HARWICH — “These walls are smiling,” someone whispered as the voices of angels filled the sanctuary of the former South Harwich Methodist Church on Saturday. It had been many years since those walls buffered the voices of parishioners.
The renewal of voice came in melodic harmony from the Chatham Chorale celebrating the 13-year preservation effort by the Friends of the South Harwich Meetinghouse, Inc., a major challenge clouded by doubt at times but impeccably done by the volunteer group.
“This building was turning into compost,” Sara Chase of Lexington said on Saturday as she displayed emotional satisfaction with the restored historic structure. Chase was the historic preservation consultant who worked with the Friends group over the years. She helped preserve a piece of horsehair plaster that was one of the only remnants of the original stencil remaining in the church that was built in 1836, and from that plaster the walls are now graced with that decorative history.
Chase said she has worked on many historic buildings throughout New England and across the country over the past 40 years, including the town halls in Provincetown and Sandwich, but this project and building was unique. She praised the commitment of the Friends effort, lauding president Judith Ford's work and praising the successful outcome.
“This building, with its historic colors, is something the whole community can love. It's a historic building with a new history,” Chase said.
“We couldn't have done it without her,” Ford said of Chase's consultation. “Thirteen years ago this building was in rough shape. Saving this Harwich treasure took a long time to do the preservation right.”
The town-owned South Harwich Meetinghouse's new history began with the efforts of the Friends group 13 years ago and entered a second chapter over the St. Patrick's Day weekend when more than 700 people filled the pews of the former church to enjoy four Celtic concerts performed by the Chatham Chorale.
At the start of the second concert on Saturday, Ford gave special recognition to the selectmen, town meeting and the community preservation committee, which supported the preservation efforts with $544,000 in Community Preservation Act funding. The Friends also raised $200,000 for the preservation work.
Ford also addressed the many hands that made the project possible. She thanked the Handren Brothers Construction Company “for never giving up on us.” Ford singled out the decorative painting work provided by Lars Michelsen of Cygnet Painting. She paid tribute to the many additional craftsmen who brought the project to fruition.
“We were working until midnight on Friday,” Ford said of putting the finishing touches in place for the concerts.
Then came the angels. The Chatham Chorale filled the sanctuary with harmony and joy, a reflection of the past history of the church and the message for a new history in progress. The plan for the building's use is cultural, arts, education and community activities. The concerts addressed all three goals.
Chatham Chorale Music Director Joseph Marchio said Celtic music is about community, family and storytelling from many different countries. It is causal, he said of the music and songs selected. “We've met that ambiance in this concert,” Marchio said.
The choral selections took the audience to Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, England and beyond with “Sweet Molly Malone” and “Danny Boy” led by feature singer, baritone Father John Dolan, “There Grows a Bonnie Brier-Bush” by mezzo-soprano Laura Barabe and “Fillimiooriay” by tenor Bud Ferris.
“We had rehearsals in here, but when the room was full it proved to be acoustically a real treasure,” Marchio said.
The same could be said for the instrumental performances by Sarah Ford Marchio on the Scottish small pipes, the guitar by Thomas Marchio and the Irish harp by Mairead Doherty, flute by LeeAnn McKenna, percussion by Mark Prall and the piano and pipe organ by Donald Enos. The acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Dick Gomes carried throughout the sanctuary with the accompaniment of the participating audience.
The last pastor of the South Harwich Methodist Church in the 1970s, Rev. Bill Sissell, was in the audience for the afternoon concert and praised the work, stating “it sure looks better now than it did then.”
Sissell, now retired, kept the audience laughing throughout his brief remarks. “We had 15 members but an average worship attendance of 18. It was the only church in our regional conference that had a higher attendance than membership.”
Sissell, who was also one of the incorporators of the Chatham Chorale 47 years ago, also served churches in Chatham and Bourne. Turning his focus to music, he quipped, “I always got fairly good salaries at my churches. They paid me not to sing.”
As if in honor of the building's Methodist heritage, one of the songs presented by the Chorale was “Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon,” whose tune was borrowed from a hymn by Charles Wesley, co-founder with his brother John of the Methodist movement.
Ellen C. Chahey contributed to this story.