Rev. John Haney arrived on the island last month to lead the Nantucket United Methodist Church as its new pastor. And though his mission may be daunting, Haney is embracing the challenge ahead of him.
“My purpose for being here is to save the church,” said Haney, a 68-year-old father of four grown daughters. The 200-year-old church at 2 Centre Street is one of the most important landmarks of downtown Nantucket with a rich history, but these days, Haney said attendance at worship service on Sundays attracts as few as 15 or 20 people.
“But they’re active - they’re very active - and they do not want to give up and I’m not going to let them,” Haney said. “The bottom line was the bishop and the district superintendent saying ‘Go grow that church.’ Okay, I can do that. And then I got here, and it was kind of empty. But let me just say this, the ones that are here are so faithful. And I saw that when I first met everybody, and I thought to myself, ‘I'm going to do this. I'm going to do this.’ And together with God's help, of course, we will.”
A musician, self-proclaimed “gearhead,” and rock ‘n’ roll drummer, Haney comes from a long line of Methodist pastors. Though he grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, Haney speaks with a southern accent from his years living in South Carolina where he went to college and met his wife.
Haney had been living in the northeast for the past two years and working as a chaplain with Seafarer’s Friend - a nonprofit that extends the ministry of churches to meet the spiritual needs of the New England maritime community - when he said God called him out of retirement.
“In my heart, God impressed upon my heart to say ‘I need you one more time’,” Haney said. “I want to pull you out of retirement because I've been retired for 23 years.”
He then met with Bishop Peggy Johnson, of the United Methodist Church’s New England Conference, to explore his options to return to service.
“She said ‘We don't want to lose the Nantucket United Methodist Church. We need you to go there’,” Haney recalled. “She said ‘I read your resume and prayed about it.’ And so God's telling her, God's telling me, and so we met in the middle at that church and we agreed. I verbally said, ‘I'm all in. I'm all in.’ Nantucket - never been there, but it's an island with sailing boats, fishing, you know, swimming, and surfing. And that's me. I'm a water guy. I’ve got to be close to the water.”
When Haney arrived in September, the church parsonage on Polliwog Pond Road was still under construction due to the fire that gutted it back in June. For now, the church has set him up with an apartment on Coffin Street, a short walk away from the church.
Now his focus is on growing the congregation in an era of declining church attendance and rising secularism. Haney hopes to build on the rich history of the Methodist Church, spearhead a new marketing push, and leverage the internet by livestreaming sermons, something which the church has already started.
“Those doors have to stay open, and the lights have to stay on,” Haney said. “This church has survived hurricanes, cold weather freezes, you know, the whole nine yards. And she’s still here. So I couldn’t just walk away from something like this. It’s too huge. It’s a God thing, yeah. And God would like to see his church alive and well again. And that’s going to happen.”
Haney said he’s already started to make inroads on the island by letting different organizations and individuals know that the Methodist Church has a new pastor who’s made a commitment to Nantucket. He said that his agreement with the Methodist Church bishop is a two- to five-year plan for him to stay on the island and grow the congregation.
“I’m reaching out in the community so that they know I’m the real deal,” Haney said.
His arrival coincides with the Methodist Church’s bicentennial year. The year the building was constructed - 1823 - is emblazoned at the very top of the church’s facade on Centre Street. Haney said it’s not yet clear how the church will be recognizing or celebrating the 200th anniversary.
The structure, a striking example of the Greek revival architectural style that flourished on-island in the early 19th century, is mostly unaltered from its original construction in 1823, save for a significant renovation in 1840 that added the church’s gable roof. Many of the original fixtures, including the windows, remain to this day.
To pay for the land and the expensive construction work in 1823, parishioners bought the pews they would eventually sit in. These parishioners were dubbed Proprietors and received actual deeds for the pews they purchased, recorded in the same manner as the deeds for buildings.
Two hundred years later, though parishioners no longer own their pews, the church still stands at the top of Main Street, the oldest wooden structure in downtown Nantucket. If legend is to be believed, the church owes its continued existence to astronomer Maria Mitchell, who purportedly stood on the steps of the building during the Great Fire and begged the firefighters not to demolish it. As she spoke, the winds changed, and the church was spared.
The church also owes its survival to the Two Centre Street Restoration Project. In 1995, the Methodist Church was falling apart. It was listed as one of the most endangered buildings in Massachusetts, and some preservation advocates feared it was nearly past the point where restoration efforts could be effective. However a team of church members and local volunteers banded together to save the building, and over the last 28 years, their efforts have been extremely successful.
The church practically gleams in the sun now, the restoration efforts and the bright titanium paint belying its advanced age. In fact, the structure itself may be even older than 200. In 2002, preservation architect Jeff Baker estimated that the structure was actually built in 1760, and then disassembled and shipped to Nantucket, where it was reassembled in 1823.
But it isn’t just the building’s age that makes it so historically important. The original pyramidal roof, which survives concealed beneath the gable, is the only documented roof in New England built of wood shingles on a half-inch bed of lime mortar. The Church is also home to the oldest organ built in America that is still in regular use, the 1831 Appleton Pipe Organ that dominates the building’s back wall. Attend a service one Sunday morning, and you might even get to hear it played.