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The Meetinghouse, Home of the Orleans Historical Society

Published in the Cape Cod Chronicle, November 2017

It seems the beginning of any series of articles on the Orleans Historical Society should be the story of our building, the Meetinghouse. The Meetinghouse was built in 1834 to host the newly formed congregation of the “The Universal Church of Christ of Orleans.”

Universalism was a new religion in New England then. With European roots, it had grown since the Revolution until it was formally organized in Boston in 1825. Universalists believed in universal salvation- that God would not create man only to sentence them to eternal damnation. Congregational churches based on Puritan Calvinistic beliefs had been established along with towns throughout New England since the arrival of the Pilgrims. But by the early 19th century, people were looking for alternatives more in line with Enlightenment thinking and the Universalist beliefs proved appealing. Many parishes broke apart over ideas such as sin, salvation, and the idea of the trinity. The Congregational Church in Orleans was one of these. A number of representatives from the leading families- Knowles, Linnell, Coles, Kendrick, Crosby, Higgins, and others- met on April 8, 1833 to form a new Universalist church in town. I’m curious about the reaction of the rest of the town- were they considered radicals? Were they shunned or treated differently? Or was it just the type of thing done at the time? Many of the men who were at that meeting were and remained town leaders, so it could not have been that scandalous.

The new church built the Meetinghouse in the Greek Revival style on land at the geographical center of town purchased for $30. They kept worshipping in the building until changes to the population of Orleans decreased the sizes of both congregations and the Universalists reunited with the Congregationalists to form the Federated Church in town. The old Meetinghouse was used for classes and for services in the summer until keeping two buildings became too much and they sold the older building to the Orleans Historical Society in 1971.

The Meetinghouse, late 1800s

We’ve cared for and lived in the space since. It is a wonderful space. Earlier this year, a preservation expert inspected the building and he reported “most [physical] elements are in excellent condition, particularly the structure of the building.” He did have some suggestions to either shore up the building for the future or to make the spaces more conducive to museum and community activities. These include things such as a handicapped entrance and restroom, fire suppression and updated electrical, heating and alarm systems. These recommendations will be implemented in three stages. The first are already underway, financed from our budget and include things such as a new hot water heater, emergency electrical lighting, and weather-stripping doors before winter.

For the next stage, Orleans voters in October’s Special Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved a $150,000 Community Preservation Act grant for necessary work including a fire suppression (sprinkler) system to ensure the building and its contents are safe, structural interior and external repairs, and repairs to damage by animals to the underground electrical and plumbing ductwork and insulation. Initial work will begin in January 2018 and continue for several months, during which time the building will be closed and collections moved off-site. We are hoping to be able to reopen in April with new exhibits.

Future stages of the project involve lifting and turning the Hurd Chapel- a small chapel from the Orleans Cemetery which is on museum property- so that it can increase our storage capacity, especially for the large objects people have been holding in their homes for us to find space for, like a duck sleigh or a buckboard carriage. An outside plaza would be created for community activities. And fundraising for this project will be concurrent with fundraising for the purchase of the Linnell House in late 2020. This is a lot for us to do, but we feel both these buildings are essential to the story and spirit of Orleans and to let either be lost to us would be a tragedy.

In the meantime, I encourage you to visit us before the end of the year. The Baseball in Orleans exhibit will be open until December- and the 2017 OHS Christmas ornament is baseball themed to go with it- you can pick it up when you visit! The last concert of the year will be on November 17 when two of this region’s finest musicians—pianist Anne Franciose Perrault and cellist Bo Ericsson— will collaborate to share “Masterpieces for Cello and Piano" with works from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. And if you are looking for volunteer work to do in December and January, we can use help organizing and packing the collection!

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