Conference to help city churches make sorely needed renovations

By 
Alex Owens Special to the Reporter
Nov. 4, 2010

Dorchester’s spiritual community has borne firsthand witness to the community’s history, which stretches back nearly four centuries. It was members of a church community, the First Parish Church, that founded this city within a city. After decades of service to their neighborhoods, many of Dorchester’s church buildings are daue for a much needed facelift, and their congregations are turning to the city’s historical organizations for aid.

The Boston Preservation Alliance is one such organization, a local non-profit that is focused on preserving the city’s arcchitectural heritage. The BPA is holding a city-wide interfaith workshop on church preservation on Saturday, November 13 in Roxbury. The premise of the one-day workshop is to link churches in need of a restoration to information and resources that may facilitate the process.

“Many of Boston’s most beautiful, and architecturally significant, houses of worship are in dire straits,” said Judy Neiswander, the BPA’s architectural historian and conference coordinator. “With this workshop, our goal is bringing together people who have an interest in church restoration.”

The BPA expects representatives from over 100 churches across the city, including a number of congregations from Dorchester. A major challenge for several older buildings is updating the facilities for the modern age, while maintaining the historical features.

“These are living buildings with living congregations,” said Neiswander. “We want to preserve these buildings but we are not interested in encasing them in amber.”

The aforementioned First Parish Church is in the process of restoring it’s current building and is expected to attend the workshop. First Parish’s current building is the sixth since the congregation was founded in 1630. Constructed in 1896, its restoration is expected to cost $5 million, significantly more than the cost of updating the building to modern safety codes and standards, according to church officials.

“The building has a lot of historical significance, and we’ve made a decision to preserve it’s historical character, even though it would be a lot cheaper to simply install some siding, replace the windows, etc.,” said Arthur Lavoie, the minister of First Parish Church. The large spaces in the church are used for several purposes around the community, serving as a meeting place for the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a venue for Dorchester Day events, and as a site for concerts and civic meetings.
“We are also mission-focused,” said Lavoie “This is being done to provide more services to the community.”

Lavoie also cited funding as a reason for maintaining the original features of the building. A focus on restoration qualifies the church for grants intended for historical purposes, from organizations such as Historical Boston Incorporated. For many congregations, funding remains a major hurdle. The Parish of All Saints in Ashmont will be conducting a preliminary study to determine the cost of restoring their building, built in 1893.

“We want to work to make sure that theses landmarks will continue to serve their purposes into the next generation,” said Fr. Michael Godderz, the rector at the Parish of All Saints.

Clergy expect the cost to fall beyond the capacity of the congregation’s fund raising abilities, and will focus on obtaining funding from outside sources. The initial priorities include replacing the mortar between the facing stones as well as rehabilitation the stained glass windows, while the study may reveal problems below the surface.

The BPA will be holding a section on assessment at their conference.

“For a lot of churches, its the things that you can’t see that cause the most problems,” said Neiswander. “They often have decades of deferred maintenance and their parishioners, through no fault of their own, just don’t have the funds in this economy to fix them up.”

The Pilgrim Church in Uphams Corner, built in 1890, has a pressing need for major maintenance work. Pastor John Odams plans to attend the BPA’s conference, in hopes of orienting himself with a plan for the coming updates.

“We are at the point where we need to do a lot of work,” said Odams. The church has suffered major water damage, as well as surviving a fire in the ‘40’s. Odams, seems to be the perfect target for BPA’s workshop, as he hopes to find a starting point for the undertaking of restoration. Currently, the building serves as a 120-bed homeless shelter, as well as a meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous and other neighborhood programs. Odams hopes to find a way to maintain the building’s structural integrity without uprooting the current programs.

“We want to bring the exterior back to something reflective of the original design,” said Odams. “We also realize that there has to be a balance between preservation and serving the purpose that the building was designed for.”

“These are issues that cut across racial, ethnic and denominational lines,” said Neiswander. “This conference will provide a good opportunity to spread ideas and share information.”