New year, new trim for Rochester's Congregational Church

By Andrea Ray | Dec 22, 2017
Photo by: Andrea Ray Workers on the roof of Rochester's First Congregational Church.

Rochester — The First Rochester Congregational Church's New Years resolution? It's time to get fit and trim for 2018.

Contractors from Fisher and Rocha of Mattapoisett are working on replacing some of the church's distinctive trim work, including the lower portion of the steeple and the points at the corners of the building. Several contractors are working on the roof, removing the old wood and installing a frame in the steeple. “The steeple was self-supporting,” explained Fisher and Rocha owner Bruce Rocha Sr. “But on the project, we’re using man-made materials and cement boards; we’ll need a frame now.”

In Fisher and Rocha’s building—formerly a 19th-century barrel-making factory on Route 6 in Mattapoisett—master craftsmen worked on restoring the clover-shaped “medallions,” which feature prominently on the bottom portion of the steeple.

Project overseer Jerry Lawrence explained the new medallions. “The edged used to be all wood,” he said. “Each inside board needs to be cut individually to fit. I can just imagine guys in the nineteenth century, up on the roof with their handsaws and wood shavers, cutting everything individually.”

The outlines of the clovers are now more of a particle board, a PVC-style plastic that looks like wood. “This should hold up to the weather for longer,” Lawrence said.

He added that the steeple and trim have probably been repaired a few times, but estimated that the woodwork removed from the steeple is still from the 19th century. “The nails we found were cut nails,” he explained, “which were never really used after the 1930s. Even so, I’d say this is nineteenth-century work. With a few adjustments,” he added, pointing to a few modern nails among those riddling the piece of wood in the workshop. “At some point someone must’ve gone up there to do some maintenance and decided a couple extra nails were needed.”

Replacing part of the church’s steeple is hardly the first foray into historical construction or restoration for employees at Fisher and Rocha; they helped to remove the historic 1892 bell from the same church in 2015. The company has also done exterior and window replacement work at the Mattapoisett Historical Society headquarters, Rochester’s Town Hall, and Mattapoisett’s First Congregational Church.

“We also rebuilt the steeple of the Third Meetinghouse in Mattapoisett from scratch,” Rocha Sr. said, pointing out the window of the workshop to where the steeple was visible. The steeple in question burned to a crisp on the Fourth of July several years ago, the result of one individual playing with matches.

“We actually built it on the ground, and literally had a crane lift it into place,” Rocha Sr. said with a laugh. “The students from the elementary school lined up to watch it being set in place.”

Working on historical buildings is no easy feat; any construction work must be approved by the town’s Historical Commission, and there are strict rules governing materials used and building appearance and care. There are no formal requirements to work on a historical structure, but as Rocha Sr. said, “You learn a lot after 53 years on the job.”

The company, he said, loves to hire apprentice carpenters and train them up to master carpenters, a process which takes at least five years. “If they come to you at the beginning, there are no bad habits to fix!” Rocha Sr. explained.

Lawrence estimates the entire steeple replacement project will take about five weeks to complete—the company’s contractors are already several weeks into work. “The nice thing is, if the weather is bad and we can’t get up on the roof, we can still come back to the workshop, work on all the decorative details, and just pop them back in when the weather clears up,” he said.

Jerry Lawrence and Ken McLain at work on one of the "medallions" that will grace the First Congregational Church of Rochester's steeple. (Photo by: Andrea Ray)
A medallion as it gets closer to completion. (Photo by: Andrea Ray)
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