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Grandmother’s Attic: Tales from the First Parish Church Building

How many of you remember your grandparents? I certainly do. In particular, I clearly recall my grandmother. As I was growing up she had so many stories of her life during the war in Norway. She repeated them over and over again (embellished them more each time, I think) as I listened, transfixed. As I got older, I became more skeptical of these stories and eventually felt the need to investigate them further. Some, it turns out, were really embellished. Some were dead right. And some things I found out about my grandmother- well, she never told me! On balance, the stories have become a treasure for my family, and a body of memories I will carry with me always.

If members of this congregation (indeed, all residents of Beverly) were to claim a common ancestor of sorts, it might just be the building that is the First Parish Church. It has stood at this location since before the American Revolution.

Like my grandmother, so many stories have been told about it that it’s hard to believe them all. Have you heard that the building was cut in half and stretched? Is there really a ship’s mast from a Revolutionary Warship in the floor? Was the Church once a store house for the ammunition of the Town’s militia? Did Paul Revere actually make our Church’s bell? And that organ- why are the pipes painted like that? Many of us have heard these stories during Church services from knowledgeable elders (you know who you are!) who, in turn heard from their elders. Over the years, the tales have found their way to books, newspapers and scholarly essays, and labeled as either “fact” or “folklore” by historians. Our children even learn them during their local history lesson in their high school history class.

But are the stories true? Using the original records of the Church, I checked some of these tales out.

We sit today in the third building of the First Parish Church, the second at this location.

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It was completed in 1772, at the end of our third minister, Rev.

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Joseph Champney’s time. As you would expect of a Puritan New England church, it was an austere building, unpainted, dirt floor and unheated. The seats were hinged to facilitate the rising and sitting of the assembly. The sound, it was said, was comparable to the rattling produced by a running fire of musketry.

The original building was laid out quite differently than how we see it today. The main entrance was located at the center of the building’s south side on Hale Street. The Pulpit was located on the North wall and elevated like a ship’s prow, with a rising walkway connecting entryway and pulpit. The seats for members were arrayed below the pulpit in several straight rows from east to west. Men and women sat on opposite sides of the pulpit. The Deacons, the Minister’s wife, and the members of the choir occupied the foremost seats. Visitors, children and non-whites sat in an upper gallery along the south wall.

Up until 1767 all the munitions of the town were stored in the basement of the Church. As the only unheated building in the town, this made sense (although it did give parishioners pause during thunder storms). In that year, the Town ordered the construction of a powder house, and all ammunition was removed. Apparently, though, this information did not make it to the British Navy. In August 1775, while chasing a Privateer vessel into Beverly Harbor, the Ship of War Nautilus began shelling the newly built Church, which it thought held the town’s powder. Luckily, the building was not hit and the vessel was eventually driven back by shore batteries located in Salem.

Because of increasing membership, the need to enlarge the building was debated for several years and in 1795, a major renovation project was initiated. In those days, of course, all the planning and labor was performed by church members, as part of their tithing to the Church. It was felt that the most expedient way to increase seating was to cut the building in half and add a 20 foot section to the middle. It was likely at this time that a round floor joist, believed to be the main mast of a fishing vessel, was installed beneath the floor of the expanded building section, visible from the ceiling of Hale Hall. The seating rows and gallery were correspondingly extended to increase seating capacity. However, it was not long before Church members assigned to the end seats complained that they were unable to see or hear the Preacher during service. It was a fortunate coincidence that this was also the time that other Churches in Beverly were being formed from members of First Parish Church. First, there was the Baptist Church in 1801 and then the Third Parish or Dane Street Church in 1803 and the Farms Church in 1829. The common assumption is that members of these new houses of worship left our Church due to differences in religious convictions, but to be honest, I wonder how much of it was because of the crummy seating they had to endure here at First Parish.

Upon completion of the renovations, a new bell was purchased from London and installed in the church tower. After a mere 4 years of use, it cracked and a new bell had to be installed. This one was cast by a local bell maker and silversmith from Boston named Paul Revere. The tone of this bell never sounded right to parishioners, and in 1896 it was recast and reinstalled, remaining in the tower until the installation of the Chimes in 1931. The bell was given to the Immanuel Church on Bridge Street and placed in their bell tower. It fell to the ground and cracked during a fire that destroyed their building, and has since stood next to the newly built Church encased in concrete where it can be seen today.

In 1835 the Church determined to fix the seating problem by renovating the building once again. This time, in addition to a Greek revival exterior treatment, the interior was completely redesigned. The pulpit was moved to its current location on the east wall, and the seats were replaced by the current pews. To maximize seating, they were designed in a semi-circular style. To replace the old gallery, a balcony loft at the back of the Church was added. A portico, and three sets of doors opening into a foyer, completed the project. It was a fine sight indeed- regarded at the time one of the best examples of Greek revival architecture in the country.

The nineteenth century saw an increasing level of competition and envy amongst the various places of Worship in Beverly. In 1865, after concerns were expressed that the Church pulpit was not as elevated as the pulpit of other Churches in Beverly, the beautiful hand carved pulpit you see before you was built. Just to make sure our Church had the highest pulpit in Town, this reading stand was made adjustable. The church installed a pump organ at the back of the Church, and for many years “blowing the organ” was a regular Church occupation. In 1880, as a result of an escalating round of “Our Church organ is bigger than your Church organ”, the Church acquired the Hook and Hastings instrument you see behind me.

In 1902 a small bathroom was added, electric wires were run and our beautiful arched windows were installed. The Hook and Hastings Company was engaged to “redecorate the organ pipes”, gilding them in the style of the time. In 1987, during an examination of the organ, strange etched patterns were found on the pipes. Their original finish, it seemed, was not finished as bare metal as had been believed, but was rather painted in a beautiful and distinctive pattern Using the etching as a model, the pattern was repainted on the pipes as you see it today.

In 1974 the Parish house on Federal Street, used for Church offices and the Sunday school since 1906, was sold. The funds were used to excavate the basement of the Church as Hale Hall. Two offices were added behind the sanctuary and two were cut from the foyer.

The renovations made in 2009 represent the first part of a three stage plan to improve the building space that is represented in the sketches at the back of the Church. It focused on repairs to the exterior walls, and installing insulation in the building. We added a handicapped-accessible bathroom and carefully restored the 1902 Church windows.

Now you know the facts behind some of the tales of our beautiful Church building, as best as I am able to determine. While not all the stories are strictly true, I think you will agree that the facts are just as fascinating as the tales.

Thank you,
Charles E. Wainwright, Chair
Historical Committee
First Parish Church in Beverly, Massachusetts

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First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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