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This old house (of worship)

The statuesque First Church of Woburn, watching over Woburn center, might symbolize the state of organized religion in America today. There’s no imminent danger of collapse. There will be no helicopter footage on the evening news. But time is definitely weighing, not helping. It’s a slow-motion problem unfolding over decades instead of hours.

Once upon a time, Sunday was the “Lord’s day.” Nothing was open except drug stores and churches, so everyone went to church and donated pocket money while they were there. Some people donated a lot more than pocket money, and without even attending. Still others donated labor to keep their church physically intact. And so parishes could maintain their big and old and opulent church buildings.

Things are different now. Religious beliefs aren’t fading, but organized religion is indeed fading, and not just because our weekends are busier with jobs and youth sports. The reasons run wide and deep. It’s hard to find clergy now. Young people aren’t entering religious life as quickly as older members are retiring. Congregations are shrinking. Most Americans no longer belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. Church-goers make up less than half the US population for the first time since Gallup began tracking religion in America eight decades ago.

Other organizations are thinning too. Social clubs and fraternal organizations are evaporating. Freemasonry is losing members. So are college fraternities and sororities. We just don’t congregate as much as before. The pandemic hasn’t helped.

And so church funds are running low. But that’s okay. Churches have low overhead . . . don’t they?

Notre Dame
Notre Dame Basilica

Not always. The result? A lot of churches are closing, and not just around here. The UK has lost about 2,000 churches in the last decade. Some churches have consolidated to pool resources — including clergy — to stay afloat.

Burlington’s two Catholic churches, Saint Margaret and Saint Malachy (below), have merged under a new parish name, Saint Veronica. This means two church buildings but one priest, one vicar, one religious education program, one maintenance crew and so on. It’s working out great, says Father James Mahoney, who now handles both churches. “Burlington is a very strong community of faith,” he says. “I don’t see us shutting down anytime soon at all.” However, about three quarters of the Catholic churches in the Boston area are operating in the red, he says, so Burlington is an outlier.

Up near Simonds Park, the congregation that broke off from Woburn in 1732 and ultimately created Burlington in 1799 is still going strong, or at least not weak. Two reasons for the durability of the United Church of Christ, Congregational, according to UCC Moderator Sally Willard:

  1. It’s part of the large United Church of Christ network.
  2. It’s a designated ONA church, meaning “Open and Affirming” toward gay members and gay marriage, and also transgender members. This brings a lot of people, even if they’re not among those subsets. They simply support the church’s mentality.

Here’s that church in 1914 and today.

But a few miles way in Woburn, the First Church of Woburn is doing some serious soul-searching, looking for ways to navigate the future. This congregation launched the town of Woburn itself in 1642, a mere 22 years after the Mayflower arrived. Back then, a town couldn’t even apply for a charter without an established preaching church. Woburn then gave birth to Wilmington in 1740, Burlington in 1799 and Winchester in 1850. So all trace back to this institution:

First Church of Woburn with info plaque

The current building is not the original 1642 church, or “meeting house” as it was called back then. It’s the sixth meeting house. It leans toward Main Street, but a recent architectural inspection determined the building is robust and safe.

Why does it lean? Nobody knows for sure, but it’s definitely nothing new. Some blame the hurricane of 1938. Others blame Hurricane Carol (1954), after which steel beams were installed for stability. Others blame the more recent one-two punch of Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012). To pay for repairs after those two hurricanes, the congregation explored all avenues and eventually voted to sell its exquisite collection of silver artifacts that had belonged to the church since the 1700s and was stored at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for over a century.

Woburn chalices and loving cups

The resulting $250,000 went toward superficial repairs. Here’s the church undergoing post-hurricane repair:

Hurricane repairs in 2013, First Church of Woburn

“People look at it and say it’s going to fall down,” says church councilor Martha Poole, a member for 75 years and now chair of the church’s diaconate. “But that’s not true. There are steel beams in there. It’s not going to fall down.” Buildings can indeed lean for quite some time. Think Pisa.

Poole says architects occasionally poke around the place and always come away impressed with the building’s sturdiness. Unfortunately, sturdy doesn’t mean cheap. “It takes quite a bit to run this place,” says Poole. Water is leaking through the massive windows over the door. Those are on order now. Birds have penetrated that section too. And the building’s wooden siding needs to be milled, not just painted.

The church is on the National Register of Historic Places. Great news, right? That means the federal government will write a check on demand, right? Not quite, says Darlene Wigton. She’s tackled other projects in Woburn, including Battle Road and the Count Rumford estate. Federal grants have lots of strings attached:

  1. Grants don’t cover the full amount requested. You have to pitch in the same amount.
  2. You need a master plan showing how the project will be executed and when.
  3. You need to provide detailed contractor estimates of the work needed and dollars required.
  4. You need to show where your matching funds will come from. “They want to see how much you really have,” Wigton says. 

The National Register can actually hinder some efforts. Kathy Lucero of the Woburn Historical Society says the feds blocked her effort to restore gravestones in the city’s First Burial Ground. The old church is similarly protected from tampering, even if tampering means improving. “Back when we had the money, we wanted to put new siding on the building,” says Poole. “We thought that would help with our problems. But we weren’t allowed to do it.” So the church is stuck with wood that needs to be replaced, not just painted.

