150 years of sanctuary: Pilgrim Church serves the poor and hungry

PILGRIM CHURCH: Rev. John Odams is shown on the steps of Columbia Road’s Pilgrim Church, which serves as both a homeless shelter and food pantry as well as a place of worship. Photo by Tayla HolmanPILGRIM CHURCH: Rev. John Odams is shown on the steps of Columbia Road’s Pilgrim Church, which serves as both a homeless shelter and food pantry as well as a place of worship. Photo by Tayla Holman

On Nov. 2, 1862 —well into the second year of the Civil War— 16 people met at the Dorchester home of Rev. Edmund Squire to unite themselves into what they called an “unsectarian Church of Jesus Christ.”

A century-and-a-half later, what is now known as Pilgrim Trinitarian Congregational, is celebrating 150 years of serving the Dorchester community. On Saturday evening (Nov. 24) the church will mark the milestone with a celebratory dinner at Florian Hall. Funds raised at the 6 p.m. event will help fund the church’s continuing work in the neighborhood, including a homeless shelter and food kitchen.

The Columbia Road church, under the leadership of Rev. John Odams for the last 13 years, has a small congregation of about 25 to 30 people, which Rev. Odams says has been increasing weekly over the past year. But the church serves almost 400 people in various capacities.

This past Saturday, the church served lunch to about 130 people, and church members gave out food to about 100 people on Boston Common. The church’s homeless shelter, which has been operating since 1990, shelters 120 to 140 men a night. The food pantry serves about 15 families a week.

Pilgrim Church also sponsors the Dorchester Deaf Club and has been hosting the Dorchester Young Adults Narcotics Anonymous Group, which has between 60 to 70 members, for the past year.

Pilgrim Church has also been working closely with Bethel Church of God Seventh Day, which has been meeting at Pilgrim Church on Saturdays since the beginning of September.

Originally from Cape Cod, Rev. Odams discovered Dorchester while completing a chaplaincy program at Boston City Hospital –now called Boston Medical Center — as part of his seminary studies.

His supervisor at the hospital, Rev. Dr. Bill Loesch, felt that the students should know about at least one neighborhood in Boston since they would be ministering to people in the city.

“We spent one day a week in Codman Square working with an organization called Christians for Urban Justice,” he said. “That was my first introduction to Dorchester. About a year after graduation, I ended up moving to Dorchester … and decided I loved it.”

The church has been working with City Mission Society of Boston for the past three years, as well as youth from Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

“Their Boston urban outreach program had many groups from across the country, and different parts of Massachusetts, coming into the city to help [in the food pantry],” Odams said. “When it’s time for lunch, we encourage them to sit down with people from the neighborhood. It’s an opportunity to make connections, build community, break down stereotypes about coming into the city and people in the city.”

Rev. Odams said the goal of the church was — and remains— to serve people regardless of labels. While it has taken different shapes in the last 150 years, that original mission has not changed.

Referring to the church’s establishment during the Civil War, Odams said, “The world, country, community was torn by division, and there was a desire to heal the divisions in society in the name of Jesus.”

Rev. Odams also referenced Rev. William Hervey Allbright, who was the pastor at the church from 1890 to 1907, who said “when he first saw the church, he thought some enterprising Yankee had discovered Noah’s Ark and put it up at Uphams Corner.”

“I think that’s really a great summary of what the work of the church here has been,” Odams said. “I think it was a reference to the previous building, but also the idea of the ark – deliverance, and security, and life.”

The Pilgrim Church 150th anniversary dinner will be held at Florian Hall on Sat., Nov. 24 at 6 p.m. For more information, check the website pilgrimchurch1862.org.

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