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Centuries-old Derry church undergoing restoration

Union Leader Correspondent

February 14. 2018 11:51PM
The First Parish Church, first built at its East Derry location in 1769, is undergoing a massive renovation. Organizers with the Derry Heritage Commission hope the refurbishments are completed by April 2019 when the church is expected to host multiple events for the 300th anniversary of the Nutfield settlement, which includes the town of Derry. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/UNION LEADER Correspondent)

DERRY — The centuries-old First Parish Church has long been a centerpiece of Derry’s history.

Now as organizers plan a 300th anniversary celebration for the settlement of Nutfield — part of what is now Derry — for April 2019, the church is once again expected to play a prominent role in the community.

Paul Lindemann, a member of the Derry Heritage Commission and curator of Nutfield’s history, said the 300th festivities at the church will proceed even if the renovations are not completed, but he hopes for a strong fundraising year to match the total rehabilitation cost of $2.5 million.

“It’s extremely important to me that all the preservation projects get done correctly,” Lindemann said.

“It has been important for years to try and make it by April of 2019. As we get close to that, and time is moving quicker than we are able to move, we probably won’t make that,” he continued. “That doesn’t stop us, though.”

The congregation has raised and spent about $1 million to date and has won two Land & Community Heritage Investment Program awards. Now a new fundraising campaign is underway for the purchase of an elevator and the renovations to the roof system.

Interior refurbishments, particularly in the second-story sanctuary, come with the largest price-tag — an estimated $515,000 to remove the asbestos flooring and make the space wheelchair accessible through a connecting structure between the old meetinghouse and the modern Noyes building on the property.

Despite the enormous task ahead for the parish, Lindemann said the objective is to make the church “ready enough to serve” for April 2019 and continue on a steady rehab path, without taking shortcuts simply to complete the project.

“We’re not going to shift gears and do (substandard) work just to meet that goal,” he added.

Paul Lindemann, of the Derry Heritage Commission, tours the construction upgrades in the First Parish Church in mid-February. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/UNION LEADER Correspondent)

Derry’s Heritage Commission, along with volunteer groups in Londonderry and Windham, have started planning for the 300th anniversary of the original inland settlement in the Merrimack Valley.

The 12-square-mile tract of land, known as Nutfield, was granted to 16 Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian families led by Rev. James MacGregor. The land, with a plentiful supply of nut and fruit trees, includes today’s towns of Derry, Londonderry, Windham and the Derryfield portion of Manchester.

MacGregor and his followers arrived on Horse Hill (now East Derry Road) in April 1719, with the first sermon taking place April 12 on the shores of Beaver Lake.

The current church’s location was selected in 1769 and was a one-story building with boxed pews on the floor, similar to the Old North Church in Boston. In the following century, the building was enlarged and remodeled, the clock was installed in 1877 and renovated again with stained glass windows at the 165th anniversary.

This century, a comprehensive historic building assessment and rehabilitation plan was commissioned. A 3D structural analysis was conducted in 2014, with church groups discovering urgent structural concerns with the tower, leading to the steeple’s removal the following year for safekeeping.

Lindemann and other volunteers say the original building was lifted and a new foundation was poured, allowing crews to repair the sill and timber frame. An elevator shaft has been started as well to provide access to the sanctuary on the second floor. 

And just last year, the tower base was rehabilitated with the addition of new 60-foot corner posts, stabilizing the structure at a hefty cost.

“These are $10,000 each,” Lindemann said, knocking on a massive post of Eastern White Pine from northern Vermont. “The whole thing with preservation is any changes you have to make, you want to make it clear so 100 years from now someone can tell what was done when.”

The 300th anniversary events will begin at First Parish Church on Friday, April 12 next year. A Heritage Day is planned for April 13, 2019, at the church, with history talks, artisan demonstrations and a founding musical performance expected. A special church service on Sunday would conclude the weekend activities.

“It fits rights in with the 300th. It was kind of the starting point and it would be nice to have it for the starting point then,” said Larry Krantz, a member of the First Parish Meetinghouse and its building advisory committee.

On a bone-chilling Friday morning, Krantz checks the electrical panels in a large community room called MacGregor Hall, fitting his professional skills with his desire to volunteer at the parish he and his wife have attended for 15 years. The room looks less like a colonial-era meetinghouse and more like a construction supply room with hundreds of freshly-cut two-by-fours and power tools.

“It’s important to have this for our congregation to get back in here and utilize that sanctuary,” Krantz added.

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