A Brief History of St. John’s United Methodist Church
Our First Meetinghouse
Our Second Church
St. John’s UMC
Our church was established around 1818 at a small village of Dover, New Hampshire called Williamsville, or Upper Factory. The village grew up around a cotton mill on the Cochecho River about two miles upstream of downtown Dover. Church meetings, started by circuit-riding Methodist ministers, were held in mill workers’ homes until land was purchased in town for a meetinghouse. Our church became a separate charge of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1823 when our first pastor, Rev. Jotham Horton, was appointed to our parish.
The first meetinghouse was built in 1825 on land purchased from the Waldron family. The lot was located at the corner of St. John Street and what became known as Chapel Street. The wooden meetinghouse was two stories high, with a plain open style sanctuary and a gallery. Church membership grew at a steady rate, and by 1875 the wood structure was torn down to make way for a much larger building. A brick building with seating capacity of nearly 1000 was built on the St. John Street site. The sanctuary was designed to accommodate a truly grand pipe organ and the tower to hold a chime of nine cast bells.
As time passed, the needs of the parish changed. By 1960, few of the church’s 700 members lived within walking distance of the church. Parking was scarce, despite use of a commercial parking lot nearby. More space was needed by the Church School for its 440 members and staff of 42 teachers. The church’s design of a prior time that was once called the best planned church “for real church work” did not offer an easy resolution to the facility needs of the church’s changing mission. Land or homes around the church for either expansion or parking were not for sale. The surrounding neighborhood had deteriorated, and a decision had to be made to either extensively renovate the old building and/or enlarge it or to seek a new location to build a new facility with ample room for parking and expansion. In 1962, the church voted to relocate, and a parcel of land on Cataract Avenue was purchased for the construction of a new church and fellowship hall. Construction began in 1969 and the church relocated in 1970. The former church building on St. John Street was sold and later purchased by the Dover Housing Authority in 1981. It was renovated into a home for senior citizens and continues to serve the community today.
The “new” St. John’s on Cataract Avenue sits on 7.4 acres of land along the bank of the Bellamy River. The two-wing complex has a beautiful sanctuary with a seating capacity of about 225 people, classroom space for its church school, a fellowship hall and underground access between the buildings. The lot provides ample parking, and a lovely parsonage was built there in 1978. The church today has about 440 members. Sunday services are held at 9:30 a.m. The sanctuary is filled with music and song during the services which are now broadcast on YouTube.
A beautiful pipe organ is at the front 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 destruction at the time of the sale of the downtown church. Two Eagle Scouts painstakingly took the grand instrument apart piece by piece and put 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 still has its set of tower bells, now the oldest set of Methodist bells in the world, brought from the old downtown church. Originally purchased in 1875 as a set of nine bells paid for by subscription by both members of St. John’s and the public, they rang out over the city for ninety-five years from their steeple at St. John Street. Three bells were added to the original set when the new tower was erected in 1976 between the two wings of our church. They are played on Sunday mornings and on special occasions.
Our sanctuary welcomes all to our services on Sunday mornings.