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$2.8 million First Church renovation underway

Avery Bleichfeld
$2.8 million First Church renovation underway
The restored exterior of the First Church of Roxbury. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

The oldest surviving wood-frame church in Boston is the focus of a fundraising effort to repair and revamp its interior into a community meeting space.

The First Church of Roxbury Meeting House, built in 1804, no longer houses a congregation, but members of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (UUUM), who own and operate the building and surrounding property as a historic location, are pushing to bring the interior into a new century to better accommodate its neighbors.

UUUM previously renovated the exterior of the meetinghouse in 2017 to address issues with peeling paint, broken shutters and the steeple clock. They also repainted the meetinghouse a more historically accurate shade of white.

Now that the exterior of the First Church of Roxbury has been restored, the Unitarian Universalist Urban Mission is undertaking a renovation of the interior. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

In spring 2021, they completed renovations on the church grounds, repairing brickwork at the entry to the property and recreating a circular driveway in front of the building.

They began fundraising in 2020 for renovations to the interior. Mary Margaret Earl, UUUM’s executive director, said that with the $2.8 million they hope to raise — of which they have raised $2.1 million so far — they will repair the building’s interior while also converting it into a space that can better serve the community.

“Currently, if you were to walk in, you’d find a stunning, beautiful space, but also a space where there’s some buckled plaster, some peeling paint, worn upholstery in the box pews,” Earl said. “Only every other light sconce works because the alternating lighting fixtures were never electrified; they were still gas.”

The renovations will include fixing the lighting fixtures, restoring the plaster and wood, and repairing the upholstery of 100 box pews. They also plan to install a fire suppression system, do electrical updates and put in a new sound and lighting system for performances.

Earl said they hope to begin renovations on the interior in spring or summer 2022, and she expects the work to last about a year. Once completed, she said, the building will better serve as an updated community event space.

UUUM wants to make it clear to their neighbors that they aren’t running an active church, Earl said, and instead are a nonprofit maintaining a historic site. She said she hopes that site can be a vibrant event space that lives up to the title of meetinghouse.

“These buildings, when they were constructed, served as not just a worship space, but they were also the hub of civic life in the community — and that’s the part of the history that we’re leaning into,” Earl said. “Our vision is not to transform it into a worship space, but to transform it into a place where the community comes for interfaith dialogue, political debates, dance performances, lifting up the artists of the community.”

Earl said that despite plans to make it a contemporary event space, they’re being careful to preserve the history and historical feel of the space.

“We want you to walk in and feel that sense of history,” Earl said. “I think that’s one of the things that our neighbors love about this space, that you walk in and you feel that sense of history; you walk in and you know you’re in a place where many people have come, many things have happened, things of note. We want to preserve that. And so, when you walk in, you’re not walking into some kind of generic event space, but you’re walking into a historic meetinghouse.”

In addition to the renovation, the UUUM is partnering with the Roxbury Historical Society (RHS) to explore the building’s history where it relates to slavery and the Civil War.

Byron Rushing, president of the RHS, said churches are an important place to look at how Black people and communities were historically treated, because they have long, often continuous legacies in an area.

“It’s important that everybody [has conversations about the history of slavery]; the only difference about churches is that they tend to be non-governmental institutions that are old,” Rushing said. “There are lots of non-governmental institutions run by white people involved in all of this history, except the institutions themselves don’t exist anymore. But churches, there’s a tendency for congregations to last for generations. And so what we have in Boston — in any Colonial city that’s still around — is these Colonial institutions that still exist.”

Earl said the new research looks at the church’s history “in ways that we might be less proud of today but are still really important to understand,” and that it’s key to understanding the full story of the place.

“These are questions we also want to bring to bear in our examination of this space, understanding more of the fullness of the history of this meetinghouse,” Earl said.

For Rushing, it’s important that not only the research gets done, but also that the research is shared with the community.

“It’s both doing the research [and] publishing research,” Rushing said. “I mean, getting this history known to people in as accessible a way as possible so that you don’t have to go read, you know, someone’s thesis to find out about this.”

He said he hopes the information will be published in local publications and on view at the meetinghouse itself.

As the year wraps up, Earl said they are making a fundraising push. Two donors have offered to match donations from Roxbury residents and businesses through the end of the year up to $50,000.

Meanwhile, throughout the process of the research and the restoration, Earl said UUUM is trying to engage its neighbors, especially through means that are less typical to what they would normally plan, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why they’ve begun a four-part webinar series, called “Treasures of the Meetinghouse,” about the history of the building, and why they continue to encourage dialogue with members of the community.

“We’re trying to engage our neighbors, artists, funders, supporters in learning about our vision for the work and understanding the deep significance of this important space. That’s the importance of these webinars, to really keep engaging people and saying, ‘Hey, this is an important space. Come learn with us about the importance of this and what we’re trying to do.’“

First Church of Roxbury Meeting House, roxbury