Silver cache may hold key to landmark’s salvation

The First Parish Church steeple came down in 2006. Bill Forry photoThe First Parish Church steeple came down in 2006. Bill Forry photo

First Parish Church, which dates back to Dorchester’s original settlement in 1630, plans to auction off most of its historic silver collection to help pay for a $5 million restoration project that is desperately needed to save the historic church atop Meetinghouse Hill.

The parish congregation hopes that the sale of the silver, which has been on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the last century, will fetch a large sum — perhaps in the millions—when it goes to auction in New York City in January 2012.

The funds cannot come fast enough. The existing church building, which was built to replace an earlier structure that burned in 1896, is in dire need of repairs that have reached a critical stage. The church’s steeple— which had begun to tilt ominously in recent years— was removed in 2006 amid fears that it would topple at any time. The wedding-cake-like steeple structure still sits on the same spot where a crane lowered it four years ago – right across the street from the church. Peeling paint, crumbling chimneys, loose shingles and old, sieve-like windows are ganging up on the once-grand symbol of olde Dorchester. And windstorms last spring sent water flowing into the sanctuary, damaging the church’s historic organ.

Rev. Art Lavoie, the pastor of First Parish, says his small congregation has come to a decision that saving the building needs to become its top priority — even if that means parting with treasures that long-ago parishioners bequeathed to the church.

“The consensus is that the more important thing is to save the building and not just because it’s a historical building,” Lavoie told the Reporter. “We feel this church has always had a mission in the community and we need to enhance that and make that much more clear and use the building to serve the community. The silver is an asset that’s going to be a part of that. It’s wonderful that our ancestors left us things that are now so valuable.”

How valuable? Lavoie says that a similar collection in Quincy that was auctioned off ten years ago fetched about $2 million. But the First Parish flock has no such figure in hand just yet. They are in talks with experts from Sotheby’s, a New York-based auction house that is the undisputed authority on colonial-era silver. The company will dispatch a silver expert to assess the value of the MFA collection in January and return with an estimate and a contract for the parish to review and vote on in the spring.

The 27-piece collection is kept under lock and key in the MFA’s vaults. Three of them, Lavoie says, are now on public display at the Huntington Ave. museum. Most pieces are colonial era silverware made by “significant” silversmiths of the 17th and 18th centuries. The church lent the items to the MFA around 1910, when the museum began assembling a collection of church-related silver pieces that were becoming increasingly valuable, but were, says Lavoie, “just sitting in closets and attics of church buildings all over the area.”

While the actual auction of the First Parish pieces won’t take place until January 2012, Lavoie says that Sotheby’s will likely “front” a percentage of the anticipated proceeds to First Parish, allowing them to begin their repair project next summer. A present timeline, developed in consultation with a historic preservation consultant, estimates that the $5 million restoration— including the replacement of the steeple, the removal of lead paint, the re-painting the exterior, and the additions of an elevator and restrooms to the rear of the church— can be completed by 2015.

Lavoie wants to speed up everything. “I hope it doesn’t take till 2015, because we’d hate to be in the middle of a construction project for five years,” he said. “It’s a distraction for me. I only have so many hours in the week and dealing with the building issues is real limiting on all of us. More importantly from my perspective, what does that mean for our mission today? What’s our ongoing commitment to the community in the midst of all the changes the community has gone through?”

Lavoie says the congregation — which has long swung its doors open for myriad civic, arts, and religious events beyond its own membership— will also begin a broader dialogue with the larger community over what uses might follow the restoration beyond its current worship space.

One option, says the pastor, is to provide room for an after-school or day-care program— or both.
“We’ll ask questions in the community about how can this building can better serve the community and be used more regularly,” Lavoie said. “There is no reason to restore the building if it’s just going to be used one day a week, on Sundays. That’s not a good use of any of our resources or keeping this building going.”