BROCKTON — The old stone church at 900 Main St. stands proud and stately at the corner of East Nilsson Street, just as it always has, even as the neighborhood around it has transformed over time.
Built out of Quincy granite and designed in the Norman Gothic style, it has served as the spiritual home of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church for 90 years. When the church was dedicated in 1923, Brockton was home to thousands of Swedish immigrants, many of whom worked in the city’s shoe factories.
Much has changed since then. Brockton is no longer 99 percent white, and houses and shops in the neighborhood, known as Campello, are no longer occupied by Swedes.
The shoe factories are long gone. The majestic edifice down the street, formerly known as St. Margaret’s, is now a Haitian church. The soda shop next door that was once owned by Carl Mogren, a popular Swedish businessman at the turn of the last century, is now home to Garcia’s Grocery and Tropical Convenience Store.
As the demographics of the area changed, so, too, have the churchgoers at 900 Main St. As a result of First Lutheran’s declining membership, three smaller Christian congregations are now renting space at 900 Main St. and sharing the costs and complications of worshiping in the same building.
At one time, First Lutheran held three services every Sunday morning for as many as 1,500 people. Now it holds two, at 7:45 and 9 a.m. Instead of congregating a third time at 11, First Lutheran rents the slot to the Haitian Church of God Of Deliverance. And since welcoming the Haitian congregation in 2007, First Lutheran has also opened the doors to two other groups for worship services in other areas of the building: Grace Chapel and Grace Church.
“It’s allowed us to fully utilize the building and the space,” said James E. Benson, the parish administrator at First Lutheran. “It does no good sitting empty.”
All four congregations worship on Sunday mornings, making for a rather hectic start to the day. More people means less parking, fewer seats, and more activity and commotion in the halls.
But despite the occasional inconveniences, the arrangement has been a positive one, and the congregations have grown to appreciate one another.
“You know, there’s a little extra noise now and then . . . but we’re all here for the same purpose,” said Benson, a West Bridgewater resident and fourth-generation member of First Lutheran.
On a recent Sunday, about 25 people attended the church’s 7:45 a.m. service; the 9 a.m. service drew 125.
Hope E. Mehaffey took her seat and gently placed her fingers on the keys of the church’s pipe organ, as she has done almost every Sunday for the past 52 years. She comes from her home on the Cape to play the massive instrument, which First Lutheran officials say is one of the largest pipe organs south of Boston.
Accompanied by her playing, the worshipers sang the hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
Before the clock struck 10 a.m., more people began streaming into the chapel next to the main sanctuary. Two women wearing traditional African head wraps in vibrant colors of bold yellow and bright purple were among the dozen who showed up for Grace Chapel’s Episcopal and Anglican service, led by the Rev. Moses O. Sowale, a Nigerian native who previously served at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brockton.
Grace Chapel started out as a Bible study group and ministry of St. Paul’s. After St. Paul’s closed in December 2010, it continued on its own as Grace Chapel, and has been using space at 900 Main St. since January 2011.
Wearing a white robe and glasses, Sowale stood in front of a cross with purple backlighting. Grace Chapel’s keyboardist sat in the back, and a tambourine rested in one of the pews.
“Take note of your dreams this year . . . even if you have nightmares. . . . Write it down, then pray about it,” Sowale told them, with a wide smile.
As 10:30 a.m. approached, members of Grace Church were assembling in the lower level of the church, known as the vestry. Grace Church is a non-denominational Christian church founded in May 2010 by Steve Rahn, a preppy, boyish-looking father of three known to most as “Pastor Steve.”
Grace Church has been using the vestry at First Lutheran since June 2012. Rahn said the space and the facilities at First Lutheran are a perfect fit for the fledgling congregation. On Thursday evenings his congregation hosts a free meal and Bible study for the Brockton community.
“It’s set up really well for the type of service we do,” said Rahn, a native of Michigan who lives on the east side of Brockton.
Rahn said Grace Church would much rather put its resources into “serving the city with the gospel” than acquiring and maintaining a brick-and-mortar building of its own. He said sharing the building with the other congregations hasn’t been a problem.
“We can hear them a little bit, and I’m sure they can hear us a little bit. But it’s not distracting,” said Rahn. “They accommodate us, we accommodate them. It’s worked out really well.”
By 11 a.m., the Rev. Daniel L. Michel of the Haitian Church of God of Deliverance began to prepare for his service in the main sanctuary, which starts at noon.
A projector screen was set up at the front, displaying song lyrics with the celestial image of the Milky Way in the background.
Clustered toward the front were men sporting dapper suits, women wearing formal hats and white gloves, little girls in dresses, and boys in neat sweater vests. A baby carriage was parked on the red carpet in the center aisle. Members swayed back and forth to the music, with their arms outstretched, singing: “Glorieux nom! Glorieux nom! Glorieux nom! Le nom de Jesus. Precieux Jesus.”
If you had asked the Rev. Mark Peterson, the rookie pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Chruch, a few years ago, when he was in the seminary in South Carolina, if he expected to ever share a church with congregations from other denominations, the answer would have been a definite no.
“There’s a lot of people using the building on Sunday morning, which was true of this place decades ago,” he said. “It’s like the numbers of people who were once here, but they look different.”
Sharing space at 900 Main St. has resulted in some unexpected partnerships: Grace Chapel and Grace Church now share nursery space for toddlers. Children from the Haitian church attend the First Lutheran’s vacation week Bible school. Grace Chapel and First Lutheran have teamed up to hold joint services and Bible study.
Peterson recalled one rainy day in August when one of the other congregations discovered that the roof was leaking, and its members placed a bucket down to catch the water. If no one had been there to see it, the leak would have gone unnoticed and more damage would have resulted, he said.
So far, the arrangement appears to be a win-win.
“Here’s a mainstream church trying to economically sustain itself by renting out its space,” said Peter H. Beisheim, professor of religious studies at Stonehill College.
“I see something very positive here. . . . The arrangement fosters inclusivity, rather than exclusivity.
“There is a sense of unity in using the same space.”