Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church (1866).
Provincetown lore has it that the congregation of the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church were the architects of their own destruction. Their hubris in deliberately erecting a steeple higher than that of the Center Methodist Episcopal Church — the mother church from which the Centenary group had sprung — placed them in God’s crosshairs. In the fateful predawn hours of 14 March 1908, a lightning bolt found purchase of this immodestly high structure, and started a blaze that worked its way slowly down the steeple, out of range of the firefighters’ hoses, until it reached the roof of the main sanctuary, which it consumed in an explosive instant. “Their ambition was their undoing,” Nancy W. Paine Smith wrote in The Provincetown Book. It’s a story that’s almost too good to check out.
On the back of this postcard is written: “Centenary Church as it looked while burning. Isaiah sat by window all night and watched it. Mar. 14, 1908.” The photo was taken from Central Street, closer to the rear of the building. The steeple is toward the right. From the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum (PC0133).
The photo seems to have been taken from about where the “24” appears. This detail of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map From Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1889), comes from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261889.
Once you poke around, however, the old story loses some credibility. Consider this: Centenary’s steeple reached a height of 165 feet. Center’s steeple topped out at 162 feet. But the land from which Centenary rose is only 21 feet above sea level, meaning the pinnacle of its steeple had a true elevation of 186 feet, as mariners would have seen it. In comparison, the parcel occupied by Center church (now the Provincetown Public Library), is 26 feet above sea level, yielding a total elevation of 188 feet for the apex of its steeple. From a skyline perspective, in other words, Centenary’s steeple would have been the shorter of the two. (Anyway, there’s no proof that the bigger the spire, the better the sects.)
There is also the unresolved question of why the people of Centenary split from the older Center congregation in the first place. If they did so in enmity, or over some doctrinal dispute, there’s more reason to believe their impulse to build closer to heaven than their downtown rivals. Smith, a generally reliable historian, stated that 90 members of the Center church bolted after a revival led by a Mr. Dunbar, “a mystic and a man without the saving knowledge of when to speak.” I have yet to corroborate this episode — not to say it didn’t happen. But Herman Jennings, also reliable, ascribed a benign cause to the division. He wrote in Provincetown that the number of Methodists had increased so greatly here that it was “thought advisable to make two separate churches, and place one of them toward the western end of the town to accommodate the residents there.”
Postcard published by the Provincetown Advocate in Germany. From the author’s collection.
Anyway, the West End Methodists first worshipped in the Wesley Chapel, 164 Commercial Street, a sanctuary that was originally constructed by the Universalists in 1830. They turned it over to the Methodists in 1848 upon the completion of their magnificent meeting house downtown. The Methodists set about constructing their large church in 1865, presumably after the Civil War ended, and dedicated it in June 1866, during the pastorate of the Rev. George W. Bridge. The bell was taken from the Wesley Chapel and installed in this building.
The year 1866 was providential because American Methodists were celebrating their centenary; marking 100 years since Philip Embury had begun preaching the tenets of John Wesley to the people of New York City. There are many “Centenary” Methodist churches in the United States, also dating to 1866.
No matter what its height may have been relative to Center Church, Centenary dominated the West End skyline. From the collection of Ben Kettlewell.
The church as seen from Joseph Manta’s Wharf, 179 Commercial Street. From the collection of Ben Kettlewell.
Important architectural attributions are rare in Provincetown, but Steve Jerome has ascribed the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church to Samuel J. F. Thayer (1842-1893), who had studied under Henry Hobson Richardson, perhaps the greatest force in advancing the Romanesque style in American architecture. At the time of the Provincetown project, Thayer was in practice with Abel C. Martin as Martin & Thayer. The firm designed another Centenary Methodist Church, in Stanstead, Quebec, about 80 miles east-southeast of Montréal. Thayer employed the round-arch Romanesque elements in the Provincetown church, as he would in later and much better known commissions, including Providence City Hall of 1878, the Nevins Library of 1883 in Methuen, and Wilson Hall of 1885 at Dartmouth College (originally the college library).
The bell tower, centered at the front of the gabled main sanctuary, rose in tiers. Above the entrance porch was a large round-arched window, oriented to the east-southeast, which meant it would be amply illuminated during morning services. Above the window was the belfry, from which the steeple rose to an ultimate height of 165 feet. Buttressing the tower were the flanking pavilions of the narthex. The main sanctuary was about 90 feet long and 60 feet wide, or 5,400 square feet.
Methodist ministers are not called by congregations, but are instead assigned or reassigned by annual conferences. In Centenary’s early years, no pastor served longer than three years; not a lot of time to leave an impression. However, the Rev. George H. Bates, who was here in 1877, was credited by Smith with having “patiently taught the excitable members of his flock that hysteria and religion are not necessarily connected, and sometimes far apart.” This may say less about Bates than it does about Smith’s prejudice against the ardor of evangelical Methodism.
Left: The headline in a 7 a.m. extra edition of The Boston Globe. Newspapers.com Image No. 431103398. Right: I don’t know which newspaper published this account. From the collection of Ben Kettlewell.
The dramatic end of the Centenary church came shortly before 2:00 a.m. on 14 March 1908. After the lightning strike, Smith wrote, the fire burned so slowly and so fitfully that many “watching it thought it might be a corposant which plays harmlessly about the masts of vessels. There was no sign of fire within the building, and none without, except that lofty point, when suddenly the whole structure burst into flame.”
By that time, the entire Provincetown Fire Department was at work, with hose companies stationed at all four corners of the building, playing tens of thousands of gallons of water into the structure. One firefighter was briefly trapped behind the church organ. Firefighter James Callaghan and four other men were caught in the tower. After being rescued, Callaghan is supposed to have said, “Imagine an Irishman being burned to death in a Congregational church.” (Given the peril and immediacy of the inferno, I think we can excuse his momentary ignorance of which separated church was involved.) It took four hours to extinguish the fire fully. Though the hose companies and neighbors with garden houses prevented the blaze from spreading — no small feat — the Centenary church was a total loss. No lives were lost, however.
In a place where there is little or no native timber, wood has never been wasted on the Lower Cape. Church authorities “gave permission to the townspeople to visit the ruins and take away as much wood as they wished from the half-burned walls, floors, and pews,” The Boston Globe reported, “with the distinct understanding that they would collect this wood at their own risk.”
Town residents were allowed to comb through the wreckage for good timber. Two boys were killed in their search. The ballast stone wall in the right foreground still exists, in front of the White Wind Inn, 174 Commercial Street. Postcard from the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum (PC0134).
And so 12-year-old Joseph Roderick Holmes and 14-year-old Joseph B. Oliver Jr., accompanied by the older Manuel Prada, joined a large crew of salvagers on 30 March. Unlike the others, who were more cautious, this threesome decided to harvest particularly good timbers in the narthex or the porch. “They were trying to dislodge some boards with the aid of axes when suddenly the persons outside heard a crash,” The Globe account continued.
“They rushed to the door and found that the ceiling of what had been the front entry, directly below where the spire had been, had fallen and had caught the man and the two boys beneath its timbers. As quickly as possible, the beams and boards were lifted away, and [Prada] was rescued. But when the bodies of the two boys were uncovered, it was seen that death must have been instantaneous.”
Old Provincetown was a tough place. It had to be. The boys’ bodies were taken to their homes nearby. And the timber salvaging resumed the next day.
¶ Last updated on 29 September 2020.
170 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 170 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Detail of a postcard from the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum (PC0136).
• Joseph B. Oliver Jr. (1893-1908)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 185021521.