Churches

First Church burns, June 13, 1965

It was a sad day for Ipswich when on June 13, 1965, lightning hit the steeple on the sanctuary of the First Church on Meeting House Green and the building was destroyed by fire. The building was more than a century old and was considered to be one of the best examples of Gothic church construction in America.

first-church-inside

The only element of the old church that is visible from the exterior of the building that replaced it is the rooster on the steeple. Read more about the history of First Church.

First Church in the early 20th Century was painted red
Painting of the old First Church by Franklin Butler Mitchell
Painting of the old First Church
first_church_fire_watchers
Photo by Wilbur Trask
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First Church, immediately after the fire
Bell from the Congregational Church in Ipswich MA
The bell from the old church was saved and is in the steeple of the current church. The boy standing by the bell is Bruce Klinger, age 12.
first_steeple
Although the building continued to stand, it had to be taken down. This photo was taken the moment the steeple hit the ground. The Town Clock was removed before this photo was taken.
first_church_clock
The rooster was saved and installed on the steeple. The new clocks are smaller but identical in appearance to the original.

The First Church Clock

by John Fiske

As the parish records tell us, “A clock purchased by subscription was landed in Ipswich May 29, 1762. The Parish on May 31st voted their readiness to receive it into the steeple of this meeting house and September 16, 1762 they voted to be at the charge of putting it up there.”

Then in 1846 (here comes another church), the First Church built the fifth church and relocated the clock into the new steeple where it continued to keep the town clicking along like (ahem!) clockwork. And then – calamity! In June, 1965, the church was destroyed by lightning and the clock reduced to a jumble of cogwheels lying in the ashes. Parishioners gathered them up, put them in a box and promptly forgot about them.

Fifty years later, a tower clock expert comes on the scene. Donn Lathrop heard about the pile of clock parts, inspected them and volunteered to take them to his Vermont workshop and put them back together again. And he did just that. Today the clock is back in town in full working order and probably more accurate than at any time in its history – it loses just one minute in 24 hours.

And here’s the problem. There’s no question of the clock’s importance: it’s the first town clock and it’s one of the earliest in New England. But it’s huge. It’s around eight feet high and six feet wide.  It can’t be fitted into the tower of the sixth church (are you still keeping count?) and for the time being it’s sitting in a hallway outside the pastor’s office. The Town Hall can’t find room to display it, nor can the Ipswich Museum.

*Update: the restored clock is now with the Templeton Museum.

Related posts:

12 Meeting House Green, the First Church Vestry (1832) - Built in 1832, the Vestry at 12 Meeting House Green was deeded to the First Church in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1838 by George W. Heard, Esquire. It has served First church and the community of Ipswich as a Chapel and now as a coffee house and meeting place. The historic building was recently restored.
Clock on First Church in Ipswich 1930 The First Church Clock - As the parish records tell us, “A clock purchased by subscription was landed in Ipswich May 29, 1762. The Parish on May 31st voted their readiness to receive it into the steeple of this meeting house and September 16, 1762 they voted to be at the charge of putting it up there.”
Sandown Meeting House Seating in the Meeting House - The question of greater and lesser dignity, carrying with it the question of higher or lower seats, became so vexing that the task of “seating the congregation” was laid upon the Selectmen.
First Church burns, June 13, 1965 - It was a sad day for Ipswich when on June 13, 1965, lightning hit the steeple on the sanctuary of the First Church on Meeting House Green and the building was destroyed by fire. The building was more than a century old and was considered to be one of the […]

Categories: Churches, Fires, History

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2 replies »

  1. my brother was baptized at the Methodist church that same day, we ere at my grandmothers on Warren St and saw the building burn it was so tragic

  2. I remember speaking with Elizabeth Newton and Mary Conley about the difficulty amongst parishioners in choosing a replacement design for the church. I gather it was contentious. If memory serves, author John Updike was one of those arguing that a church should reflect the time in which it was built, just as the earlier versions of the church reflected the design sensibilities of their own times. Architect Arland Dirlam was chosen and I think he was a well regarded church designer. His papers are held by Tufts University and also I think, some at MIT.

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