A Brief History of St. John’s United Methodist Church
The church was established in 1823 on Upper Factory Road in Dover, New Hampshire. Church meetings began in someone’s home until land was purchased at the corner of St. John’s Street and Portland Avenue in Dover. This street runs from the intersection of Central Avenue and Main Street. At that time, the street was called Old Portland Avenue. Today the street is known as Chapel Street.
The first church was built in 1825. It was two stories high, wood in structure, with a plain open style sanctuary. Church membership grew at a steady rate and by 1875 the wood structure was torn down to make way for a larger building. A brick building with seating capacity of over 1000 was built at the St. John’s Street site. The sanctuary was specially designed to accommodate a truly grand pipe organ.
Much change continued within the church membership. The St. John’s Street site was a downtown location and this eventually became unappealing to many members. Parking was cramped and the mercantile location exacerbated the parking problems. Though St. John’s expanded tremendously during the 1850s and 1860s, the membership collapsed significantly in the 1880s. By the time the 1960’s rolled around, membership had decreased and the large sanctuary seemed to be no longer needed. Ninety years had passed since the building had been first built. Costly renovations were needed and some tough decisions had to be made. Rural locations had become the desired norm for churches. Board members and Trustees at St. John’s made the choice to build a new church in a more rural location. The existing building on St. John’s Street was purchased by the City of Dover and was remodeled into a home for senior citizens. It continues to stand today, a strong reminder the old days.
The construction for a smaller brick building was started in 1969 and completed in 1970. This “new” St. John’s is situated on Cataract Avenue at the outskirts of Dover, on 14 acres of land along the banks of the Bellamy River. It includes a beautiful sanctuary with a seating capacity for about 225 people, classroom space, a reception hall, underground access between the buildings, ample parking, and a lovely parsonage. The church today has almost 500 members. Sunday service is offered at 9:00 and 10:30 a.m. – with one service, at 9:30 AM, during the summer months. The sanctuary is filled with music and song during both services.
A beautiful pipe organ is at the center of the sanctuary. It is the very same organ that was built for the downtown St. John’s location. This fabulous organ was thoughtfully rescued from being demolished at the time of the sale of the downtown church. Two Eagle Scouts painstakingly took the grand instrument apart piece by piece and hauled it into storage in a barn, where it waited in silence. Seventeen years later, the same two Eagle Scouts sat on the committee to oversee the organ’s return to the sanctuary. It now is a beautiful reminder of St. John’s history in Dover.
The church has a set of tower bells, the second oldest set of Methodist bells in the world. The oldest set is in Washington. It began as a set of nine bells which came to St. John’s as the result of a Baptist church refusing them because they were a donation by the owner of a brewery. Although the Methodists did not tolerate liquor either, they were able to recognize a good offering and accepted them as a valuable musical addition. We attribute this accomplishment to a chairman of the Trustees named Harrison Haley, a truly accomplished local businessman in 1875. Recently, three bells have been added to the original set of nine. The twelve bells are proudly displayed, pyramid style in a sturdy tower to the left of the church entrance. They have been recently renovated and are played on Sunday mornings.
The sanctuary is once again full to capacity for both services on many Sunday mornings.