In a town known for its beautiful homes and community buildings, Chatham’s churches make a historical and architectural impactBy Greg O’Brien | Photography by Bill Lyons
The history of churches in pastoral Chatham, blessed with some of the most graceful landscape in New England, is a serpentine journey of faith—a seafaring pilgrimage with roots that date back to William Nickerson, the town’s first settler in 1656. He was a farmer from Norfolk, England, who fled his country with his wife and children to escape religious persecution. Chatham’s first church—one of seven today in this snug, eclectic community—is as old as the town itself.
In 1679, Plymouth County Court, in the role of father confessor, directed the inhabitants of Monomoyick (Chatham) “to raise among themselves five pounds a year in money and other substantial goods… toward the inabling of them to build a meeting house or a house for a minnester.” Nickerson, who had been conducting Sabbath services in the home built for his family, died near the time the first Chatham meetinghouse was constructed in 1693 by a ship’s carpenter just west of Great Hill, the town’s highest point of land.
Soon Chatham churches were popping up as faith groups more clearly defined themselves and the town gained a reputation as all-inclusive. The Congregationalists gave way to the Methodists, who begot the Universalists, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and then nondenominational Christian churches such as the South Chatham Community Church and First Light Church of Cape Cod. And they all left their mark on the town with notable architecture and rich history.
If ever there was an example of an eclectic church building in Chatham it is St. Christopher’s By The Sea. In 1960, four Episcopalians met at the home of Winifred and Charles Shepard to establish an Episcopal church in town with the support of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans.
Three weeks later, they leased the vacant 130-year-old Universalist Church on Main Street, purchasing the building a year later, then building an altar and an altar rail and restoring a century-old Stevens tracker organ. With additional renovations and expansions, some in the recent past, the building took new form, a blend of Victorian gothic architectural styles designed to “transform the church, but retain its historic identity,” says the Reverend Brian McGurk, the church’s fourth rector.
The church, with its transition from old to new, its impressive 3,000-square-foot sanctuary with high cathedral ceilings, and its light, airy rooms—some with a distant view of nearby Oyster Pond—is indeed a place to ponder the inner self. 625 Main St., 508.945.2832
The South Chatham Community Church is yet another example of denominational transition. South Chatham residents wishing to attend church services in the middle of the 19th century had to travel to Bethel church in South Harwich, located on the south side of Route 28, just over the Chatham-Harwich line. Built in 1857, the church was owned by pew-holders, mostly from Harwich. And thus South Chatham residents had to stand after the long trek.
Their prayer was answered on September 7, 1910 when Winfred and Phoebe Emery donated the land at the corner of Route 28 and Mill Creek Road for a church annex, dedicated to the gospel of Christ. The Bethel Church of South Chatham was completed in 1911, but in 1917 the church burned to ashes, notes Senior Deacon Kay Paff. The Ladies Circle, a local philanthropic group active in the church, opened its hall for church services, and a year later a new church was built.
When the newly constructed Bethel Church of South Chatham was constructed, it was architecturally simple, with stained glassed windows and a tin ceiling giving it a pure elegance.
On March 15, 1919, the church ownership was transferred by the Bethel Society to the Methodist Church, and remained Methodist until the membership voted to separate in 1969, and became incorporated as the South Chatham Community Church, now led by Pastor Robert Swanson. 2555 Main St., 508.432.4248
The First United Methodist Church marks time for Chatham. Literally. The clock, high up in the church’s turret-like tower, shown on nautical charts, is owned by the town, and is Chatham’s official timekeeper.
Methodists began preaching in Chatham in 1799. The first Chatham meetinghouse was built in 1822 on land that was a part of Seaside Cemetery. A second meetinghouse was built ten years later at the same location and moved to the intersection of Main Street and Cross Street, all financed through the sale of pews, de rigueur for the day. In 1849, the present church was built at a cost of $9,454, the largest building at the time in Chatham. It was incorporated as the First United Methodist Episcopal Church of Chatham, and 119 years later, the name was changed to the First United Methodist Church. Over the years, restorations have been done to retain the structure’s unique historic character.
“This church has a lot of give and take,” says Pastor Clinton Parker. “It has withstood severe hurricanes, squalls and nor’easters. Men with knowledge of shipbuilding constructed the church. No metal nails were used, all wood pegs instead, and no two interior boards are the same size in the skeleton.”
