on Lonsdale Avenue opposite Centre Street would be purchased for a new chapel. That building, intended for Sunday school purposes, was dedicated in 1891. Once the school had become settled, a desire arose for a preaching service, and the First Baptist Church voted to have preaching services in the Woodlawn Chapel each Sunday. Funds were raised, and services began. The Rev. A.E. Hylan and Rev. Joseph Walthers, teachers at the school, later became pastors elsewhere in New England.

In May of 1893, 59 people signed a petition to formally organize as a church. During the first year, 103 new people became members. The Rev. Whitmas Wood became the first pastor of the church a month later.

“The founders of the little Sunday school built better than they realized and laid the foundations of a religious enterprise which has exceeded their fondest hopes,” states the historical narrative.

In 1901, with the building again becoming inadequate due to growth, the church purchased its current property on the corner of Weeden Street and Lonsdale Avenue and built the structure that still stands today.

Woodlawn Baptist Church on Lonsdale Avenue will celebrate 125 years of history on May 6.
Janice Wunschel, left, and Cindy Murphy decorate a bulletin board in preparation for the 125th anniversary celebration at Woodlawn Baptist Church in Pawtucket.


I heard Rev Smith interviewed on the radio about this. He owes the church’s success to believing and teaching and practicing the Word of God. Churches who believe in and trust Christ for their salvation and who believe the Bible is infallible and authoritative Word of God will see God work through them. Thank you WBC for all you do for Pawtucket. Christ be glorified in you and through you!