Derry Heritage to Work with First Parish to Preserve Church

In an unusual public-private partnership, the Derry Heritage Commission and the First Parish Church will work together to continue to preserve the church, an historic treasure important not only to Derry but to Derry and Londonderry’s parent community in Northern Ireland.

At its March 2 meeting, the Commission heard from two members of First Parish Church charged with preserving its history.

Paul Lindemann and Janet Wetherbee provided an update on repairs to the building, which dates from 1769. The congregation dates from 1719, when the Rev. James MacGregor shepherded a flock of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to build new lives in the New World.

Lindemann said the historic preservation arm of the church is two-fold. The Historic Preservation Committee, chaired by Wetherbee, collects and archives memorabilia from the church’s early years. The Building Committee, chaired by Lindemann, works on rehabilitating and preserving the building.

The archiving group has assembled a small museum in honor of MacGregor. “They are focusing on getting the archives in shape,” Lindemann said. “They have inventoried items, are organizing digitally and physically, and made a field trip to the State Library in Concord.”

Lindemann said the building rehab efforts go back at least two decades. They fizzled out for a while, “because we had no money,” but with new leadership they’ve made some progress. They engaged an architect to come up with an historical assessment document, he said.

They are currently partnered with Preservation Timber Framing and its owner, Aaron Sturgis, he said. Last fall Sturgis and his crew performed an “urgent stabilization project” on the upper story.  “That gave us some breathing room,” Lindemann said. The tower was moving away from the main building, and water was getting in, he said.

The architect’s survey and Sturgis’s work made it clear what needs to be done, he said, adding, “There is a lot of damage in the tower area.”

More recent improvements need work, he added. The elevator in the Old Meeting House is considered unsafe by many of the older residents, including some parishioners at Birch Heights who say they can’t come to church because they have no way to get upstairs.

Architect Norman Larson has provided an “elegant solution,” Lindemann said.

But it will cost, and the two groups along with the church administration have decided to begin a capital campaign. They have done a feasibility study, interviewed potential donors and produced a “massive” education campaign for the congregation, Lindemann said.

On March 30, the congregation will vote on whether to pursue a capital campaign.

The target amount is $600,000 to $800,000, with an initial goal of $700,000, Lindemann said. The total estimate for the project is $1.5 million, but the capital campaign will “get us started” and finish a few projects before the congregation’s 300th anniversary in 2019.

Wetherbee said her committee plans to apply for state LCHIP (New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program) funding and other grants.

One of their reasons to visit the Heritage Commission, Lindemann said, is to determine if it is viable to fund raise outside the congregation and in the larger community.

Karen Blandford-Anderson, chairman of the Heritage Commission, said she thought it was. “This is an historic landmark,” she said. “I would think people would want to be involved.”

The two groups agreed to work together wherever they could to make First Parish’s anniversary memorable.