The Harbor Church

A beautiful example of a mid-nineteenth century meetinghouse, the Townsend Harbor Church was the last religious building erected during a series of community dividing congregation splits. It stands as an important reminder of how history spans both the three villages, community wide and beyond.

Townsend’s original meetinghouse was erected in 1771 and first stood on Meetinghouse Hill. In 1799, after several meetings to debate the issue, the decision was made to relocate the building to center village and position it on a small rise overlooking Main Street. At the time, the church also owned the land which today is the Town Common. The meetinghouse was altered to its present appearance in 1804, when the bell tower and vestibule was put on to correspond with a growing trend to utilize towers and spires to symbolize a connection with a higher authority. This building continued to be utilized for religious and municipal meetings in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. A national religious awakening stirred the membership and created the first of many deep divides. In 1829, members of the Orthodox faith split from the Church of Christ. They hired Josiah Sawtelle as architect and builder. The brick edifice was finished by 1830. This today is the Townsend Congregational Church. Three years after his work in Center Village, Josiah Sawtelle erected the West Townsend Baptist Church in order to satisfy a growing membership in that hamlet. This building was modeled after a church in Fitchburg and completed in 1833. Those members which remained within the original meetinghouse were mostly of a Unitarian sect. Members were concentrated in Townsend Harbor so the decision was made to sell the building to the newly formed Methodist parish. The meetinghouse remains in the hands of the Methodists who are proud to own this local icon.

With the sale of the original building complete, parishioners went about finding a location for their church in Townsend Harbor. The site chosen was located adjacent to the railroad depot which at the time was a bustling with pedestrians and goods alike. John Hart and Amos Morse were paid to erect the traditional meetinghouse in 1853. Designed by Architect Daniel G. Bean of Lowell, it has many reminders from the Federal and Greek Revival periods, but is also adorned with fashionable Victorian-era woodwork that extends up the belfry and spire. The building was dedicated in 1854 and Reverend Stillman Barber was hired to preach. Despite their best efforts, the house did not flourish as expected. The parish was unable to meet its financial obligations and several lawsuits ensued. In 1855, the building was mortgaged to settle debts. In 1856, the bell was sold leaving the building soundless. The resulting insolvency that followed a year later was the final blow. The Unitarians disbanded in April of 1857 after four short years. Ithamar Sawtell noted in the History of Townsend that “the temple of worship…now stands deserted, cheerless, and seldom entered for any purpose whatever.

In 1884, a group of town residents, concerned about preserving Townsend Harbor’s only meetinghouse, formed the First Parish Religious Society to assume title and begin to revive the building. The organization was not a parish but rather utilized religion as a way to maintain a tax-free status. The building was host to meetings, schools, dramas, concerts and suppers. Aiding efforts, local merchant and post master Charles Emery paid to have the interior overhauled in order to improve accommodations. In 1893, the original pew and vestibules were removed. A performance stage, new vestibules, and ticket window were installed. The unique retractable doors which separate the sanctuary from the new front reception room were also installed at this time. A brass chandelier and four kerosene lamps were provided for night illumination. In honor of his donation, the building was renamed Emery Hall but the change did not stick. The Harbor Meetinghouse continued to see increased use into the twentieth century. Electricity was added in 1923 when most of the surrounding neighborhood was wired. The building remained in continuous use for nearly a century.

The Townsend Historical Society was fortunate enough to acquire the building in 1981. The building had been utilized by another non-profit for local youth programming but plans to develop the building fell through. The Society has utilized the building for nearly four decades in various capacities. These included hosting an indoor flea-market, commercial store, antique shop and most recently as a school house for third graders and occasional programs. The building stands as an important reminder of our community’s religious history and the Society is proud to continue working toward preserving this and other local landmarks like it.