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A Mysterious Copper Box, Buried For Over 100 Years, Offers Up Some Boston History

People gather at the First Lutheran Church of Boston for the opening of the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
People gather at the First Lutheran Church of Boston for the opening of the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A 123-year-old time capsule was opened this week after being discovered in Boston's South End.

Workers found an old copper box beneath a cornerstone of a former Lutheran church during its demolition.

In recent years, the building on West Newton Street housed the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. Nonprofit Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, which oversaw the arts center, will break ground on a new building next year.

IBA acquired the former church in 1980. It had previously been known as St. Paul’s Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. The German Lutheran Society of Boston built the church in 1898, and the congregation gathered there until 1959.

IBA had planned to remodel the building, but found structural deficiencies forcing them to demolish the structure.

Workers found the box beneath the cornerstone of a 19th century church in the South End. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Workers found the box beneath the cornerstone of a 19th century church in the South End. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Workers found the box beneath a hollowed-out piece of granite, under the building’s cornerstone. Upon its discovery, IBA leader Vanessa Calderón-Rosado brought it back to the church’s leaders. “We felt it was important for us to share it with the church to preserve history,” she said.

The church's pastors predicted the box would contain German religious texts. According to the church’s historical records, until the 1900s, services were conducted in German only.

William Valentín pries open the seal of the 1898 copper box found under a cornerstone of the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, formerly a Lutheran church, when the building was demolished in 2020. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
William Valentín pries open the seal of the 1898 copper box found under a cornerstone of the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, formerly a Lutheran church, when the building was demolished in 2020. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

William Valentín, IBA’s facility manager, had the task of prying the box open. Valentín thought there would be a bottle inside, but had a different idea after shaking it.

Standing before a small crowd of people at First Lutheran Church in Back Bay, Valentín used tools to break the seal along the bottom of the box, which had oxidized to a bluish color over time. He worked slowly, tackling one side at at time. As Valentín turned to each side, the anticipation escalated.

A heap of dust fell out first. Valentín flipped the box over, took the top off, and his earlier prediction came true: “When I took the box, I shake it and I know it’s paper.”

He was right.

Wearing a protective glove, Rev. James Hopkins gently lifts a bundle of papers from the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Wearing a protective glove, Rev. James Hopkins gently lifts a bundle of papers from the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

So was a previous pastor of the Lutheran church. Reverend Ingo Dutzman, who served from 1997-2019, guessed the box would hold a book of hymns. Knowing that the materials might be in German, the church also invited Reverend Walter Reuning, who was a pastor from 1967-1997, to translate.

First Lutheran Church of Boston pastors Rev. James Hopkins, Rev. Walter Reuning and Rev. Ingo Dutzmann, stand for a photo with Dr. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, after the opening of the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
First Lutheran Church of Boston pastors Rev. James Hopkins, Rev. Walter Reuning and Rev. Ingo Dutzmann, stand for a photo with Dr. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, after the opening of the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The current pastor, Reverend James Hopkins, wearing gloves, carefully removed the items alongside Calderón-Rosado. Covered in debris, Hopkins took out what seemed to be paper that had deteriorated. The box contained newspapers in English and German from 1898 that had coins embedded into it, and a book of hymns bound together by a leather spine. The newspaper material had managed to withstand the time and dirt, unlike the hardly legible book of hymns.

Rev. James Hopkins examines a newspaper found inside the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rev. James Hopkins examines a newspaper found inside the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
One of the many papers, printed in German, found inside the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
One of the many papers, printed in German, found inside the 1898 copper box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Four coins that were found inside a bundle of papers in the box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Four coins that were found inside a bundle of papers in the box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It turns out the contents had been documented in the church’s historical records. “The cornerstone of Zion was laid, inside which were placed a hymnal, a catechism, a copy of the Augsburg Confession, and the history of the congregation up to that time, as well as the constitution of the church, signatures of its officers, church papers and newspapers, and a number of the current coins,” the history read.

The items will be on view at the First Lutheran Church of Boston.

Magdiela Matta Twitter Arts Fellow
Magdiela Matta is the reporting fellow for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team.

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