In a testament to both tradition and life-long endurance for better or for worse, the old South Ferry Church in Narragansett offers couples a wedding venue that captures the essence of both perseverance and heritage for those getting married there.
“It really is a unique place for all that it brings to those seeing it,” said K.C. Bishop, who schedules weddings there, about the small white non-denominational church.
Its 70-foot steeple rises above the horizon along wooded South Ferry Road. It has roots in the 1850s – and reinvention over the years – and is accented by an adjacent cemetery, whose graves date back to 1765 and earlier, and is protected by the classic New England field stone wall.
The church’s outside shingles are covered with hexagonal-patterned wood painted white. There are four tall arched windows, with squares of red-stained glass, on each side of the church. It has two shorter, narrower arched windows on the front, flanking the towering steeple. Inside, rows of pews are white to match the walls. Cast-iron Victorian lamp holders, which have been converted into electric lights, line the side walls.
There is no indoor plumbing or air conditioning in this period structure. It beckons a bygone time, say those married there, and gives a rustic New England charm on their special day.
“The church has had many incarnations,” Bishop explained about its history, like that of a marriage, when it faced troubled times -- even the threat of dissolution -- but faith among supporters kept it alive and prospering.
The church sits on a hilltop within eyesight of and just a short distance from Narragansett Bay and the old ferry landing area. Its beginnings are within the faith of people who came to populate this sprouting colonial community of the late 1600s.
As the location started developing into a commercial center with a ferry landing for commerce, more people moved to this area of Narragansett. At the time of the church’s construction, the region had become a thriving port for shipping goods from Washington County plantations to Newport, another bustling seaport mercantile center, according to records for the National Register of Historic Places.
The church originally housed a Baptist congregation, organized on July 28, 1850, chartered in October of that year as the Narragansett Baptist Church and dedicated in January 1851. The first congregation shortly thereafter disbanded, but another took its place.
In 1908, that Baptist congregation moved to another location a mile away, taking the furniture and belongings in the church.
For the next 65 years, the South Ferry Memorial Society took title to the church, preventing it from being moved, while preserving it as a memorial. In the 1938 hurricane that devastated the area, the church’s roof was ripped off, steeple toppled to the ground and other significant damage occurred to the building.
It might have been left deserted, but a group of concerned citizens and the South Ferry Memorial Society successfully rebuilt it and for the next 30 years, continued to open it once a year in August for a non-denominational service.
In 1974, the title of the church was passed to the University of Rhode Island to become part of the expanded Bay Campus. In 1977, through efforts of URI, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Friends of the South Ferry Church was founded in 2001 by C. Michael and Susan Hazard, and that non-profit group continues to operate it.
Bishop said that the church, which costs $500 to rent for the day, is now available from May through October for weddings or other events. It remains locked daily except for scheduled uses. The church does about 25 to 30 weddings a year, drawing all denominations and traditions.
Alice Lin and Helene Vincent were married there in May, 2016, in a wedding that honored both Chinese and Western traditions while showcasing Rhode Island culture.
“My background is being raised Catholic. It was important for me to get married in a church, but being gay greatly restricts available venues. But I did want a religious ceremony,” explained Vincent, a South Kingstown native and graduate of both South Kingstown High School and Brown University.
“The church itself has an overall feeling of welcoming and warmness that anyone can be welcome there,” she said, adding that she especially wanted a welcoming feeling for Lin’s family and a multi-cultural setting for friends and family.
A Brown University chaplain, whom she knew, came to the church to marry them, said Vincent, who now lives with her wife in Boston.
For Sarah and Pete Gatti, the church was the only place where they wanted to be married because of its deep New England roots. His wife, Sarah, grew up in East Greenwich and he is a native of Pennsylvania.
“Sarah had driven by it a bunch a times. The combination of church having a real intimate feel and that we had a somewhat smaller wedding made it right. It was rustic and had that New England charm,” he recalled.
“You look across the street and you see that stone rock walls all over the place. It fit right into what we both wanted,” he added.
“The whole day was really perfect. That we had all the folks we loved in that one spot was very special,” he said.
The Gattis’ wedding was filmed and posted online (https://vimeo.com/70657880) by StopGoLove, whose founder, Jared Haskell, did the production work at the church for that wedding and a few others.
“I don’t think there’s anything like South Ferry Church. It’s tight, it’s small, it’s one of the most spiritual places to film. It’s bright and unique,” he pointed out.
“The acoustics in that church are fantastic. It’s so small and they resonate throughout it. It felt like a late 1800s revival . It was powerful. When they were singing hymns in that church it was like we were transported back in time,” Haskell remembered.
As the Gattis did, as well as Lin and Vincent, any couple using the church brings their own person to officiate the wedding and sign the marriage certificate. Because it is non-denominational, anyone officiating is welcome, Bishop noted.
“We have had Hindu, Buddhist, we even had a pagan wedding there once. That was unusual, but the couple really liked the setting. It didn’t need to have a religious overtone for them,” Bishop said.
Cindy Zito, a minister with the Universal Life Church, has married about a dozen couples in the South Ferry Church during the last six years.
“The light that streams through the red-stained glass windows adds to the minimalistic nature of the space. There are only white-washed wooden pews. I love South Ferry Church --- it is a charming venue, with its beautiful steeple and grand door,” she said.
Another minister, Deborah Belaus, ordained through the Universal Brotherhood Movement, has performed about five ceremonies there.
“The chapel is one of my favorite venues because it’s historic. It creates a space that people are familiar with, not a church, but similar, especially if couples’ families are still religious. It’s very simple, but beautiful,” she said.
One observer noted that anyone getting married in that church, with its quaint grounds and time-honored surroundings, is wrapped in more than 300 years of history pre-dating the founding of the United States.
As marriages over time can show the promise of sustaining a vision, the church and the pre-Revolutionary War gravestones remind couples that longevity is possible to achieve and hold on to.
“The builders of the church were occupied with a conception of freedom of religion,” said the Reverend Alfred C. Thomas when describing the South Ferry Church, and noted in the church’s history.
“This spirit led the community to build not only a place of worship, but a spiritual beacon light that has been seen by generations of seafaring heroes that have come up this passage,” he said.
K.C. Bishop, giving these old views some modern polish, said, “[The church] is an icon with meaning for South County,” adding after a pause, “and for everyone who gets married here.”