A "gift from God" meets local opposition

The Boston Globe reports on the kind of challenges that face more and more urban congregations. How to stay in the city and find creative ways to fund new ministries while still maintaining the connection to the neighborhood?

Historic St. Jame's Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is falling apart. The congregation raised $600,000 to repair the bell tower and still had to find additional grants to finish the job. And still the roof leaked and property was crumbling. The endowment meant to preserve the ministry into the future was drained just keeping the building in shape. So when the parish and a neighboring developer joined forces to both save the building and provide funds for future ministry, it looked like a win-win solution. Except that the neighbors, who love the church, came out against the plan.

The Boston Globe reports:

At the church’s urging, the two formed a partnership and proposed to build a four-story, 78,000-square-foot development on St. James’s historic property at Massachusetts Avenue and Beech Street. If finalized, the church would lease the bulk of its property to the developer for 99 years, and the developer would get plenty of room to erect its proposed L-shaped building around the sanctuary that would include 46 condo units, retail space, an underground parking garage, and a new parish hall on the first floor.

If the project gets the green light next year, Antolini said, the deal would allow St. James’s to focus on its urban ministries instead of on raising millions to fix up its property....

...But the partnership has caused a rift in the church’s otherwise harmonious relationship with its North Cambridge neighbors.

Residents, weary of big development’s squeeze into their tight-knit community, now find themselves squaring off against an unlikely foe, a church, over the future of a landmark.

“It’s not that we are against the church,’’ said Lydia Gralla, a Beech Street resident. “But we are against the developer. But it gets weird because the church is the developer.’’

Comments (8)

There is a piece to this story that the article (and online comments on the Boston Globe site) do not address. The parts of the church that would be demolished are from a shoddy structure built in the mid-1950's. This structure is not energy efficient, and it is also inaccessible to our handicapped parishioners. From the late 1960's to the early 1980's, the church fell into a severe decline when the neighborhood changed, but we have had a pretty solid congregation since the late 1980's. But we are catching up with about 45 years of deferred maintenance. Some parishioners commute from the suburbs, but many live within walking distance of the church and are active in the community.

I keep searching for some source, historical, Biblical, canonical or other that says the mission of the church is to preserve historic sites. If doing so doesn't interfere with mission or even helps it, well and good. When it becomes a burdon and a distraction, maybe it's time to sell and move on no matter how attached some may be to the old place.

As rector of St. James's Cambridge, I have pondered and prayed over this subject long and hard. The mission of St. James's has been shaped by its physical situation over almost 150 years, first by the Porter Square stockyards and on through generations of working-class and racially and ethnically mixed residents of North Cambridge, till the sudden emergence of both IT wealth and homelessness in our area in the late 20th century. We are an urban congregation, three blocks from a subway stop, with an urban mission, a lively "emerging" worship style, a food pantry three days a week, a Women's Meal, an Outdoor Church at the Porter Square T stop, a summer homeless shelter. We wouldn't know who we were in another setting. Moreover, we have been defined -- like it or not -- by our superb Gilded-Age Richardsonian neo-Romanesque sanctuary with all the opportunities and challenges that flow from such an over-the-top architectural legacy, one of which is to be subject to the jurisdiction -- biblical or not -- of various historic commissions, and another of which is to be so far behind on our maintenance protocols despite heroic crisis fundraising efforts that we have been literally eating into our "building capital," contemplating its disintegration helplessly for years. We share this dilemma with many, many urban Episcopal churches around the country. It is a blessing that we have an opportunity to redefine our parish house and financial infrastructure in order to sustain our mission while also sustaining our building and our historic urban garden area.

{Searches memory banks}

Isn't this very much like the controversy which faced St. Bart's, NYC (Manhattan), about 15 years ago? How was that kerfuffle resolved (IF it was!)?

JC Fisher

{Searches memory banks}

Isn't this very much like the controversy which faced St. Bart's, NYC (Manhattan), about 15 years ago? How was that kerfuffle resolved (IF it was!)?

JC Fisher

I am rector of an urban parish with similar issues: a 1929 heritage building, an "newer" parish hall that is not handicap accessible and ill-suited for our needs, a lot of deferred maintenance, and the largest parcel of land in a well-established and fully built neighborhood. We are starting to test the waters on redevelopment -- a seniors' residence has been talked about as a real need in the neighborhood -- but we are also very wary of local politics, NIMBY and the desire to preserve green space. Hopefully by including neighbors early in the process, we will be able to see something happen.

Sorry for the double post (Did anyone else have problems w/ The Cafe last night? :-/)

JC Fisher

St. Bart's went to the US Court of Appeals and lost.

(Editors: thanks, Joe. We need your full name next time.)

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