First Parish Church looks to the future

The ambitious project to restore and improve Dorchester’s first and oldest church building — First Parish on Meetinghouse Hill— is making impressive progress this season. The big news from last Saturday evening’s annual dinner to support the restoration project is that church leaders expect to be able to replace the church’s landmark steeple by next year at this time. Thanks to a critically important partnership with the North Bennet Street School — which trains trades-people to fix historic structures— the First Parish building’s wedding cake top will be fixed and re-installed.

The steeple — which was carefully removed and lowered onto a vacant lot on Parish Street in 2006— is just one piece of a complicated job that is now well underway. North Bennet students are now working on repairing the church’s windows, which are original to the 1896 structure. Extensive repairs were made last year to the building’s parapets and two chimneys, which had been in danger of collapse before this project. Much of the building has already been repainted, and the rest of the exterior will get a fresh coat of white this summer.

In total, the restoration job will cost just over $5 million— with a good chunk of that sum coming from grants from organizations like Historic Boston, the Henderson Foundation, and other sources. But the church community has also kicked in a substantial sum — including funds from the proceeds of the sale of a colonial-era silver collection that was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York last January. The sale fetched $1.7 million to help bankroll the project.

But the First Parish congregation and its minister, Rev. Art Lavoie, aren’t content to keep the historic church in good repair. They are also thinking about its future viability and long-term commitment to the broader Dorchester community.

This week, they will convene an advisory group that will be asked to consider ways that First Parish can better serve the surrounding community. That’s a tall order for a church that already swings open its doors regularly for just about every conceivable community event — from civic meetings and city council debates to square dances and jazz concerts.

But this new group will focus on the potential use of an addition to the First Parish complex, a carriage house that church leaders envision as a place to stage more events and possibly host classroom space for students in an after-school or day care setting. It’s a compelling prospect for the First Parish community’s future: Such an addition would allow the church to bring in new revenues to help maintain an iconic, treasured landmark while nuturing new generations of Dorchester families.

First Parish has been central to the religious and civic life of this community for generations and continues to be a key anchor for the bustling modern Dorchester that sprawls in its shadow.

We are fortunate that the present-day leadership of First Parish — which includes both Rev. Lavoie and his congregation as a team— are thinking not only about this church’s survival, but also its growth and long-term mission.
– Bill Forry

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