The congregation of a South End church said farewell Sunday to the historic building where members have worshiped, wed, and mourned for most of its nearly 150-year history, but the four-hour service was less a memorial than a joyous celebration of rebirth.
Ebenezer Baptist Church will leave the deteriorating red-brick building on West Springfield Street, its home since 1887, and temporarily hold services at a local school. Church leaders hope to find or develop a site for a modern facility with more space for arts, athletics, and technology to engage a new generation of congregants.
“It’s not a closing. It’s just a transition,” the Rev. Carl Thompson, the church’s pastor, said in an interview after Sunday’s boisterous service, which included an extended program of gospel, soul, and contemporary Christian music featuring several choirs backed by a live band.
Several times, clergy and congregants spontaneously began singing, caught up in the spirit of the moment. The service paused as parishioners hugged and wished each other well. Afterward, the fellowship continued in the church basement, where they gathered to eat together.
“God is with us,” Thompson told the congregation. “He’s already where we’re supposed to be.”
As sun streamed through stained-glass windows, the congregation clapped and danced in the pews during uptempo songs, then swayed when the tempo slowed for a hymn of devotion. A few stood and raised their hands to heaven.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke from the pulpit of his own spirituality and of Ebenezer’s long history in Boston, its formation after the Civil War by formerly enslaved people.
“This church gave people a voice and platform to talk about” the rights of Black Americans, Walsh said. “This church allowed people to form bonds that lasted for generations. This church mentored youth. This church healed the addicted.”
The Rev. Kirk B. Jones, who came to Ebenezer as a 22-year-old seminary student in 1980 and wound up becoming the church’s interim pastor and meeting his future wife there, told parishioners it’s natural to mourn the loss of the structure, even as they’re told “it’s just a building" or “the church is the people.”
“This is more than just a building, and a church is more than just a collection of people,” said Jones, who returned to serve as Ebenezer’s pastor from 1990 to 1996. “This place, this space has mattered to too many people in too many ways for suddenly taking leave of it not to matter.”
Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1871 by people from Virginia who had begun their prayer meetings in a South End kitchen. In 1887, the church moved to the structure on West Springfield Street, where its congregation grew to 1,200, giving it both the largest building and largest membership of any Black church in New England, the Globe reported at the time .
Ebenezer long served as a site for Black Bostonians not only to worship but to organize, protest, and participate in politics. Traveling preachers and speakers on current events regularly took the pulpit, and the church was home to many community gatherings and meetings of social clubs.
In 1896, when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial segregation in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Ebenezer’s pastor and the Massachusetts Racial Protective Association invited faith leaders and a state representative to speak before a packed house.
The church hosted an 1899 meeting of the Colored Men’s Business Association, a 1909 speech on “The Man Behind the Bars,” a 1927 program called “The Negro at the Cross Roads,” a 1946 talk on “juvenile delinquency," a series of Interfaith, Interracial Brotherhood Breakfasts in the 1940s and 1950s, and a 1970 discussion on “The Generation Gap.”
When Horatio J. Homer, Boston’s first Black police officer, died in 1923, his funeral was at Ebenezer. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Boston during the 1980 presidential race to call out the candidates for not listening to Black voters, he spoke from the pulpit at Ebenezer.
But over time, the church has become less central to the life of the city, while the South End, once a largely Black neighborhood, has become increasingly the province of upscale white professionals.
As gentrification took hold in the 1980s and 1990s, Thompson said, many parishioners moved out of the neighborhood to Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Roslindale, and Hyde Park, others out of the city to Randolph, Stoughton, or the South Shore.
Ebenezer’s congregation shrank, while the congregants who continued coming from farther away faced the nightmare of parking in the South End, where double-parking is standard during church services, but there still is not enough space.
On Sunday, Thompson paused three times during the service to ask a congregant to move their car.
The shrinking congregation has meant smaller collections, which has made it impossible to keep up with the rising costs of maintaining a 19th-century building.
The structure will be listed for sale in the next 30 to 45 days, Thompson said, and the church plans to put the proceeds toward a new church with ample parking, a gym, an auditorium, a recording studio, and other facilities for 21st-century worship and community engagement. Starting next Sunday, services will temporarily be held at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury.
Church leaders and parishioners hope to stay permanently in Boston, the church’s historic home, rather than move to the suburbs, they said.
Marsha Jackson, a West Roxbury resident and fourth-generation parishioner, admitted she wasn’t happy to see the church leave the South End and will miss “the connection to family.”
“I sit in the sanctuary and I think about my aunts and my uncles and my cousins, and just the spirit of worship that I think has been lost,” she said.
Barbara Hamilton, 66, of Hyde Park, said the move is “bittersweet” because the church has been part of her life every step of the way, from baptism to youth fellowship to the mentoring program that helped her meet Black professionals and start her career.
Her son was baptized there, and her mother’s funeral was at Ebenezer. But this is the time, she said, to focus not on the past but the future.
“We’ve got a new generation coming up,” she said. “We want more modern things for them.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.