Donna Tavano: Belle Of The Ball

In 2005, the South Harwich Meetinghouse on Chatham Road barely stood, derelict and forlorn. Beset by ravages of time and vandals, both human and varmint, its future was as shaky as the structure. Along the way, after longtime use by Methodists, and later, Lutherans, it was put up for sale, with no takers. The town eventually bought it, and rudimentary efforts were made to maintain it, albeit in crude fashion – parts of its history temporarily housed in the basements of concerned historians in town like David Palmer.

It was originally constructed in 1836 through the efforts of sea captain Amasa Nickerson. At that time, with a shipping wharf off Deep Hole Road (now Red River Beach,) the South Harwich area was a burgeoning center of maritime industry. The Meetinghouse is the second oldest Methodist church on Cape Cod, featuring a combination of Greek and Gothic architecture, and a separate entrance for men and women. Built for $1,400, it was a worship center for Amasa, his sons and a host of locals. Controversy over the next 17 years left it with only 20 members in 1853, resulting in it being placed for auction. Old Amasa couldn’t bear to see it go and spent $1,500 to buy it back. It was employed as a house of worship straight through the 1980s, until the Lutherans finished building their permanent home, St. Peter’s, in East Harwich. Surrounded by a cemetery full of sea captains and their families, gravestones give telling glimpses of life then, as loved ones never returned from sea and infant children were lost to disease. In 1984 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1990s to 2000s, it was affectionately referred to as one of Harwich’s “Three Sisters” along with the old Harwich Recreation building on Sisson Road, now used by the Cape Cod Theatre Company, and the recently much discussed West Harwich Schoolhouse. Developers considered RFPs to determine how they might renovate any or all of the scattered historic sites for affordable housing, recreation, business or education.

The poorest sister was the South Harwich Meetinghouse, due to its location somewhat off the beaten track, surrounded by a cemetery, with only limited street parking (since remedied by the cemetery department building a parking lot on site.) The cast-off building faced a bleak future. But its dismal outlook never predicted that it, like a phoenix, would rise from a faltering foundation due to the efforts of one plucky woman, Judith Ford.

Ford, who grew up in Chatham but moved to Harwich after marrying a Harwich boy, Mike Ford (town moderator), was a rescuer of all things, animal, vegetable and mineral. Ford passed by it often, and excited by its history and fearing its loss, she vowed to save it. No stranger to old building rescue, she had renovated her home on South Street and even moved a circa-1900 cottage from beside old Dr. Rowley’s property across from Dairy Queen. In addition, her work at Brooks Academy and association with the Harwich Historical Society made her an ideal advocate for the Chatham Road orphan.

With little more than her vision and chutzpah, she researched, consulted experts and spent 13 years as president of the Friends of the South Harwich Meetinghouse. Leading the group through fundraisers and ultimately CPA funding of almost $500,000, she replaced the foundation, created a kitchen, and added handicapped restrooms and an elevator. Racing from thrift shop to antique junkyards all over New England, she obtained period light fixtures, repaired windows and a centerpiece chandelier.

Over the years she literally dealt with bats in the belfry setting off nighttime alarms for months at a time, and responded to antique doors almost blown off their hinges in windstorms. Though not a general contractor, she functioned as one, bringing the building along baluster by baluster. Along with the spiders and dust were the occasional “spirits” cheering her on. Also watching were the ever-present crows guarding the graveyard and flocks of bluebirds celebrating new life in the air. And in a true rescue mission, there is the tale of the ancient box turtle with a heavily damaged shell she found outside the church and took to Wild Care. Months later, with newly super-glued shell intact, she returned it to its home to wander among the soft grasses caressing the mossy tombstones for another 30 years.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “I have been impressed with the legacy of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” Ford engaged in the action that made this project a success. She did. We owe a debt of thanks to a woman who singlehandedly fought for a forgotten building so our children and theirs can experience a piece of the past through culture and education. As a kickoff celebration, the Chatham Chorale will be holding four benefit Celtic Concerts at the South Harwich Meetinghouse, March 17 and 18.

Kudos to you, Judy, and thanks from all, as we watch the orphan sister finally become the belle of the ball.