First Congregational Church of Rockport, MA

Historical Sketch
andy Bay, the easternmost outpost of Cape Ann, was the final settlement to be developed from the original 1642 Gloucester parish. As the number of inhabitants grew, so did the need for meeting houses, schools and other facilities. New parishes had been established west of the Annisquam River, at the Ipswich Bay port of Annisquam, and in the area of what we know today as Grant Circle. Probably their meeting house was one destination where churchgoers from Sandy Bay made Sunday treks in good weather prior to 1755. In 1738 the parish at Annisquam, where they also sometimes attended, made overtures toward building a joint meeting house between itself and Sandy Bay. It was said that the beams for the framework, never to be completed, could be seen for many years.

On the slope which fronts the present church, the first schoolhouse in Sandy Bay was built of logs in 1724. Religious services were held there when bad weather made it impossible to go elsewhere. The fifth parish, composed of Sandy Bay and Pigeon Cove, which earlier had been part of the Annisquam parish, was established in 1755. The first meeting house was then built slightly up Cove Hill, not far from where the Baptist church now stands.

This was a small, two-story, squarish building, with a balcony and galleries extending under the side windows. There was neither spire nor bell. Hymns were "lined out" by the pastor or one of the deacons, with no musical accompaniment. This meeting house served the parish until after the Revolutionary War, when, in 1805, a new meeting house was built where it stands today. It had about twice the floor space, a steeple and a small Paul Revere bell, but otherwise was much like the original building, with a balcony and galleries under the upper level of windows. Baptists and Universalists also used this meeting house for a short time until their churches were built. The log schoolhouse had been removed in 1797, and the 1755 meeting house was put up for sale in 1805. The beautiful manse beside the church was built by Pastor Jewett for his wife, and sold when he retired in 1836.

Among interesting historical notes, Pastor Cleveland served as a field chaplain in the French and Indian wars, yet also helped to found Dartmouth College, with its emphasis on higher education for Indians. He was a chaplain in the Continental Army and his son was an officer in the Sandy Bay company at Bunker Hill. In 1843, under Pastor Gale, the church voted a strong resolution supporting the Abolitionist movement. In 1865, ex-president Franklin Pierce, standing on the green in front of the church, greeted soldiers returning from the Civil War.

September 8, 1814, the British frigate Nymph invaded Sandy Bay. One of her barges surprised and captured the barracks at the end of Bearskin Neck; when the second was seen entering the Old Harbor, the meeting house bell sounded the alarm. The crew shot at the bell to silence it and hit the steeple instead. Firing the shot, the carronade went through the bottom of the barge, and the crew were captured as they swam ashore. Their captain effected an exchange of prisoners and promised not to bother the town any more. The church still has the cannonball. The wooden replica in the steeple was probably added in one of the later reconstructions.

When Sandy Bay became the Town of Rockport in 1840, the meeting house was completely redecorated and the steeple enlarged to support a heavier bell. Probably during the brief period between the new meeting house with its steeple in 1805 and the Universalist church with its steeple in 1829 the nickname of "The Old Sloop" was conferred by the fishermen. In 1842 the General Court released the meeting house to the Congregational church.

From 1855 to 1870 the Second Congregational church was at the corner of School Street and Broadway. After the two groups reunited, in 1872 they cut the First Church building in half, separated the halves by about twenty feet and then reconnected them. At that time the steeple was again enlarged and strengthened, with a new and heavier bell and the Town clock. The two levels of windows became the beautiful tall windows of today. At the bicentennial of the meeting house in 1955, a major redecoration of the interior was completed. A particularly fine new Andover organ was installed in 1975.

In only two matters does the specter of the old meeting house survive. When the weathered condition of the steeple demanded rebuilding in 1937, funds were raised by public subscription as would have happened in old parish days. And a nominal "rent" is still paid for the Town clock. Few such meeting houses still stand that can compete with the Old Sloop for its well-documented history and its colonial beauty.

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