By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – Drivers traveling on Ten Rod Road last Thursday were treated to an amazing site: the entire exterior of the historic Chestnut Hill Baptist Church’s belfry had been taken down, leaving behind a skeleton made of tree trunks surrounding an ancient bell.
As contractors from Keach Framing removed the last remnants – dealt a death blow by Tropical Storm Irene – church members working on the ground put the finishing touches on the new louvers they’d built to create a crown for the venerable meeting house.
Joe Allen, a church trustee and contractor, had measured and cut the components at his house two weeks earlier. The original steeple, it turns out, had blown down in the 1938 hurricane.
“We’re keeping the mainframe, replacing rotted timbers and installing a new wheel to operate the bell,” according to one crewman working on the latest incarnation. “It will also have spindles and a rail on top.
It is the latest project in a planned restoration/renovation of the 280-year-old church that began eight years ago.
“We started by stripping off all the lead paint and restored [the sanctuary] to the original,” explains the Rev. J. Allen Black, 71, a former Methodist minister who took the pulpit at this Baptist church some 10 years ago, substituting during the summer for the vacationing pastor. When she left, he was asked to return.
Mr. Black, who began his professional life in the retail business, declares that he found Christ as a teenager, attending a Billy Graham crusade in New York City. As an adult, after a customer encouraged him to enter the ministry, he received an associates degree then transferred to Barrington Bible College. He later attended Acadia Divinity College, in Nova Scotia, finishing up at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Following an active career, he found himself between pastoral assignments after serving a parish in Wakefield.
“It was perfect,” he recalls of the invitation from Chestnut Hill. “I said ‘I’m looking for a church; you’re looking for a pastor.’”
His wife, Bette-Jean, is the librarian at the Metcalf School.
In terms of restoration and repair of the antique building, the pastor is a pay-as-you-go kind of guy.
“We did as much as we could pay for,” says Mr. Black of the initial work. “I don’t like churches to be in debt.”
An addition was put on in the early ‘80s, housing the fellowship and offices on the first floor and a Sunday school downstairs.
The small sanctuary – its pews now refinished to a rich shine showing off new cushions; the walls and altar gleaming white; the original 12-on-12 windows restored; 125-year-old reclaimed ceiling fans and new carpet installed; four bright yet simple chandeliers in place – routinely accommodates more than 60 for Sunday services.
“We have quite a few young families as well as our older members,” says Mr. Black. “It’s a friendly, warm church. Literally everybody stays for coffee hour and we have a big potluck on the last Sunday of the month.
“If you leave here hungry, it’s your fault.”
Chestnut Hill has the distinction of being the third-oldest Baptist church in the state to offer continuous services, having gotten its start in a small structure off New Road that’s now a house.
The construction of the current church is a fascinating assemblage of items of local history and ingenuity.
The stone foundation is created by boulders hauled from the Pardon Joslin farm. The entire building rests on the trunks of oak trees felled on the site; indeed, all the church uprights are a series of interlocking tree trunks holding each other up.
“We couldn’t take the pews out to refinish them,” notes the pastor. “They go right into the cellar trunks.”
When the roof was removed for repair, it was discovered that all the trusses and other construction were pegged together; not a single nail had been used.
The churchmen who normally show up for work details, says Mr. Black, “can tell you stories all day long. They like to say you have to be over 70 to work on the crew. Their motto is ‘We’re not fast but we’re good.’”
The old painted wood sign, once attached to the church, was removed when exterior updates were made and has a place of honor among a display of artifacts inside. The lock on the original front doors was taken out and restored. It is still opened by a long skeleton key that folds in half for storage in a caretaker’s pocket.
These days, as the venerable church is undergoing a structural renewal, its purpose is also strengthening.
A major focus is on mission programs. Besides supplying health kits and school supplies, the congregation typically donates its whole Christmas Eve offering to charitable projects.
“We keep nothing,” says Mr. Black of the annual collection. “Last year, half went to Samaritan’s Purse [the foundation headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son] to bring a child who needed heart surgery from Africa to America.”
The remainder was used to save a Providence neighborhood program from cancellation.
“We believe,” Mr. Black asserts, “that God will supply the income when the outgo meets his approval.”