SHIRLEY — The meetinghouse that once stood on Green Lane, off Parker Road, was a small, simple structure, built soon after the town was founded in 1753. Like other New England meetinghouses of the colonial era, the building served a dual purpose in the community, as a place of worship as well as a place to hold town meetings.
As the town grew, so did its need for a more substantial structure in which to conduct town business. In 1773, a new meetinghouse was built on the town common.
The original, 40- by 50-foot structure was larger than its predecessor, but still unimposing. Painted reddish-brown, it bore little resemblance to the historic meetinghouse as it stands today, with porch wings, classic white facade and tall bell tower rising above the trees. It doesn’t even occupy the same space.
Pride of place
The Shirley meetinghouse looks picture-postcard perfect where it is, a statuesque timepiece that lends balance and beauty to its peaceful surroundings. But according to Robert Adam and other members of the meetinghouse Preservation Committee, moving the building from its original site at the center of the common (where the civil war monument now stands) to a spot further back on the parcel had as much to do with one man’s fancy as it did with landscaping strategy, maybe more.
Gathered recently at the home of Patty MacDonald, a longtime committee member who currently serves as the group’s publicist, a subcommittee of the 14-member meetinghouse Board of Directors — MacDonald, Robert and Ingrid Adam and Paul Przybyla — talked about the third annual capital campaign.
Launched last fall with a well-attended dinner- concert at the Bull Run Restaurant, it’s clearly a labor of love as much as a fundraising effort.
Stories to tell
There are many intriguing stories about the building and its role in town history, the four meetinghouse enthusiasts said, including music collections housed there from its church years and a library of vintage books. There’s a Stevens Tracker organ, gifted to the meetinghouse by Henrietta Whitney in 1847, a bell tower erected in 1804, painstaking interior restoration work done by the late Melvin Longley in the 1980s. A plaque on the building’s front wall commemorates Longley’s contributions.
One story is about the meetinghouse site on the town common and why it changed.
As pastor of the congregation that occupied the meetinghouse from 1762 to 1819, the Rev. Phineas Whitney has been credited with helping the new parish grow, and according to Robert Adam, it was apparently to please him that the building was moved.
Whitney and his predecessor, Rev. Seth Chandler (pastor from 1833 to 1879) both earned a place in local history, with plaques to honor them placed in front of the building. Chandler also served as town treasurer and historian. Another plaque in the church lobby honors Shirley native Oliver Holden, who wrote the music for the hymn “Coronation.”
But it was Rev. Whitney’s link to the building that led to moving it.
Adam said Rev. Whitney’s pay was not commensurate with his duties, so he was given land in lieu of money. His holdings grew until he was the wealthiest man in town.
Some of the land Whitney acquired in this manner was on the town common, across from which he built his own handsome house, which still stands today. Whitney, in turn, gave the town land and some of the funds to build the Center Town Hall in 1848.
But “Squire Whitney” and his family were denied the satisfaction of gazing upon their gift from their own front porch, Adam said. The meetinghouse blocked the view. Whitney struck a deal with the town and the meetinghouse was moved in 1851.
Framed by the old cemetery and stone-edged “town pound” on one side, Town Hall on the other and neighbored by stately manors such as the Whitney house, the town common, with the meetinghouse as its historic centerpiece, was shaping up nicely, as if the picturesque setup were planned from the first.
Many years later, a private group that had taken on the task of preserving the old meetinghouse after its last congregation abandoned it continued the work history had started — burying some utility wires that once crisscrossed the common, for example.
“We were lucky to negotiate with the telephone company to take down 18 telephone poles,” Adam said. “That was best of all.”
For nearly a century, the meetinghouse was used as a church, first by Congregationalists then by Unitarians. By 1944, it was empty and unused. That year, Dr. Clifford Shipton and a few other concerned townspeople formed a private citizens’ group whose goal — to preserve the town’s oldest public building and encourage its continued use — was reflected in its name: The First Parish Meetinghouse Preservation Society.
The group took its self-imposed charge seriously, incorporating fundraising efforts with volunteer labor and donated materials to maintain the meetinghouse. Eventually, faced with costly structural challenges that beset all old buildings, they became more proactive.
The key to saving this treasure from the town’s past for future generations, they decided, was to promote the meetinghouse as a present day venue, renting it out for weddings and other functions. In recent years, now equipped with heat and with its altar and pulpit removed to create an accessible stage, the former church building also hosts events such as seasonal concerts spearheaded by Holly Haase, featuring local and professional talent.
Whether it’s a sing-a-long on a soft summer night, or a Christmas concert on a snowy winter evening, the meetinghouse makes a uniquely satisfying event venue. Crossing the common is pleasant any time of year, and the other-era charm of the meetinghouse, with its choir loft, Stevens Tracker organ and box pews, is all about ambience. While the old wooden benches lack cushions, minimal seating comfort is compensated by marvelous acoustics provided by the lofty apse.
Event proceeds help maintain the building and may be shared with The Center Town Hall Committee, which takes care of the building next door. The CTH often serves as the function hall for post-event gatherings, with concertgoers traversing the grassy path between the two buildings to enjoy refreshments and socialization after the music ends.
The question then becomes whether the meetinghouse can continue to serve future generations as it does now, preserving the past as a bonus. So far, so good, according to this group, which has come a long way toward ambitious aims, but still has a way to go.
A third through this year’s capital campaign, they’ve raised almost $50,000 in cash and pledges, MacDonald said, including a $10,000 donation from Bemis Associates. The international seal tape manufacturer, headquartered in Shirley, has been one of the town’s most enduring and generous good neighbors, quietly funding school programs and assisting various town organizations over the years.
Donor interest in the meetinghouse has sparked recently and MacDonald credits at least some of it to outreach, including tours for local organizations such as the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Guests are often surprised and delighted by the experience. “Getting into the building is key,” she said.
The group is now in the process of writing a Mass Cultural Facilities grant whose success hinges in part on the success of the capital campaign. “It’s a matching grant,” she said.
Publicity efforts will continue throughout the year, including a series of stories in Nashoba Publishing newspapers.
Next: The meetinghouse library.