Yvonne Abraham

A story of rebirth, ending still to come

All that was left of First Baptist Church were the steeple and some walls after it was consumed by fire in January 2005.
All that was left of First Baptist Church were the steeple and some walls after it was consumed by fire in January 2005.

For this Easter Sunday, a resurrection story - one for which the ending is not yet written.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
The Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird has only a couple of weeks to find a place to store the huge organ - pipes, piles of ribs and boards, and a tower of 70 long crates that house thousands of pieces.

It begins on a frigid January night in 2005. As a fire tore through First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird could only watch as the windows blew out - pop, pop, pop - and the flames raced toward the organ.

Since she arrived at First Baptist 18 months earlier, she’d heard so much about that pipe organ: how rare the 1859 instrument was, made by E. & G.G. Hook of Boston, legendary manufacturers with roots in JP; how unique and exquisite its sound was; how the organ had narrowly, miraculously survived a fire at the church in 1975.


But Wiest-Laird could see this inferno would erase everything, including that treasure. “I thought, ‘Oh my, God, they’re not going to save it this time,’ ’’ said the pastor. “Firefighters came out and asked, ‘Where did you say that organ was?’ The pipes had melted down to nothing.’’

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All that was left of the Gothic church were the steeple and some walls, the charred remains encased in ice as the water from the fire hoses froze. The pastor and her flock vowed to rebuild, even as some urged them to face facts, cut their losses, and move on.

The path ahead was surely daunting. When Wiest-Laird arrived at the Centre Street church, its active membership had dwindled to 20 or so. By the time of the fire, she had helped grow it to 75 - a big improvement, but not a lot of people, especially when you consider the church would have to raise its own funds for a multimillion-dollar restoration.

But they went ahead anyway. As Wiest-Laird explains, “We’re crazy people in here.’’ The crazy people continued worshiping together - first at a nearby church, then outside the remains of First Baptist on a patch of AstroTurf (“The sod of dreams,’’ the pastor calls it), then in a huge, ugly, wood-paneled trailer (“The sacred double-wide’’).

Their ambition was boundless. They wanted more than to bring their church back. They wanted to replace their precious Hook organ, too. Wiest-Laird contacted the Organ Clearinghouse, a Charlestown outfit that finds homes for pipe organs all over the world, and told them she was looking.


Then around Christmas, Gabriel had the dream. “Trust me, this is not the kind of story I tell,’’ the pastor said. Hers isn’t a miracle-centered ministry; she’s much more matter-of-fact. “But you can’t make this stuff up.’’

Six-year-old Gabriel, the son of a church member, had a dream that the church got not one, but two pipe organs. A week later, the clearinghouse called. A church in Harlem wanted to sell its organ. It was an 1872 instrument, also by the Hooks. It was perfect - huge and set up so that its keyboards and pipes were split into two sections. It looked like two organs, just as in Gabriel’s dream, “if you want to go there,’’ Wiest-Laird added apologetically.

After hearing First Baptist’s story, the Harlem church dropped their $40,000 asking price to $5,000. The huge organ was loaded onto a semi for shipping to Boston - even though First Baptist, still a trailer congregation, had nowhere to put it.

“Our church is in a double-wide and we’re buying this organ,’’ the pastor said laughing. “How stupid is that?’’ The clearinghouse kept calling, asking where to? I don’t know, she kept saying.

Word of the new organ, and First Baptist’s latest predicament, got around the neighborhood. On a Monday in March, Wiest-Laird got a call from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Council, whichwas building a complex of apartments at Blessed Sacrament, the shuttered Catholic church on the other side of Hyde Square. We have a big, empty church, they said. Do you want to store your organ there?


They did. And there it has sat for six years, while First Baptist members raised a massive $1.3 million, which, together with insurance money and a settlement from the company that installed the furnace responsible for the fire, paid for $7.5 million in restoration work. It has sat there while the congregation, which now numbers 90, moved out of the trailer and back into the church’s rebuilt first-floor meeting space. And it has sat there while First Baptist members have plotted the second stage of the restoration - a rebuilt worship space that will house the organ and double as a community meeting space. That will take a couple million dollars.

‘Should we give up on our organ dream? The thing is, this is not the kind of congregation that gives up on anything.’

Oh, and the organ will cost $750,000 to restore and reconstruct.

“It’s not a little Hammond,’’ Wiest-Laird says. No. This organ is to a little Hammond what a T-rex is to a newt. Strewn along a wall at Blessed Sacrament, it is an arresting sight. Its huge metal pipes, some 15 feet high, are propped up in a corner. Immense wooden bass pipes are stacked on their sides. Piles of wooden ribs and boards make the place look like a paleontology dig. A tower of 70 long crates houses thousands of bits and pieces. Painted on the ceiling, Saints Luke and John gaze down on the immense, dismantled instrument. They look more than a little perplexed.

These days, Wiest-Laird is a little perplexed, too. The Neighborhood Development Council, those generous souls who baby-sat the organ while they built housing around Blessed Sacrament, must now begin work on the church itself. The organ has to be moved - in the next couple of weeks.

The problem is, First Baptist has nowhere to put it just yet. If the congregation can’t find it another home, the organ has to go back to the clearinghouse, so the Harlem church can get a fair price for it.

“We’ve been talking about this: Should we give up on our organ dream?’’ Wiest-Laird said. The thing is, this is not the kind of congregation that gives up on anything.

“Our dream is that there’s somebody out there who loves historic organs,’’ she said. “If there’s anybody who feels like we do, that it would be a fine resurrection story, we’d welcome their help.’’

The organ needs about 500 square feet of easily accessible space, a place to park peacefully while First Baptist gets ready for it. If you can help, please yell. You’ll make some crazy people very happy.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at