Historic West Harwich Baptist Church Is For Sale

By: William F. Galvin

The Chase family provided the stain glass windows for the church. This window is dedicated to Job Chase-1776-1865 and Phoebe-Winslow-Chase 1795-1839.

WEST HARWICH — The historic West Harwich Baptist Church is for sale.

The church is considered a centerpiece of the West Harwich village. Next week, voters will be asked to put in place a zoning amendment to preserve the historic character of the stretch of Route 28 called Captain’s Row as part of a Barnstable County-designated District Of Critical Planning Concern.

Pastor Jonathan Allen Cobb confirmed that the historic church is on the market.

“The COVID virus has been tough on us,” he said. “I’m paying the bills for the church and I just can’t do it any more. But God is good and is always going to help. This is not something we wanted to do.”

Cobb has been pastor at the church for 14 years. Finding a new house of worship, he said, is “up to the Lord. We’ll possibly meet somewhere else, but we’ll leave it up to the Lord.”

The sale of the church was announced last week at $749,900. The listing agent is The Griffin Realty Group in Osterville. The church property is 67,954 square feet, and the historic Baptist Cemetery is said to encompass close to two-thirds of the land. It was unclear if the cemetery was for sale along with the building.

“We maintain and oversee the cemetery,” town Cemetery Administrator Robbin Kelley said. She could not determine whether the town actually owns the cemetery, but she pointed out when a cemetery falls into disrepair the town is legally obligated to take care of the grounds.

Assessing Director Donna Molino said as far as she can tell the cemetery remains part of the church property. She said the last deed reference she has is the purchase of the land on Oct. 22, 1828 by the church with Job Chase named as witness. She said the department’s records dating back 100 years ago show the property with a little more than 1.5 acres, with the cemetery encompassing two-thirds of the lot.

“The cemetery belongs to the church,” Molino said.

Realtor Danny Griffin said on Tuesday the cemetery is inside the boundaries and there are burials up next to the church. Legal counsel is looking into the matter and “what it comes down to is what you can legally convey,” he said, adding that there has been some interest in the property.

In the real estate listing the church is described as “A well-loved community centerpiece” that has been “lovingly cared for by local residents, including Harwich born icon Caleb Chase, whose coffee company Chase & Sanborn paid for the stunning stained glass windows. Crafted tenderly, these stunning windows dapple color onto the facade of the building and a warm glow within.

“The building itself is a cherished representative of early American architecture and over time has been added to and adjusted to modern life. With such a historic canvas to start with no matter what your dreams the building is sure to make it shine,” the description reads.

The West Harwich Baptist Church is thought to be the first to locate on Cape Cod. According to the booklet entitled “Organization of the First Baptist Church in Harwich, Mass., with the Articles of Faith, Covenant, By-laws, and Historical Sketch,” published in 1889, the Baptist Church of Harwich was constituted in 1757, embracing 72 members.

According to the booklet, “it appears that the church was formed in the northwest part of town. The first meeting-house was erected on land now occupied as a cemetery in North Harwich. In 1804 a larger house was built a little south of the former.”

Needing a more central position for influence and growth, the church took down the house of worship in 1828 and rebuilt it in its present location in West Harwich, according to the booklet.

“A new house of worship became necessary to accommodate the increasing congregation and in October 1841, the present commodious building was constructed and dedicated,” the historical sketch reads. “During 1870 the meeting-house was raised and the present commodious vestry was constructed at an expense of about $1,700.”

“The West Harwich Baptist Church is the jewel of Captains’ Row,” Duncan Berry, a West Harwich resident, Captains’ Row advocate and proponent of the West Harwich Special District zoning amendment wrote in an email this week.

“The village has been concerned about [the church's] condition for years,” he wrote, “and we look forward to welcoming into the neighborhood an owner who will see what we see – a vital organ in the body politic of our village where generations of neighbors met weekly to celebrate their faith and mark the milestones of their lives.” The building is “a monument of national significance in the abolition movement” and shows “a century and a half of the Chase family’s enduring generosity, a family who saw to it that it had magnificent stain glass windows, a state-of-the-art organ, and a historically significant clock mechanism,” Barry wrote.

The church is also a reminder of Harwich’s deep history, stretching back to the settlers and early Colonial years when its predecessors signaled the continuing viability of West Harwich, one of the town’s earliest settlements, Berry said. He added that the structure is a textbook example of Greek Revival church architecture with exquisite quality and workmanship.

“For all of us, it is a stunning piece of civic sculpture we encounter daily, a building whose once-proud steeple shone with gold-leaf clock numbers that caught the sun’s rays at dawn and dusk, whose bells pealed at noon and on Sunday morning, and whose steeple proudly marks the highest point for miles while honoring 300 years of prior residents in the shadow of its attached cemetery,” Barry wrote. “The West Harwich Baptist Church is a family heirloom for all of Harwich, and an heirloom we cherish.”

Berry is also the chairman of the planning board, which on Tuesday, Sept. 22 will be conducting a public hearing on the West Harwich Special District, a zoning amendment which seeks to preserve the historic character of West Harwich, extending along Route 28 from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. Voters will be asked in the annual town meeting scheduled for Sept. 26 to adopt that zoning amendment (see story on page 16).