St. Mark’s Episcopal Church moves on track for historic register status

Meena Ramakrishnan, Special to the Reporter
May. 17, 2012

The red-doored, steeply-pitched structures of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church are on their way to becoming a historical place. Last Tuesday, the Boston Landmarks Commission lent its approval for the church to join the National Register of Historic Places.

Before the Jones Hill landmark can be officially recognized, it must receive further approval from the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Department of the Interior. Earl Taylor, President of the Dorchester Historical Society says this could happen sometime in the next few weeks.

Candidates for the national register must meet at least one of four criteria. The St. Mark’s complex—the chapel, parish house and rectory—have met two requirements for its historical contributions, those of architecture and community planning and development. The significance of St. Mark’s and its prominence in the neighborhood is detailed in a report made by consultant Timothy Orwig.

The site of the church was commissioned by the Bishop and Diocesan Standing Committee to be designed by architect Edmund Q. Sylvester and built by the Boston craft firm Bigelow, Kennard & Company. After a fire destroyed the first Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s, in 1887, three other churches sprung in its place, one of which was St. Mark’s.

Between 1904 and 1910, the church site was built by a mission parish in a working-class neighborhood on what became Columbia Road. What was previously the location of a few estates over time turned into residential neighborhoods, where St. Mark’s served the community.

The three structures came into place from an original drawing by Sylvester as one interconnected entity in the style of New English Gothic revival. It was initially budget to cost upwards of $20,000 for each part of the church, but because of where the plot was located, plans did not go accordingly.

In 1904, the budget was cut in half and church plans were scaled back into what was called a “modest chapel”—what the building looks like today. Services continued in the unfinished church, with the first service held on September 18, 1904. Sylvester was most suited to the job, as he often designed churches for smaller rural Episcopal parishes. Funding from the public came in slowly with a final push from the Episcopal Diocese.

By 1910, the earlier cottage was demolished and the chapel with the wooden cross at its pinnacle was built in the Gothic style to emulate the Church of England. The rectory was built in the popular Craftsman style of the era and the parish house constructed with elements of both. By then, the church was getting daily use and had grown to around 400 members.

The parish faced another challenge when a fire badly damaged the Parish House in 1912. During Sunday school, a furnace overheated the back of the house. Everyone escaped, but the interior damage resulted in costs of $8,578. The only other change made to the building since is an extension to the rear of the Chapel in 1916.

Decades later, the church has undergone other changes as part of the evolving neighborhood. After World War II, the surrounding area became home to African-American and Latino residents who moved into Dorchester as the original members shifted to the suburbs.

The physical state of St. Mark’s is in otherwise good condition, although water leakage is a problem in the Chapel’s basement. The rectory has also been unoccupied for many years and needs repairs to the roof.

Taylor says that the status of church as a nationally recognized property could help with future grants and funding.