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Two Back Bay churches begin road to recovery

Members happy to be back

Tom Ralston, 54, of Revere, hugged Nancy Taylor, Old South Church’s senior minister, as the church’s Great Tower Bell tolled Sunday for those killed during the week of the Marathon bombings.

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

Tom Ralston, 54, of Revere, hugged Nancy Taylor, Old South Church’s senior minister, as the church’s Great Tower Bell tolled Sunday for those killed during the week of the Marathon bombings.

Their doors open for the first Sunday services since the Boston Marathon bombing, two Back Bay churches were flooded with worshipers after being shuttered during the police investigation of the deadly attacks.

Painful recollections of the bombings were present during both services. At Trinity Church, the name of suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was read in prayer along with the names of his alleged victims. At Old South Church, the 11 a.m. service concluded with a massive procession to the bombing site.

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His left hand still wrapped where shrapnel tore through his flesh, Tom Ralston tightly hugged Old South’s senior minister, Nancy Taylor, burying his face in her shoulder outside the church, as its Great Tower Bell tolled for those killed during the horrific week of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Ralston, 54, of Revere, said he felt scared and alone when as a spectator, he was among the hundreds injured in the bombings that left three dead. His eardrums were ruptured, and he has yet to return to work as he waits to recover his hearing.

On Sunday afternoon, as he returned to the scene of the attack that left him hurt and horrified, he stood surrounded — and embraced — by his Old South Church family.

“I walked over to the finish line with my church, and it was just a feeling of ease,” Ralston said. “It was comforting.”

Messages of unity, forgiveness, and grace rang out from the pulpits of Old South and Trinity, as the two congregations that were forced to meet elsewhere last weekend returned to their pews. Marathon runners, bombing victims, and first responders mixed in with regular attendees at the services.

‘I think under that “Boston Strong” response there’s a lot of complexity. Fear doesn’t abate.’

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During Trinity’s service, church leaders included prayers for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two bombing suspects who was killed in a shoot-out with police last week.

“We’re compelled to pray for those who wish to harm us, and that’s not simply self-preservation. . . . This is what Christ is calling us to do,” said the Rev. Patrick C. Ward, of Trinity, following the service. “That’s how I understand my faith. That is the heart, to me, of my Christian faith.”

As his parishioners continue to relive and process the bombings, Ward said some may react with fear or anger. He urged churchgoers to instead react with kindness. “I think under that ‘Boston Strong’ response there’s a lot of complexity,” he said. “Fear doesn’t abate.”

Some of those in the pews had trickled in from Copley Square, where scores gathered most of Sunday morning to pay respects at the site of the bombings, and where sneakers, flowers, and other mementos have been piled. Longtime members of both churches, barred from the area last week, said they were glad to be back.

Ed Rose of Sandwich, who has been attending Trinity since 1964, said he went to church last week, only to find the area closed off. Sunday morning, as he stood in a pew, he said he was glad to be back. “It was quite moving. It goes back to, I guess, the basis of being a Christian,” he said.

The mood remained somber at Old South, as Maggie Lowe delivered a message centered on God’s grace and invoked a prayer of thanks for “surgeons’ sure hands and nurses’ tender voices.”

“Empower us, Lord, to meet terror with tenderness and to meet madness with mercy,” Lowe prayed after a sea of voices finished harmonically filling the space between the sanctuary’s burnt red walls with the familiar words of “Amazing Grace.”

Standing in front of a silent congregation, Lowe implored a higher power to empower those gathered beneath the sanctuary’s colorful mosaics of Christ on the cross to exhibit God-like grace and compassion, even in the wake of an act of inexplicable terrorism.

Following the church’s 11 a.m. service, the choir and clergy proceeded down the center aisle, as Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” bellowed from the pipe organ, and led those in attendance outside and down Boylston Street. They paused to pay their respects at the site of the first bombing.

As the hundreds poured out of the building, they mixed with crowds who were walking down the section of Boylston Street that had been cordoned off for the week following the bombings. Blue and yellow ribbons and signs declaring “Boston Strong” hung from the top windows of the shops. Spring flowers lined the sidewalk.

Surrounded by the churchgoers, a college-age woman in a bright green shirt that read “Dorchester” could not bear to look at the boarded-up windows at the shop where the first bomb detonated. As she stood with her back to the memorial, a white rose in her hand, tears streamed down her face.

Many said being back in their church buildings was a big step toward healing and reclaiming the neighborhood and the Marathon.

“We’re a Marathon church,” said Sally Peabody of Medford, a longtime member of Old South, who stood solemnly as the bell tolled for those killed during the mayhem. “We hold a service the night before the Marathon for all of the runners.”

Her husband interrupted, grabbing her hand, to add that it was only fitting that Sunday’s worship include the near-silent walk from the safety of the church to the once-bloodied section of Boylston Street where the the yellow finish line has begun to fade.

“Today, that line is no longer a finish line,” said Randy Peabody. “It’s now a starting line as we as a congregation, and as a city, begin our long, slow marathon of healing and recovery.”

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter
@WesleyLowery.
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