In 1996, the congregation was approached by AT&T to attach nine antennae inside the steeple, along with radio cabinets and coaxial cable. The congregation agreed. This could have provided ongoing revenue, says former parishioner Joyce Greene LeBlanc, but the church needed immediate cash. It took a lump sum and immediately spent it on repairs.

What about simply selling the building? Not so simple. The charter says it must always operate as a church. “If someone got hold of that building in the center of Woburn, they would take it down.” says Poole. “So it’s not just anybody you can up and sell it to. We would love to be able to keep it and somehow build it up again. That’s our goal.”

What about merging with another church, like the Catholic churches of Burlington did? It already happened. The Woburn congregation dropped “Congregational” from its name and merged with Saint Mark Evangelical of Lexington in 2018. This partnership boosted attendance, but only for a while. The Woburn church now rents side rooms to small religious organizations while looking for new merger opportunities.

The church needs bodies.

“If someone gave us 30 million,” says former treasurer Joan Farr, “we could get the roof, siding, heating system and everything repaired and open an investment account, but it still would not solve our problem, because the problem is lack of people.” Farr is a descendant of William Learned, one of the church’s founders in 1642.

Some irony: The Woburn congregation built the current church, the sixth one, because it outgrew the fifth one in just 20 years, from 1840 to 1860. The fifth one still stands across Woburn Common.

Imagine — this was much too small:

The fifth meeting house of the First Church of Woburn, sans steeple. It blew off during a hurricane long ago.

The current building, the sixth, was the right size as recently as the 1970s. Special events would sometimes push the limit of its 1200-seat capacity. The presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar stands out as a highlight. The place was so full, says Poole, “If you wanted to scratch your head, you couldn’t.” The church now has the opposite problem. It’s much too big.

Sixth meeting house, Woburn, MA with train
The current (sixth) one in the 1960s, with a special guest in the foreground.

Unlike its Burlington descendant, the Woburn church is very traditional, not “open and affirming,” and it’s not part of the UCC network, so it gets no support from above. What about grassroots support? Non-existent, says LeBlanc. A few years ago, she made a public appeal for $250,000 to at least begin the process of restoring the building. To date, the donations haven’t yet topped $2,000.

One of the donors is Bob Sholly. He’s not a local guy, but he has skin in the game. While researching his family tree, he found he is a descendant of the very first pastor of the Woburn church, Rev. Thomas Carter. In fact, Carter was the first ordained Christian minister in colonial America, period. Here’s his ordination in Woburn in 1642, and the original meeting house in Woburn center.

And so Sholly and wife Kat were invited to visit the church in 2018. Here they are, leading the congregation — or at least pretending. Notice the spectacular organ in the background. That’s a rare and cherished E&GG Hook organ, one of the few in the country that still works. The acoustics in the sanctuary complement the organ wonderfully.

So what does the future hold for this church — and for all churches? That’s the real head-scratcher. The First Baptist Church overlooking Woburn Common needs extensive repairs too:

The repairs are coming, says Pastor Yaliang Zhao. “We do have funds in place to renovate our building. Thanks to God’s provision. We will be working on it phase by phase starting soon. We already secured an architecture firm to work with us, so we ready to move forward with windows projects first, and then the steeple etc. We have faithful donors from the congregation, plus a long history of saving for rainy days.”

Will these big church buildings serve a purpose for future generations, or will “church” happen in a rented office building? Or maybe alone at home, staring into a screen? First Church of Woburn Moderator Lee Maynard points to the Bible on this subject: “Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20). Thus the First Church believes that wherever people come together to worship God is indeed a church, but it can best be done in beautiful churches that aspire to survive and thrive.”

DAWN OVER WOBURN — Only one building, the First Church of Woburn, penetrates the horizon line.

9 thoughts on “This old house (of worship) Leave a comment

  1. When my family moved to Burlington (February 1952) there was only one Catholic Church (St Margaret) it was a small white church at the fork in the road of Center St and Winn St.

  2. One of the most interesting and informative articles you have written. Thank you! So appreciated by many…an insight into today’s changing importance of faith.

  3. I found this article both interesting and concerning. My family moved to Burling when the population was not more than 5,000 ( a farming town at the time) and my farther was part of the construction team that built the original Burlington Mall. My two cousins and myself were alter boys a few years in the original St. Margret’s church nestled in the fork roads mentioned in the article and continued serving at the time the new building was built. We served for about 8 years prior to and including our high school years. It was a big deal when the new structure was built as the congregation was bursting at its seams. The congregation was taken back when it opened because it was very contemporary verses the traditional we were accustom to. I haven’t lived in Burlington nor in Massachusetts since I returned from Vietnam back in the late 60’s. I do follow and enjoy the Burlington Retro “religiously”. Thanks for sharing this article.

  4. A would like to add to Sally Willard’s comments about why the Burlington Old Meetinghouse, currently the UCC, Congregational is still an active church. We have a very strong sense of community and outreach. We support the people of Burlington by working hand-in-hand with People Helping People for the Thanksgiving Dinner Distribution, Holiday Programs and food drives and are a Charter Organization of Scouts, just to mention a couple. As a congregation, we are a partner with the other faith organizations within Burlington to help grow our town as a loving caring community.

  5. dear bob, an excellent piece of historical writing and history…… on with the good work……….carl johnson,bhs,54

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