Advocates Pray For The Restoration Of Historic Churches

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Historic Boston Inc. assisted Roxbury Presbyterian Church with the restoration of the church’s distinctive tower, replacing the roof and repairing other important structural features. (Historic Boston Inc.)
Historic Boston Inc. assisted Roxbury Presbyterian Church with the restoration of the church’s distinctive tower, replacing the roof and repairing other important structural features. (Historic Boston Inc.)

Everybody has their own idea of a horror story. For Judy Neiswander of the Boston Preservation Alliance, this is hers.

"I was talking to a minister from a suburban community that I shall not name," Neiswander said. "The congregation simply couldn't support their wonderful historic church. They had huge stained glass windows. Ten of them were by Tiffany. They sold them to a fellow who breaks up Tiffany stained glass windows and uses them to make lampshades."

In Greater Boston, home to over 150 historic churches, this is all-too-common a problem.

Roxbury Presbyterian Church before restoration — date unknown (Historic Boston Inc.)
Roxbury Presbyterian Church before restoration (Historic Boston Inc.)

Some of the churches are housed in magnificent old buildings and many, such as Trinity Church in Boston's Copley Square and King's Chapel on Beacon Hill, draw thousands of visitors each year. But not all of the churches are so well-cared for.

Many congregations are shrinking, and most of those that are growing are poor. That means dozens of religious structures that would be considered priceless in less historic cities are being reduced to slumping, leaking, boarded-up shadows of their former selves.

Churches are struggling in old buildings across the country. In Upham's Corner in Dorchester, one congregation is doing something about it.

St. Mary's Episcopal Church

From the widow's walks atop the grand old mansions in Dorchester, you can see the ocean, but the majority of buildings are in some state of disrepair. Every few doors there's a bright spot, though, where someone is working hard to restore what once was.

The Rev. Cathy George, of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, built in 1888 on Jones Hill, hasn't given up on the historic building that houses her congregation.

"It's a beautiful sanctuary and we have beautiful Tiffany glass windows," George said. "This was the church of the Boston Brahmins when Jones Hill in Dorchester was the fanciest place to live in Boston."

The church was designed by Henry Vaughan, the eminent Gothic revivalist behind Washington National Cathedral and Saint John the Divine in New York.

A sea of blue tarps protects exquisite wood and stone works that have survived at least three decades of decline here. The tarps are protecting the sanctuary because the congregation is putting on a new roof.

When George took over three years ago, barely 20 congregants attended the church each Sunday.

"I mean, it was ready to close," George said, "because they couldn't begin to support the kind of operating budget to even heat this and run it — let alone to even begin to think about restoration."

Before the reverend could think about restoration, she had to rebuild her parish. She reached out to new arrivals in the neighborhood with programs like the food pantry she runs out of the church.

"The best way to preserve a building is to use it, and to use it for the purpose for which it was built."

Judy Neiswander

"We have committed Anglicans from the Caribbean," George said. "We have a whole community on Jones Hill that is doing an amazing job of refurbishing these beautiful old Victorian homes, and many of them are gay men who have taken an interest in the church."

It's with that diverse group of people — some with money, some with skills — that George has started to make improvements. They cleared out decades of accumulated junk and they built a new playground, but there were still bigger problems to tackle.

"We had an enormous leak behind the organ," George said, "and when we got a ladder high enough, and found someone willing to climb up into the roof and look, a seedling of a tree had seeded in the gutter. And we had a two-and-a-half-foot trunk of a tree growing right out of the roof."

Needless to say, the church needed to be repaired.

After the Episcopal diocese became convinced that George was bringing the church back to life, they sold a declining church in South Boston and freed up $500,000 for the new roof they're putting on St Mary's now.

Neiswander, of the Boston Preservation Alliance, brought me to St. Mary's to see a success story of a historic church that was saved, and serves as an example to others.

"It's like a phoenix rising from the ashes," Neiswander said.

But how replicable is this story? After all, it was the Episcopal diocese that came through with the big bucks.

Boston Preservation Alliance

"Many of the historic churches don't have that kind of support," Neiswander said. "Many of them are independent. And of course the fastest-growing sector of the the faith community is the Evangelical community churches that often have taken over churches from mainline denominations, moved into them, and then they don't have any support in keeping up the buildings."

So, what to do about it?

The Boston Preservation Alliance thinks it may have the solution. The group is organizing a first-of-its-kind "Workshop on the Preservation of Religious Properties."

Rev. Cathy George inside St. Mary’s Episcopal Church as it undergoes a renovation. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)
Rev. Cathy George inside St. Mary’s Episcopal Church as it undergoes a renovation. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

At the workshop, an array of speakers will offer tips on mobilizing volunteers, applying for grants and sourcing materials, and attendees will discuss everything from stained glass restoration to energy efficiency.

Representatives from dozens of churches are planning to attend, but the people from the alliance are still a little defensive in the way they're couching Saturday's event.

"Historic preservation can be intimidating to a lot of people," said Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. "There's a perception that it means people from outside a community coming in and telling you what you can and can't do with your building."

But Neiswander and Kelly insist that their goal is only to provide resources to struggling local churches — not to change thriving communities.

"The best way to preserve a building is to use it," Neiswander said, "and to use it for the purpose for which it was built."

The current conversation on preserving historic churches in Boston centers on preserving these churches as churches. But nowadays, many historic churches are being preserved in other ways.

In many areas of Western Europe, where religiosity is plummeting, they're preserving a lot of the structures that are vital to their culture as museums, or re-purposing them in order to continue to make them economically viable.

Obviously, this is a sensitive question for church and historical preservation advocates.

Neiswander and Kelly want to preserve buildings, but the church stewards they're inviting to their workshop want to preserve faith communities. The two interests don't always align; look at all the churches in the South End, South Boston and Cambridge that have been converted to condos.

"It still has some of its presence on the street as a church, which is a good thing," Neiswaner said. "But it's OK, it's a little sad."

In the end, preserving a church is no easy task.

"There are certainly situations in which a church does close," Kelly said, "but there are still many situations where you do have congregations that want to continue."

With technical assistance and support, Kelly said, "Many of them do have a chance."

This program aired on November 10, 2010.


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