HARWICH — It has been a 13-year undertaking, but the results of the persistence of the Friends of the South Harwich Meetinghouse to preserve and restore the historic South Harwich Methodist Church will be on display over the St. Patrick's Day weekend with a grand opening series of benefit concerts by the Chatham Chorale.
The Chatham Chorale will perform four of their popular Celtic concerts at the meetinghouse March 17 and 18. The concerts will serve as fundraisers for both the Friends and the Chatham Chorale.
“It's chaotic right now, but the push is on for completion by March 17,” Friends president Judith Ford said this week. “I think everything is on schedule.”
Ford said the Chatham Chorale, which has done concerts in the past to assist with fundraising efforts to preserve the church – built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places – has decided to do a benefit concert once a year and chose to do one for the meetinghouse as their first. Because the meetinghouse is not that big, the Chorale will do four concerts over the St. Patrick's Day weekend.
“People love their Celtic concerts,” Ford said of the bagpipes and Irish harp that accompany choral performances.
“We've done the Celtic concerts over the years and they're one of the more popular concerts,” Chorale Music Director Joseph Marchio said on Monday. “It's a great place to do one.”
He said Celtic music represents a lot of different countries, including England and Ireland, and the concert will include sacred and dance tunes. In the middle of the performance there will be a segment of instrumental music which will include Scottish smallpipes, guitar and Irish harp, Marchio said. There will be new and different pieces in the performances, he added.
There will be performances at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 17 and Sunday, March 18.
Ford is very excited to have the concert series serving as the grand opening celebration for the meetinghouse because of the natural acoustics the former church provides. She said sound in the building resonates everywhere.
There is a lot of local interest in the meetinghouse, Ford said, following the efforts of the Friend's group over the years in raising funds and conducting work to restore the building. She expressed her appreciation to the town, the selectmen, and the community preservation committee for supporting this project with Community Preservation Act funds, as well as the many donors who made the project possible.
Dick Gomes of Captain Chase Interior, Inc. in Harwich is crafting historic seat cushions for the pews, Ford said, and was in the building recently and went to the choir loft. Gomes has been known for years as a powerful soloist and told Ford he'd like to be the first person to sing in the meetinghouse. He then sang “Amazing Grace” acapella. Ford said it was powerful and Gomes agreed to open each of the four concerts next weekend with the traditional hymn.
The benefit concert series will provide a great opportunity for people to view the restoration work that has taken place at the meetinghouse, including the work of decorative painter Lars Michelsen of Cygnet Painting, who grain-painted the wainscoting and the pews, built the facade for the balcony and restored the original wall stencils. The refurbished Bradley and Hubbard 1887 chandelier is a centerpiece of the sanctuary, she added.
The sanctuary also holds a pipe organ that belonged to Stephen Simon, who was the conductor of the chamber orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. Simon commissioned the organ for his work at the Kennedy Center, and it was later donated to Falmouth Academy, but was not being used there so Simon's wife donated it to the meetinghouse.
“Joe Marchio played it the other day and it's perfect for this room,” Ford said.
While the St. Patrick's Day weekend is considered the grand opening for the meetinghouse, Ford said an open house reception is planned in late May so the public can come in and appreciate the historic building.
Ford said after the concert series it will take about a month to organize the procedures for public use of the facility, which will focus on cultural arts, education and community uses. “We're getting a lot of people who want to conduct events here,” Ford said.
The community uses will be many and varied, Ford said, such as weddings, educational events and town and school activities. Authors and historians want to present work, including the history of Harwich. She said there can be committee meetings held here and she hopes the Monomoy Regional School District will conduct programs here. Ford said history teacher Richard Houston has expressed an interest in doing research projects with students at the meetinghouse.
“We want to keep it nonprofit and extremely affordable,” she said.
Ford said the building would be a good place to tell the story of abolitionist Jonathan Walker, a Harwich resident who grew up a few doors away from the South Harwich Methodist Church. Walker was branded as a “slave stealer” in Florida in 1844 for aiding seven slaves seeking to escape to the Bahamas. His right hand was branded “SS” as a “slave stealer” and he spent time in prison in Pensacola. Walker's fines were paid by Northern abolitionists and Ford said some of the money was raised by members of the church. Walker returned to New England and lectured extensively on the evils of slavery.
“The story has been lost in Harwich and it is important to tell his story in full. This is the place to do it,” Ford added.
Pointing to the cultural center and the Cape Verdean Museum, Ford noted the importance of culture and history and the initiatives now underway in town and the opportunities that can be provided at the South Harwich Meetinghouse.
“All of these things will come together and make Harwich a destination,” Ford said. “It's a great old building and it would have been a travesty to lose it.”
Tickets for the concerts are $35 and can be purchased at www.chathamchorale.org or by calling 774-212-9333.