Congregational Church Launches Campaign To Upgrade Historic Building

By: Tim Wood

The First Congregational Church of Chatham is the town's oldest church. An ambitious $3.2 million project will modernize the building. TIM WOOD PHOTO

$3.2 Million Project Leads Into 300th Anniversary

CHATHAM – The history of the First Congregational Church of Chatham is inextricably linked with the history of the town. Its origins reach back to the family of William Nickerson, who held services in their home on the banks of Ryder's Cove because of the difficulties in traveling to the nearest church in Eastham.

The church was formally established in 1720, some 30 years after William Nickerson is believed to have died. As it approaches its 300th anniversary next year, the church is embarking on an ambitious campaign to raise $3.2 million to modernize its historic building at the corner of Main Street and Old Harbor Road.

The project involves redesigning the Old Harbor Road entrance to the church; providing handicap access to all levels with a new elevator and accessible restrooms; relocating the administrative offices; and expanding the chancel and moving the organ to create more space in the sanctuary.

“We're off to a good start,” Marty Koblish, co-chair with Bob Hessler of the capital campaign, said of the “Vision 2020” project, which kicked off last Sunday.

The group is hoping to elicit community support for the project. Koblish noted that Community Preservation Act funds, which helped pay for restoration projects for both the United Methodist Church of Chatham and St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, are not available to the First Congregational Church following a court ruling that the CPA—essentially taxpayer money—could not be used for projects involving churches.

So the group is contacting local businesses and seeking financial support from residents as well as its 200-plus members to realize the plans that have been in the works for about five years. It's not so much a restoration—the church is structurally sound, Hessler said—as an upgrade to serve the needs of the congregation going into the 21st century, as Rev. Joseph Marchio put it in a brochure about the project.

Very little will change on the building's exterior. The most significant difference will be the new Old Harbor Road entrance, which will lead to the relocated administrative offices. Currently, Koblish said, the offices are reached by walking through the lower level kitchen.

The entrance will also be handicap accessible, and the new elevator will provide access to all four levels of the church. There will also be a new entrance to the east wing of the building to the right of the Main Street entrance. Those changes have been approved by the town's historic business district commission, said Hessler.

Inside the sanctuary, the 1972 Casavant Freres organ's 1,200 pipes will be removed and sent to the manufacturer in Canada to be refurbished; the pipes need to be releathered and there are keys that don't function, Koblish said. The workings of the organ will be moved and the back of that section of the building will be enlarged to create space behind that will be used as a robing room for the choir.

The group hopes to obtain donations or pledges for the project by the end of October, when the work is scheduled to begin.

The existing church building was originally built in 1830 west of the current location in what is now Union Cemetery. It was the third building to serve as the town's “meetinghouse.” The first was built sometime before 1693 near Great Hill, at what is now the ancient cemetery to the east of Old Queen Anne Road near the intersection with George Ryder Road. In 1700, three years after the first minister, Jonathan Vickery, was hired, a new meetinghouse was built measuring 22 by 13 feet. The church was formally organized in a council meeting held on June 15, 1720.

The building was enlarged in 1729 and, according to a brochure on the history of the church, served the congregation for another century.

In 1824 the church and town, previously tied together via financial support for the minister, split as townspeople gravitated toward other religious organizations, including the Methodist, Universalists and Baptists. The church was organized as the First Congregational Parish of Chatham.

The new church built in 1830 cost $2,920.77. The building was moved to its present location and remodeled in 1866 at a cost of $8,000. The parish house to the east of the main building was added in 1961, providing a study for the minister, Sunday school rooms, a parlor, kitchen and library.

Church officials have set an ambitious schedule for the project and plan to break ground on the new elevator in November, immediately after the church's popular “Pumpkin Patch” fundraiser. At that time there will be no handicap access to the sanctuary, and a video feed will be set up on the ground floor to accommodate those with mobility issues. On Jan. 1 the church will close for the rest of the work, and worship services will move just up to the road to St. Martin's Lodge, which was originally built as a Baptist church. Other church activities will meet in different locations, including the Methodist Church, and plans are still in the works for a temporary location of the church officers.

If all goes according to plan, the work will be completed in about six months, in time for the start of the church's tercentenary, which begins next June 14, the 300th anniversary of the church's original organization.

“For 300 years this church has stood in Chatham, and we want it to stand for another 300 years,” said Koblish.