Legacy Of Joy: Amherst kicks off church campaign

Courtesy photos Canterbury builder Steven Fifield and his mother, Betty, in front of the Amherst Congregational Church steeple he renovated nearly 20 years ago.

AMHERST – People don’t move to Amherst because they love the big box stores on Route 101A.

The town’s biggest draw is its historic center with its beautifully preserved houses, expansive green, anchored by the stately Congregational Church and Town Hall.

Those are truths generally agreed upon, and they were spoken by the president of the New Hampshire Historical Society to a recent gathering in the Congregational Church.

Bill Dunlap’s audience filled the sanctuary for a “Meet Your Meetinghouse” event, held to start a capital campaign for church renovations by celebrating its connections to its community.

“You cannot take it for granted,” Dunlap said of the church building, and that message was repeated by several speakers.

Dunlap, who lives in the Amherst Village, talked about the care and commitment townspeople have given the church over the years. Having a handsome, well-maintained building “doesn’t happen by accident” and it doesn’t stay that way by accident, he said.

Paul Spiess, campaign co-chairman, told the story of the history of Amherst and the church, which was built from 150-foot tall trees in 1774. Erecting the building would have taken the labor of nearly everyone in town. The town’s first major structure, it served for many years as the meetinghouse. After the state enacted the Toleration Act of 1819, which stated residents did not have to pay towards any religious endeavor, the town sold the building to the church, but retained ownership of the bell tower, clock and bell, so it could call the community together.

Former selectman Bob Heaton was one of the speakers and he shared memories of growing up. His family moved here in 1951, when he was 3, and his mother was the church secretary. There were fewer than a thousand people living here, and the town was in decline. There was no police department or rescue squad, he said, and boys would amuse themselves by shooting rats in the town dump. He remembered how the school children ate their lunch in the first floor of town hall and the second floor was used as a dance floor and stage.

The goal of the meetinghouse capital campaign is to raise $850,000, and Doug Topliffe, the other co-chairman, said there are already grants and gifts, including “a very generous” gift from the Milford Rotary Club’s Jackson Fund, named for Amherst resident and architect Bob Jackson.

The money will be spent on window restoration, electric repairs, exterior painting and kitchen remodeling, as well as work on the parsonage next door, which “has the dubious honor of being one of the most run-down looking houses in the Village,” Topliffe said.

Canterbury builder Steven Fifield renovated the steeple 20 years ago and he showed slides of the project. One vital improvement that is almost complete, thanks to money from the town of Amherst, is a new fire suppression system, he said, showing pictures of a lightning fire last year that destroyed a 150-year-old church in Wakefield Mass. that had no suppression system.

The church is a vital part of the community for members and nonmembers, said Maureen Frescott, the acting senior pastor.

“People come here for milestone events because they consider it their church,” she said, and all the clubs and organizations that use the church add to its “legacy of joy and pride.”