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Yvonne Abraham

Labor of love and faith at Dorchester church

On Sunday afternoon, a piece of paper will be set alight, and a miracle will be complete.

“It’s been a task, but God has been faithful,” said Bishop Gwendolyn G. Weeks, standing outside the Bethel Tabernacle Pentecostal Church in Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood, where she is pastor.

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Seven years ago, this handsome complex of neat, red-trimmed buildings — formerly St. Leo’s Catholic parish — was an open sore in a hurting neighborhood. Two of the run-down buildings were used by a Haitian community organization. The other two — leaky, decrepit — were hangouts for drug users and prostitutes, and havens for raccoons with low standards.

For Weeks, and for the 75 core members of the church her father Thomas J. Weeks founded 55 years ago, this acre was perfect — or would be, if they could find the money. Soon after they bought the $2 million property, the members were against a wall. The South End church they sold to finance the purchase, once worth $7 million, fetched only $1.9 million in 2006. For the herculean task of transforming the buildings, Weeks borrowed $524,000, and put another $100,000 on credit cards.

The labor was mostly free, provided by Bethel’s parishioners, their families and friends, who came by to hammer, drill, and paint at night and on weekends. Everybody did what they could: Kids pulled on masks and swept. One woman made it her mission to restore the elaborate stained-glass window in the church, taking months to sand down the frame to its original state. “If I ever stop pastoring, preaching, and teaching, I could do painting, carpentry, and a little electrical,” said Gwendolyn Weeks, 53. She is tall and athletic, her deep, breathy voice full of conviction.

Under Weeks, who succeeded her father as pastor in 1994, the church’s mission goes way beyond its walls. The Dorchester site was appealing because it provided space for community cookouts, computer training, and morning exercise classes. And for church services on the lawn, during which neighbors can see parishioners dance and hear their songs. Weeks asks those who would like to be prayed with to raise their hands, and her members cross streets and climb stairs to minister on stoops and porches.

“I love it when they’re outside,” said Allen Newson, who lives nearby. “The whole neighborhood can hear it. When the church wasn’t here, the whole atmosphere was different.”

“Before, you had everybody but the good people here,” said his friend Mark Lemar, another neighbor. “All the junkies, they cleaned up their act. Look what they did with the church, man! I’m just waiting for them to do my place over.”

By making over these buildings (though renovation of the fourth is stalled for lack of funding) Bethel Tabernacle is helping to make over the neighborhood. But all of that sheetrock and lacquer had to be paid for. The mortgage was a short-term affair, with a balloon payment closing in. And there was nobody to pay it but the parishioners, many on fixed incomes.

The church held walkathons, car washes, and chicken dinners. And every four months there were rallies, where each parishioner was asked to give at least $200. Each rally brought in at least $20,000. Still, by January, Bethel Tabernacle was $151,000 short. One Sunday, Weeks mentioned this, and parishioners jumped up, one by one – “I’ll give $250,” “I’ll give $50.” They pledged $11,000 in 10 minutes. Weeks hit up everybody she had ever known, with her infectious, irresistible enthusiasm, for more.

The church made its final mortgage payment a few weeks ago.

When Bishop Thomas Weeks burned the mortgage on the church in the South End in 1984 he said, “As long as I live, this church will never be mortgaged again.” He couldn’t have anticipated the vagaries of the property market, or the determination of a faithful few to overcome them.

On Sunday, to celebrate his 97th birthday, he will burn another bank note, as his daughter and her resourceful flock look on. As Gwendolyn Weeks puts it: “The whole thing is the Lord’s now.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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