If you visit Eliot Congregational Church on Walnut Avenue in Roxbury, Pastor Evan Hines will take you on a tour of the school that his church used to run — to classrooms where desks are still in rows and assignments still listed on the blackboard as though waiting for the bell to ring.
He will tell you that before the school closed five years ago, it was an anchor in Roxbury, a kind of second home where children of color learned from teachers who looked like them. He will take you down a dim hallway where big picture frames are crammed with photos of young faces. Many went on to fruitful lives and careers — a proud legacy, church members call it.
And then he will tell you that he intends to sell the school to a developer to convert into apartments or condos.
It’s not that he wants to sell, he says. It’s that selling is the only way his ailing historic church — with a dwindling congregation and a mounting list of urgently needed repairs — can raise the money it needs to survive.
The trouble with Hines’s plan is that members of his congregation have been pushing back for years, saying they don’t like the idea of major changes to the building. And turning the school over to a developer could be seen in the community as another blow to a neighborhood already waging a bitter fight against gentrification.
And so Hines felt himself at a standstill year after year as he tried to persuade congregants, and as his church continued to decay. Then, last fall, a new opportunity emerged — and with it, a way to help ease his congregants’ anxiety about the future.
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The Eliot Church, a majestic puddingstone structure, has been a cornerstone of this Roxbury neighborhood for more than a century. The people who worship inside have a history of forging ahead.
In the 1930s, the sanctuary burned down. Several other churches offered to let congregants use their sanctuaries temporarily, but the people from Eliot Church said no — they pushed aside the debris and worshiped there anyway.
In this church, congregants fix each other’s pipes when they burst, and give rides, and visit people in the hospital. The school was always the biggest way the church poured itself into the community.
Inside the massive school building attached to the church, it looks like classes ended yesterday, except the layer of dust is too thick. Students’ names are still on some desks. Quotes from Thurgood Marshall and Sojourner Truth still line the chilly hallways, along with newspaper photos from when Barack Obama was elected president.
As the neighborhood around Eliot gentrifies, the fate of the church seems particularly important. In other parts of the city, black churches have been sold to developers and turned into luxury housing.
“If they put that church on the market, they could have a buyer in less than a week because they’d turn it into condos like the black churches in the South End,” said Byron Rushing, a former state representative from the South End who has followed the evolution of the churches closely.
This is where Hines comes in. He is no stranger to the neighborhood; he grew up down the street. But when he became pastor 12 years ago, he quickly concluded that selling the school was the only way to go.
Nearly all the church’s revenue came from tithes, which were declining. Crucial repairs had been long delayed. The heat barely worked. The ceiling leaked. And no one had a better view of the vanishing congregation than the pastor from his pulpit.
But the congregation didn’t want to sell. They appreciated the pastor, loved his energy and the way he sometimes burst into song mid-sermon. But the school for many was the heart of the church, and for more than a decade, congregants politely and resolutely resisted.
So last year the pastor did something new — he invited a class of architecture graduate students from Wentworth Institute of Technology, a college just 2 miles down the road, to meet the congregation and see the building. Then the students spent the semester designing ways the church could repurpose its massive school building into housing or some money-generating enterprise that would also serve the neighborhood.
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Some congregants were skeptical — and in the beginning none so more than Leslie Harris, a retired judge who has served as everything from trustee to deacon to janitor since he came to the church in 1975. For him, selling part of the church would be like selling his own house.
The judge knows which organ pipes need to be cleaned and which locks are broken. He knows how to replace every light bulb in the cavernous sanctuary.
“It’s a constant struggle keeping a building like this functional,” he said one day as he walked around the building. “But it’s also fun because it’s a work of art. And people invested so much into it before we came along, and you got to protect it.”
One time when he climbed a precarious extension ladder to change a bulb, he took a camera with him, and photographed the Tiffany stained glass window in the back of the sanctuary, and made postcards out of it.
Someone once wanted to buy another of the church’s stained glass windows, one made by the famous artist Charles Connick. Harris fought the idea because the window was a donation. But the weight of the window was pulling it out of the wall, so it eventually had to be removed anyway. With no money available to properly reinstall it, it ended up in a crate behind the organ.
“I keep meaning to play the lottery,” Harris said. “That’s the only way we are going to get the money right now.”
Hines would like to put the window back in its rightful place. And too often, he said, he has had to turn away people in need. Not long ago, two church deacons lost their home to a fire and needed a place to live. What if the school could be turned into housing and some of the units reserved for people like that, he wondered.
The church “was put here to help people, and if we broaden our idea of church and benevolence, the Bible says feed the hungry, clothe the naked, we can literally do that by altering this building,” Hines said.
That was the idea he took to the architecture students.
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One chilly evening last December, the students came with models and big poster boards on easels to present their visions of how to transform the school.
It was a big night. Hines wore a tuxedo, and a praise band sang on stage. Professors and administrators from Wentworth came, too, and served food.
At first, the gathering was awkward. In the big drafty auditorium of the church, the students stood ready to show off their ideas. Members of the congregation entered hesitantly. But then, Harris stood at the front of the room and welcomed everyone. He, who like others, had been skeptical of this idea for so long, said he had decided to keep an open mind.
“It’s exciting to see others excited about our building,” he told everyone gathered in the room.
Amen, said the congregation.
The students’ ideas were lofty and aimed at using the building to benefit the community. The church kitchen could be used for food truck preparation, offices could be transformed into a counseling center or a college-prep program that could be run by a community organization. Two of the students, Melissa Allen and Christian Roidt, proposed reopening the school but including a library, gymnasium, and cafeteria that could be used for other community programs as well. Everyone knew it is unlikely the school will ever reopen, but just the prospect made people smile.
For the students, more important than the specific details of their proposals was the chance to get the congregation thinking big. And for them, the project reminded them why they want to be architects. The point of designing a building is to facilitate what might happen inside.
“The same way a beautiful cello has the right resonance for the music, architecture has to have the right resonance for what happens inside,” Roidt said. “It’s not the architecture imposing, but it’s there to support something that’s going to happen anyway. But because the architecture is right, it can happen in a better way.”
And suddenly, for the congregation, the idea of building something like housing at the church seemed less scary. Pastor Hines plans to seek money from the city in the fall to at least begin funding the transformation of the property.
The details of such a project are still to be worked out. The pastor believes the endeavor could qualify for at least some money from the city, which reserves funds to build affordable housing, preserve historic buildings, and provide community services.
Depending on the details of the project, the church could benefit from selling a part of its property or might share rental income from apartments on the site.
It could still be years before apartments or condos are developed on the site, but in the meantime, the church is livelier than ever. Recently, Hines and Harris and some others cleared out junk and temporary walls in the basement of one of the church buildings and now light shines in through big windows that were previously blocked. The pastor plans to allow artists and community groups to rent space in the many unused rooms as he works toward a final plan to build housing.
The other day, Hines dug through some forgotten closets and found three sets of colorful choir robes that hadn’t been touched in years. He’s hung them out in the lobby to show the congregation.
“Working with the students, I’ve really come to view the building in a new way,” he said.