The church will be seeing one more addition this upcoming summer: a pipe organ, hand-built by Fritz Noack of Georgetown, MA., that has been three years in the making. Organist Jeanne Kuzirian will sit behind the rare beauty when it is finally installed in the church. 16 Cross St., 508.945.0474
Chatham founder William Nickerson’s home church, the First Congregational Church of Chatham, with beginnings in the 17th century, is a spiritual cornerstone and historic landmark in this town of extraordinary beauty. The third, present-day, meetinghouse initially was built for the princely sum of $2,920 on land now known as the Union Cemetery. In 1866, the traditional colonial structure with its trademark wooden spire, a ship’s beacon, was moved to its present Main Street location. Not surprisingly, the church’s first pastor, Jonathan Vickery, who began his ministry in 1697, was a fisherman, not an ordained minister.
Improvements and expansions to the church have been made over the years, financed in the early years by the sale of pews to parishioners. An archetypal 1848 chandelier still hangs in the sanctuary, not far from the Casavant organ of 16 ranks. The church has housed five organs in all, one of them placed in the front of the sanctuary.
While the life of a minister today is demanding enough, particularly the multi-tasking role of Pastor David Erickson, the duties of a minister in the 1700s were far more ranging and literally covered the ground from life to death. “They had so few trained men in those days that they could not afford to throw any of them away,” notes William Smith in the church history. “The minister was called upon not only as a physician for spiritual ills, but for physical ills as well. He was often preacher, pastor, doctor, surgeon, lawyer, and judge, all in one.”
650 Main St., 508.945.0800
At first glance, Holy Redeemer Church near Chatham center, and a short shorebird flight from the fish pier, looks like a long, rambling Cape with touches of shingle-style architecture. Except for the large parking lot, one might mistake it for a graceful summer home. In spite of the size, it has a cottage feel to it, a spiritual home to an expanding parish base that in summer totals more then 800 households, including the church’s summer chapel, Our Lady of Grace, in neighboring South Harwich. Father George Scales notes that Holy Redeemer Parish was established in 1955 after a 1915 groundbreaking as a mission chapel.
In 1980, a major fundraising program was launched to expand and renovate the church and Catechism Center. Six classrooms were added in the basement of the church. In 2001, Rev. John-Paul Gallant became the eighth pastor, and renovated the church with the addition of two vintage stained glass windows behind the main altar and with the installation of a restored bell to call the faithful to service. 57 Highland Ave., 508.945.9576
First Light Church of Chatham had its baptism in 1978 in an inaugural prayer service in the old Stop & Shop parking lot off Route 28. Initially Chatham Baptist Church, today it is a nondenominational Christian fellowship with a strong emphasis on scripture. The fellowship is under the ministry of David Otis, second pastor of the church, who succeeded James Wood when the church was a part of the Baptist tradition.
Built in 1983 from modular building panels transported from Alabama in flatbed trucks and assembled by church members, the building has an New England flair with its white siding, pitched roof and tall spire. The modular sections, however, arrived out of sequence and the building was erected backwards, all technically correct but somewhat of a challenge to those following blueprints. Pastor Otis notes that when the long church spire arrived it backed up traffic for miles on Route 137 out to Route 6.
“No one had a clue on how to install the spire,” says Otis. “A stranger who had spotted the spire en route followed the flatbed truck to the church parking lot in curiosity, and then announced that he had a crane company and offered to erect it for gratis when he learned no one here could do it.” Answered prayer, Otis said, before it was even spoken.
195 Meetinghouse Rd., 508.432.8022
The Chatham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at the gateway to the village calls itself “the miracle on Main Street.” At first glance, that’s hard to deny.
“On a bright clear Sunday in 1996 a small group of 37 enthusiastic Unitarian Universalists and their newly-hired minister marched from their old meeting place at the Chatham Creative Arts Center to their beautiful new meetinghouse, the former Christian Science church, situated prominently on a hill overlooking Chatham’s Main Street,” a church history declares, noting the members were led down Crowell Road by a bagpipe and pushed a wooden pulpit on rollers. How could a congregation of 37 pay the bills? The answer came quickly inside this Greek Revival-style building with its traditional white pillars on the façade. Within two years, the congregation, an offshoot of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Brewster, had grown to almost 200 members and continues to grow.
Constructed in 1958 in the 19th century American vernacular, the building, according to Reverend Edmund Robinson, harkens back to the Golden Age of Pericles “in accordance with our humanist strain and Unitarianism and Universalism. Now that’s not to say that Chatham is the Athens of Cape Cod, but one indeed might suggest it.” 819 Main St., 508.945.2075.