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In Roxbury, a thorny battle over a vacant Black church in disrepair

Rosalind "Queen" Wornum dreams of getting Mt. Calvary Holy Church reopened.
Rosalind "Queen" Wornum dreams of getting Mt. Calvary Holy Church reopened.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The two signs posted out front crystallize the ongoing battle over the future of Roxbury’s Mt. Calvary Holy Church.

Over a locked-up entrance to an overgrown courtyard, a garish, red-and-yellow no-trespassing banner blares, “Only persons expressly authorized by Mt. Calvary Holy Church of America, Inc. may enter the land or these premises for any purpose.”

Underneath that, in letters peeling and faded, a message from a bygone era: “All are welcome.”

In fact, all are not welcome nowadays at the church’s Otisfield Street property, which consists of two multistory brick buildings and a sizable yard just off Blue Hill Avenue. Some of the church’s most devoted congregants have been served with no-trespass orders and taken to court by the church’s Washington, D.C.-based mother organization over their attempts to influence the future of the property.

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The church, closed for the last eight years, has seen better days. Some of the windows are covered in graffiti, others have been broken and boarded up with plywood, which also covers some of the facade’s exterior. “Life is hard,” someone scrawled on one section of wood.

Standing in the middle of Otisfield Street, Rosalind “Queen” Wornum became emotional when talking about what the church means to her. She attended for more than 40 years, got married there, and had her four children christened there. Her eyes welled up and her voice became thick as she described the shuttered state of the place. To her, it was the equivalent of having the congregation’s spiritual heart ripped out.

“It hurts my soul to come and see all of this every day,” Wornum said.

The message was clear at Mt. Calvary Holy Church.
The message was clear at Mt. Calvary Holy Church.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The battle over the church, a Pentecostal denomination that served a predominantly Black congregation for decades, is a thorny one, full of allegations and counter-allegations, disagreements over the property, and who actually has the authority to call the shots when it comes to what becomes of the buildings.

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On one side is the umbrella organization, Mt. Calvary Holy Church of America Inc., which oversees about 80 churches in 17 states and a dozen countries. One bishop from that group recently said that the building housing the main sanctuary is dilapidated beyond repair, and that to renovate it would cost millions, more than the building is worth. He favored demolishing it, paving a parking lot in its stead, and providing ministry services in another building on the property. The bishop said a previous idea for affordable housing on the site is no longer under consideration.

“We want to do what’s in the best interest of the community and our congregation,” said Bishop Sherman Scott, the organization’s secretary general.

On the other side are local congregants, spearheaded by Wornum, a community organizer who is the chief executive of the nonprofit Women on the Rise Inc. They want the main sanctuary on the property reopened and for it to host services once again, something that has not happened since 2013, when there were about 100 congregants. They oppose redeveloping the property or razing any of the buildings. The city assesses the value of the property at more than $3.2 million.

Despite the sign, it's been years since the church held services. Its future is being fought on several legal fronts.
Despite the sign, it's been years since the church held services. Its future is being fought on several legal fronts.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“They had nothing to do with this church for 60 years,” said Wornum of the D.C. organization. “We are the church; we built the church.”

Between the two sides is a thicket of court documents and a petition to make the church buildings a landmark in the city, a process that has effectively frozen any prospective changes to the church parcels.

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The conflict escalated in June, when Wornum and others hosted a community event memorializing the passing of the church’s former bishop, Nellie Yarborough, who died from cancer in 2012 at age 87. The church’s mother organization found out about the event, held in the yard outside the main sanctuary, and called police to the premises. The officers left without shutting down the proceedings, which included a barbecue and was attended by three mayoral candidates, Wornum said.

Weeks later, the umbrella organization sued a collection of congregants, including five Boston residents, arguing that they tried to pose as officers and directors of the church. The legal complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court alleged at least one defendant filed fraudulent documents relating to the church with the Massachusetts secretary of state.

In August, a judge granted a preliminary injunction against Wornum and other local congregants. The order barred the defendants from representing themselves to any person, agency, or entity as holding any position with the church. It also prohibited them from filing or attempting to file any corporate documents relating to the church, or trespassing on the property.

The judge found the Boston church “is subject to the governance of the National Church, which has the right to direct the local church’s affairs, name its officers and directors, and control use of the property.”

Wornum now says the defendants are appealing the order and is calling on the state attorney general’s office to investigate the church organization’s dealings.

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She said the the main sanctuary building, while old, is sound, a characterization the church organization rejects.

Wornum believes the mother organization wants to redevelop it to make money. She points to that group selling off two other church properties in recent years: One, located at 250 Seaver St., sold for $440,000 in 2015; another, at 156 Ruthven St., was sold in 2017 for $500,000, according to files at the Suffolk Registry of Deeds.

“We’re wondering, where’s our money?” Wornum said. “Where did the money go? We paid tithes into the church all these years.”

Scott said Wornum doesn’t “have foundational facts when it comes to who controls and who governs and owns organizational property.”

“We have the privilege to liquidate properties for the betterment of the organization,” he said. The parent church wants to avoid the property becoming more of a public safety hazard than it already is, he said.

The legal case is not the only front in the conflict over Mt. Calvary. Congregants and their supporters spearheaded a petition seeking to make the property a historical landmark, filing it with the city’s Landmarks Commission in March. Among the petition’s signees was now-Mayor Michelle Wu. The petition argued that the property, which was previously a synagogue and Hebrew school, had a role in the development of “non-Anglo, non-Protestant white, ethnic communities in Massachusetts.” It is being studied for historic significance, and while that is ongoing, any changes to the property have to be approved by the the city’s Landmarks Commission.

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A sign outside the Mt. Calvary Holy Church.
A sign outside the Mt. Calvary Holy Church.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The parcel was reported to be home to the largest Hebrew school in the United States at the time of its dedication in 1923. Mt. Calvary Church moved to the site in the early 1960s, according to the application. Bishop Nellie Yarborough, who was lauded for serving the hungry and caring for the homeless, presided over the congregation for decades. The intersection of Otisfield Street and Blue Hill Avenue is named in her honor, and her death was a major factor in throwing the future of the church into disarray, according to Wornum.

“If she was living, this would not take place,” she said.

Scott, the bishop, dismissed any notion of the building’s having architectural significance, saying the interior of the main sanctuary has been gutted. If there was anything worth saving, it’s gone, he said.

Scott said a previous plan included 55 affordable-housing units on the property and an operational church in one building. But that plan, he said, has been scuttled because of local pushback. Having ministry services on the property would be part of any future plan for the property, he said.

Congregants, said Scott, were given the option to seek fellowship at other churches.

“We understand it’s not popular,” he said of that option.

Wornum, for one, isn’t interested in finding another congregation.

“This is all I know,” she said. “I’ve been to other churches. I want to be back in my home. This is home to us.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.