John Whelan: Chatham And Its Churches

“I’m getting married in the morning

Ding, dong, the bells are gonna chime

Pull out the stopper, we’ll have a whopper

But get me to the church on time.”


Lerner and Loewe included this wonderful, irreverent song as part of the great score of “My Fair Lady.” Eliza Doolittle’s father, Albert, faced with the unexpected burdens of wealth and respectability, decides he needed to be a properly married man.

I admit it was a reach, but I wanted to find a song to introduce an article about the churches of Chatham. My focus is on the history of the churches and the importance of the church buildings on the streetscape of Chatham. Main Street is defined by the church buildings. With all the recent changes on Main Street, the churches feel like much-needed anchors. Nearly all the churches have websites and most have a page or more on the history of the church.

At the very entrance to downtown stands the UUMeeting House. The church originally was built by Chatham builder Bill Weinz for the Christian Science Church of Chatham in the early 1960s. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer members of that Christian Science Church and it became necessary to sell the church. The building was purchased by Chatham’s Unitarian-Universalists for a new Meetinghouse in 1996. With its striking white columns and, positioned as it is on higher ground, the Meetinghouse offers a striking view as one enters Chatham’s Main Street.

The Universalists were not new to Chatham. The First Universalist Society was founded in Chatham in 1822. It survived for 132 years before its dissolution in 1954. Their first Meeting House was built in the early 1850s and was destroyed by fire in 1878. They rebuilt and used the new church until 1961. In 1965, it was sold to a group that wanted to establish an Episcopal Church for Chatham. Prior to that, Episcopalians from Chatham attended the Church of the Holy Spirit in South Orleans. A chapel was added on the east side in the late 1970s. The lot just east had formerly been the site of a gas station. There have been a series of renovations and major expansions and St. Christopher’s is now a most attractive church with graceful lines and well-tended landscaping. Reverend Brian McGurk recently told me of the plans for a new organ at the church. The old organ will be removed and a new Dobson Pipe Organ will be installed. Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd. is in Lake City, Iowa and builds fine organs to order. On Dobson’s website is an entry which states that design work for the “op 98,” for St. Christopher’s Church, is underway. St. Christopher’s has a large number of worshipers. It operates a seasonal consignment shop and prides itself as a leader in charitable outreach to the Chatham community.

Just a few steps heading east, one finds the imposing structure which houses the First United Methodist Church. The church sits up on a small hill with a four-sided tower housing its most striking feature, the Chatham town clock. The town clock has four distinctive faces and is visible from many points in Chatham. At the upcoming annual town meeting, voters will consider a proposal for a Community Preservation grant to pay for a much-needed repair of the tower and the four clock faces. Such a grant is only possible because the clock belongs to the town and not the church. The Attorney General of Massachusetts recently ruled that churches are not eligible for CPC funds. Reverend Soo Kim, the pastor, told me that the First United Methodist Church is a welcoming church dedicated to social justice.

Located at the important corner of Main Street and Cross Street, the church building has a dignified presence and adds greatly to the streetscape of Chatham.

Cross Main Street and head back west about a quarter mile and you find the First Congregational Church. This church dates back to the very early days of Chatham and first settler, William Nickerson. In the very beginning, First Settler Nickerson held church services in his home. In 1679, the Plymouth County Court ordered the people of Monomoyick to raise funds for a meeting house. That first meeting house was built in about 1690. The small building stood on the north side of Old Queen Anne Road where the old cemetery now stands. A second meeting house was built in 1700 at the urging of the first preacher of the First Congregational Church, Mr. Jonathan Vickery. Vickery was not an ordained minister but a layman with an innate ability to preach. That second meeting house was larger but still quite tiny and measured but 22 feet by 13 feet. In 1702, disaster struck as Mr. Vickery drowned on a fishing trip.

In 1720, a formal Chatham church was organized. It was the official town church of Chatham. The ministers usually had attended Harvard University. Often, at that time, the minister was the only person in town with a formal education. As such, the minister had a very important role in town, sometimes serving as the doctor, lawyer and judge. The church retained its town connection until 1824 with the minister’s salary paid for with town funds. By then, other denominations had arrived in Chatham with the Methodists in 1816 and the Baptists in 1824. Chatham Town Meeting decided to stop paying for the Congregational minister and the members of the congregation took over that obligation.

A new church was built on the land that is now part of the Union Cemetery. That church was moved to its present location in 1866. The church had been built for $2,920 but it cost $8,000 to move it. The church remained pretty much as built until 1961, when the parish house was added. One of the interesting features of the interior of the church is the old chandelier which hangs at the center. The original fuel for the chandelier was whale oil and it had to be lowered to refill the oil and be lit. When it was lit the chandelier was raised into position for every use. With the coming of electricity, the chandelier was wired and firmly fixed at its current height. Each fall, as a fundraiser, the First Congregational Church sells pumpkins and photographers find the sight of the beautiful white church and the hundreds of bright orange pumpkins irresistible.

The church is presently being renovated and, as at St. Christopher’s, a new organ has been ordered. This new organ is being built by Casavant Freres in Canada. Soon Reverend Joseph Marchio will be headed up to Canada to test the organ and its sound. The entire renovation project is entitled “Vision 2020” to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the church.

Each of the churches acts as a good citizen in Chatham with many charitable programs. I will write further about those good works next month as my tour of churches in Chatham continues. As a small preview, I plan to write about Holy Redeemer, Redemption Rock and the South Chatham Community Church. I will also include a little history of the former Christian Science Church as well as the history of the former Chatham Baptist Church which is now St. Martin’s Lodge. I have learned that Chatham’s churches play an ever-increasing role in community life. I will look into that role next month.