Growing Together, Building in Faith:
See the history of St. James's church and garden, and our exciting redevelopment plans in detail in the PowerPoint presentation below:
Address to Community Open House
On St. James’s – Oaktree Redevelopment & Restoration
Holly Lyman Antolini, September 13, 2015
Welcome to our beloved church and to this exciting Open House on our project to replace our parish house and restore our historic church and garden. It is our delight to welcome you all here this afternoon. We hope you will stay afterward for more conversation and refreshments provided by our Hospitality Committee and the congregation, many of whom are here with you today.
A little background before I turn the podium over to our presenters on the redevelopment project itself. St. James’s has been on this street corner almost since our first service 150 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1864. We completed this magnificent building in 1888. But it came about with peculiar serendipity: the original church was a little carpenter gothic wood-frame chapel where our parking lot is now, and the congregation quickly filled that space and decided to build the parish house behind it. After it was completed, they discovered it overhung the neighboring property by 18 inches! (Surveying was not yet an exact science then!) So they petitioned the owner of “the corner lot” for title to those 18 inches. Instead, the owner of the corner lot insisted to them that they buy the whole corner property. “You’ll need it for a new and bigger church,” she insisted, and gave them a deal on the price. The congregation took the immense risk, and purchased the whole lot, having no idea how they would fund a new church. Then Mary Longfellow Greenleaf, “the widow of a wealthy merchant,” as our 1910 history puts it, provided the $25,000 check that made this magnificent structure possible. A later check added the Rector’s office to the Parish House, and replaced the old stables with the garden, planted with the help of the Masons across the street, hence its name, “The Knights Garden,” as in “the Knights Templar” of the Masons.
From then on, St. James’s has inhabited this extraordinary, unique building. Throughout our history, until well into the 1990’s, this was a working class parish, our members mostly in “the trades.” So almost from the beginning, the congregation has found it difficult to maintain these immense and complex premises. By the time I arrived to answer the call as rector in 2008, the grand old lady of the church had had to handle a crisis over its bell tower, on the verge of being condemned, and the church was definitely looking the worse for wear. The parish house had had to defer to the historic church and had been surviving – barely! All twelve different levels of it! - with only the most minimal emergency maintenance for a generation. The garden, completed replanted lovingly by congregation members led by our member Bill Taylor in the 1980’s, was always out of control, having been designed as a “north shore estate garden,” and having prolific shrubs that screened it from public view, and outgrew the maintenance energy and budget of the congregation so that the garden housed the homeless more than it did the community. The congregation, valiantly as it worked to try to keep these immense and complex premises upright and the garden usable, had long since learned that it must keep its focus on community outreach and service and a lively worship life DESPITE the deplorable condition of our parish house and garden, because even with historical commission grants, we faced an impossible predicament in trying to maintain all of it.
The very first week of my arrival at St. James’s as rector, I met with a team of architects, landscape architects and city planners from my congregation, with my 28-year-old Senior Warden – the head of our church board – who was Assistant Town Manager in Natick, and with Gwen Noyes, principal of Oaktree Development. It was like a reprise of the 18-inch negotiation over the corner lot! Gwen and Oaktree were planning to build a condominium on the car wash, and hoped we might deed them 10 inches of the north edge of the garden for their project, in return for help maintaining the garden. My Senior Warden, said, “Why not a partnership instead? Why not build down the car wash and across the back of our lot, gain parking access on Beech St., and give us a new parish house on the first floor of your larger condominium? You would relieve us of the impossibility of maintaining this dilapidated old parish house. You would help us put our beloved garden in the very center of our life, with our parish house wrapped around one side and our church on the other, and help us make it open and accessible to the community, inviting to the public in a way it has never been when closed in with fence and shrubs, you would make our parish house all handicapped accessible, instead of un-navigable for those in wheel chairs, and all of this would be LEED-certified, upgrading our environmental responsibility a quantum leap from the leaky, uninsulated nightmare of our old parish house. It would be smart-growth for the City of Cambridge: new housing right on the Massachusetts Ave. corridor, within walking distance of T, commuter rail, grocery and hardware stores. It would be a perfect location for the church to house and support a new incubator for social entrepreneurship initiatives! AND you would help us fund the restoration of our historic church!”
By 2010, Oaktree and St. James’s had obtained all the necessary permits from Cambridge City Planning, Cambridge City Historical Commission, and the MA Historical Commission to build our zoning-compliant smart-growth condominium project. In October of 2010, we began to strip the asbestos from the old parish house in preparation for construction, and the congregation went, as I put it, into “diaspora:” our offices at the American Friends Service Committee building, our food pantry at the Rindge towers, our Women’s Meal at the Friends’ Meeting in Harvard Square, our littlest church school students walking up the street every Sunday morning to the Pine Village Preschool, beyond the Speedway gas station. Then came the first of three suits against our project, the first against St. James’s, Oaktree and the City Planning Commission permit. (The second was against the City Historical Commission and the third against the MA Historical Commission.)
Over the five years since we moved out of our parish house, the congregation of St. James’s has patiently waited out this civic legal process, designed to allow neighbors to challenge a proposed building project. During that time, we have managed, despite our “diaspora,” to grow in numbers and community ministry as a congregation. We’ve kept on with our Outdoor Church at the T stop every Sunday, our three-day-a-week food pantry (the only one in North Cambridge), our Women’s Meal, our Greater Boston Interfaith Organization advocacy work, our “college behind bars” Prison Ministry, our eight missions, one to Latinos in East Boston, and the others overseas in Lesotho, Costa Rica, Kenya, Brazil, and Haiti, each one with personal connections between our congregation and the mission we support. And on the strength of our excitement and hope in the promise of this remarkable project, we were able to raise our own funds to do significant restoration on our complex slate roof to relieve the direct leakage into the church itself and rescue the roof’s infrastructure.
But we have had to do all this without a kitchen in which to prepare funeral collations when we bury our elders, or community meals for Thanksgiving or our 150th Anniversary celebration. We have had to do this without space next to the church for nursery, church school, and youth groups. We have had to manage our community outreach without a central gathering place except in these pews. Our Anti-Oppression Team, our Greater Boston Interfaith Organization team, our Prison Ministry Team, our Young Adult bible study, and so many more congregational ministries and groups have had to take potluck in people’s homes for space to meet. Our coffee hour is held exactly as your refreshments are, in the back of our church. It has been nearly impossible to communicate to our surrounding community our welcome and our desire to connect and offer useful community space without a parish house.
Now, the plaintiffs against our redevelopment project have lost all three of those suits, clarifying without a doubt – if clarity was needed – that our permits are fully legal and appropriate. IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON. It is time to let St. James’s build its new parish house, renovate its garden, and begin the significant restoration work demanded in this beautiful, unique space. You can see the need all around you! It is TIME TO LET ST. JAMES’S MOVE FORWARD INTO ITS NEW FUTURE, with its new parish house and renewed garden. It’s time to help St. James’s BE the community resource it is designed and called to be! It is TIME for SMART GROWTH at the corner of Beech St. and Mass Ave.
Closing of the meeting:
This IS the way forward. We are not turning around. We're fully committed to this project, as much as we ever were. The courts have spoken. Spending more time gains nothing. It's time for replace blight on Beech St. and Mass Ave with vital, vibrant community, congregation, and garden space, provide much-needed housing to the community, space for the Cambridge Symphony and School of Honk Community Band to rehearse, opportunity to restore this church.
Thank you for joining us today! Let’s continue the conversation over the refreshments!