A small group of Norwegian immigrants established Scandinaviske Forsamling Mission Bethlehem on July 23, 1896. Their mission was twofold: conduct worship services in their native tongue and reach Scandinavian sailors visiting Portland Harbor for Christ. Until 1914, they gathered first in members’ homes, then moved to a rented hall on Congress Street in Portland and yet another rented hall on Preble Street in Portland.
Their desire for a place they could call their own was realized with the construction of their first church building at 58 Wilmot Street in Portland. Construction began on the church’s 18th anniversary, July 23, 1914, and the first service was held on November 1 that year.
The church subsequently had two name changes by the early 1940s. It was known as Scandinavian Bethlehem Church from 1915 to 1944, then Bethlehem Evangelical Church, from 1944 to 1954.
Norwegian language services faded by 1932, and the church voted to hold all services and meetings entirely in English from then on. The church’s alliance with the Congregational Society began to erode by early 1929. At a meeting in the spring of that year, members voted “in favor of union with the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church” and became the first Evangelical Free church established in the state of Maine and one of the first few in New England. Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church’s (in the Northeast) merger in 1950 with the Swedish Evangelical Free Church (in the Northwest) resulted in the formation of the Evangelical Free Church of America, as it is known today.
As the Wilmot Street neighborhood began to deteriorate by 1950, church members sought to relocate, finding a parcel of land on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Rosedale Street, across from Payson Park. Performing most of the construction themselves, the church body moved into their new building at 424 Ocean Avenue and held their first service in the vestry in October, 1954. The name was changed again to Payson Park Evangelical Free Church. The church was dedicated and fully in use on November 2, 1958.
Throughout its occupancy on Ocean Avenue, PPEFC acquired four more buildings. The house next door was purchased in 1967 and turned into Sunday school classrooms and office space. The small house behind the church, on Rosedale Street, was acquired in 1983 and used as a nursery. A large 2-story home across the parking lot on Ocean Avenue was purchased in 1984, began as a parsonage then later converted into classroom space upon the purchase of a new parsonage on Winding Way in October, 1989.
The church remained committed to its original purpose when it observed its 100th anniversary in 1996. Throughout the yearlong celebration, with the theme, “Lighting the Way for 100 Years,” the congregation acknowledged God’s faithfulness to this church, enabling it to show the way clearly to the Savior for salvation, growth and the greater glory of God.
That commitment remained as the church experienced growth over the next 10 years and actively sought either to expand or relocate yet again. After several attempts to do both, God’s purpose was fulfilled at last when the congregation acquired the former St. Edmund Catholic Church at 355 Bridgton Road in Westbrook in December, 2005.
Membership voted in late March, 2006 to change the name to First Evangelical Free Church of Maine, the same night it voted to sell the Ocean Avenue property to interested buyers. Closing on the sale was held later that week. The first service in the new building was held on April 30, 2006, and a dedication service is scheduled to take place on June 25th. During that service, we will also celebrate the church’s 110th anniversary which is on July 23, 2006.