Dover’s churches were once many and varied
DOVER, N.H. (AP) — The Garrison City has had many places of worship over the years, but many of them have fallen victim to fire, or the wrecker’s ball and bulldozers.
Most recent is the loss of a truly unique part of Dover’s past, St. Charles Church on Central Avenue. Opened in 1935 it was constructed to replace the original St. Charles located on the northerly side of Third Street, several lots to the west of the present St. Mary’s Church. This was a wooden structure that was destroyed by fire in 1932.
St. Mary’s is also a replacement. Way back in 1830 it is said that the lot at the corner of Third and Chestnut was the property of the owners of the Cocheco Mills, Yankee Protestants from Boston but shrewd enough to know that their Irish Catholic employees would be more apt to stay in Dover — and to encourage others to join them — if there were a Catholic parish in the community. So the land was donated and a church building, then called St. Aloysius, was erected at that location. Also a wooden structure, it also succumbed to fire and the current building — already under construction at the time of the fire — became the “Irish” church. St. Charles, when built in later years, being the “French” church.
At the corner of Pierce Street and Central Avenue was the Pierce Memorial Church. This was built by Thomas W. Pierce in memory of his parents. It was a brick structure with a single steeple on the right side, not dissimilar to the design of the existing Baptist Church on Washington Street. This served for many years as a Unitarian congregation, but dwindling numbers eventually led to its closure and it remained empty until the Merchants Bank took over a former A & P supermarket (now People’s United Bank) refurbished that building and demolished a service station immediately next door (Bob Steven’s Gulf) and the church, giving us today’s open space on the corner.
Another church structure that remained empty for many years was the Belknap Church on Central Avenue, in the space now occupied by the parking lot next to Sonny’s. The congregation here was an offshoot of the First Parish Church, and the building was constructed in 1859. This was a fairly standard brick church structure except that the street level was designed for retail space as a means of providing income for the church. Services were held in an upper level sanctuary.
Thereafter the church had an eventful history. Next door at the time of its opening was Dover’s City Hall. Dover had been incorporated as a city in 1855. The church had ended regular services in 1881, so it was not being used in 1889 when the City Hall burned causing serious damage to the church building. After making necessary repairs, the church reopened in 1896, only to suffer more fire damage 10 years later when the original Masonic Temple (which had replaced City Hall) was destroyed by fire — more repairs and another reopening in 1909 only to close for good in 1911. The church portion of the building remained empty although the retail space continued to be used — for many years as Sundeen’s Appliance store — until the city purchased the property in 1965 and created the present-day open lot.
St. John’s Methodist Church was located on the corner of what was Portland Street (now Chapel Street) and St. John’s Street. The land was donated by the Waldron family (an old Dover name — there is an existing cemetery next to the site), and the first wooden building was constructed in 1825. Two years later a vestry was added and a parsonage two years after that. In 1875 the current brick structure was built and the interior sanctuary space was large enough to accommodate 1,000 people. Fortunately, this building remains although the congregation built a new church and meeting hall off Cataract Avenue, transferring title to the existing building to the Dover Housing Authority and it has been used for many years for elderly housing.
One final item ... Although the building itself is intact, at one point St. John’s built a meeting hall, donated by a member of the Lothrop family (another old Dover name) directly opposite the church on the corner of Mechanic Street. In 1945 that was sold and has served Dover’s Lebanese community as St. George’s Church to the present day.