Coronavirus Postpones Chatham Congregational Church Tricentennial Events

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Churches and Faith

Construction at the First Congregational Church of Chatham stopped a month ago due to the state of emergency. Tricentennial events planned for the coming months are also on hold and will likely be moved to later in the year. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – A 300th anniversary only happens once. The First Congregational Church of Chatham has the bad luck to have its tricentennial coincide with a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Like most events scheduled for the next few months, upcoming celebrations around the downtown church's anniversary have either been postponed or canceled. Work on a multi-million dollar renovation of the historic structure is also on hold.

Church officials are confident, however, that church members and the community will be able to celebrate the anniversary together, likely in the fall.

“The church has been around for 300 years,” said Pastor and Director of Music Rev. Joseph Marchio. “We've come this far, what's another few months?”

Marchio has been creating 30-minute videos for Sunday worship. The 300th anniversary falls on June 15, and plans had called holding a celebration that began at Union Cemetery, where the current church was originally built in 1830 (it was flaked and moved to its current location in 1866), followed by a bagpipe procession to Oyster Pond. Instead, Marchio said he plans to record at the church's original location as part of that week's Sunday service.

“We're still trying to do that digitally,” he said. “We'll still commemorate that day.”

Other events, including concerts, have been canceled and will be rescheduled. Dates are likely to depend on when people are comfortable gathering together, said Paul Doutrich, a member of the building committee.

Construction work—which includes redesigning the Old Harbor Road entrance, relocating administrative offices, adding an elevator and accessible restrooms, expanding the chancel and moving the organ—was moving along well when it was halted due to the governor's emergency orders.

“It was moving along,” said Doutrich. “I believe they were ahead of schedule.” New framing had just gone up on the expansion of the Old Harbor Road side of the church; there was “finally something to see,” Marchio said, when the work had to be shut down. Work on refurbishing the church's Casavant Freres organ being done in Canada was also paused, he said.

That work was ahead of schedule, and it's hoped that the work inside the church will be done by late November—if it's allowed to resume on May 4—and the organ should arrive by late October, as scheduled. Marchio said he's working on the assumption that everything will be ready for the first major events scheduled after the construction, an ecumenical Christmas concert and four performances by the Chatham Chorale. The chorale group, of which Marchio is musical director, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The church had been holding services at the nearby St. Martin's Masonic Lodge, which was once the town's Baptist Church. Despite the inability to hold services, Marchio said the church community is “in good shape,” with members volunteering to do errands for others and meeting online. He's been teaching a Thursday morning class on the Book of Psalms. He calls a half dozen or more church members daily to check in.

“It's just amazing how the community and congregation have come together and are supporting each other,” Marchio said.

Established in 1720, the church was the successor to the original meetinghouse built by the town's first settlers around 1693 off what is now Old Queen Anne Road. A second meetinghouse was built in 1700, enlarged in 1729, and served until 1830, when a new church was built where Union Cemetery stands today.

Church officials are currently revising a church history written for the 250th anniversary in 1970. “That was a big celebration,” said Doutrich. The hope is that this year's celebration is equal to or grander, once the current situation has passed.

“You only ever have a 300th once,” he said.