First Parish Church – 218 Central Ave
This fifth home of the First Parish Church was dedicated on December 31, 1829. The brick structure was built for $13,000 plus $1250 for the pipe organ (still in place, refurbished in 1977). Its steeple is 146 feet high, and its 150-pound rooster weathervane measures five feet across. The tower clock, installed on May 1, 1835, was constructed in Boscawen by Benjamin Morrill for $300.
The First Parish Church was founded in 1633 and its first meetinghouse, a log structure, was built in 1634 at Dover Point, somewhere in the vicinity of the current Spaulding Turnpike tollbooth. As the congregation grew, a second meetinghouse, 40’ by 26’, was constructed in 1654, fortified in 1667, and used until about 1710. Its spot is still marked along Dover Point Road where the earthworks of the fort can still be seen. As the populace of Dover expanded slowly northward toward the village at Cochecho, a third meetinghouse was erected at Pine Hill, circa 1710. Both houses were used for about a decade, but finally in 1720 all services were permanently transferred to Pine Hill. The bell from the second meetinghouse was brought to Pine Hill and hung on a frame as the third church had no belfry. (This bell was used until 1913.) In 1731, members of the congregation established a cemetery on the site, Pine Hill Cemetery, which is still used today.
Up until 1762, the town of Dover and the First Parish Church were one and the same. The church meetinghouse was also the seat of government. In 1762, the parish was recognized as a separate body from the town although taxpayers continued to support the church until 1828.
The fourth First Parish Church was built in 1758 at Tuttle Square. It was a two-story wooden structure with a steeple, facing south at a right angle to the present church façade. It served the congregation for the next seventy years until the next population surge in the 1820s when the Cochecho Mills were established and the size of Dover doubled in a decade. Also in 1827, a portion of the First Parish Church’s congregation, avowing a more liberal doctrine than the fundamentalist minister of that time espoused, split off to form the Unitarian Society. The Unitarians built a new church in Dover the next year in a “style attractive and novel” which no doubt added to the First Parish members’ desire for a more modern structure as well. (Another doctrinal split occurred in 1856 when the more conservative members left to form the Belknap Congregational Church.) The fourth First Parish Church was called “insufficient and distasteful” in 1824 and a portion of it was sold to Samuel Woodman for $175. Woodman moved it to 32-34 Court Street where it stands today. The fourth church was demolished beginning on March 30, 1829 and for the remainder of that year services were held in the Court House across the street, also the home of the First Parish Sunday School which had begun in 1818.
The present church continued improvements and innovations through the next century. Coal furnaces and gas fixtures were installed in the mid-1800s and a vestry building was erected on Central Street near Kirkland in 1860. In 1878 new pews and stained glass windows were added and the church was rededicated on November 28, 1878. In 1888, the parish house was built on the site of the old Belknap School and the former vestry building was sold. In 1946, the church’s side balconies were removed and a new altar designed. Once again the church was rededicated on November 24, 1946. During the mid-1950s, Memorial Hall and numerous classrooms were constructed in the church’s basement and dedicated on September 26, 1956. The home at 208-210 Central Avenue was torn down in 1961 to make room for a church parking lot and the stained glass windows were replaced with white glass windows for a more colonial appearance. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
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