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A Good Time for a Walk

During these long days of physical isolation, long walks around my community of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, have been a welcome respite. Those walks have also inevitably stirred my historical curiosity about this town first settled by Europeans in the 17th century. I realized that I had a question: There was something missing from our religious ecology. Where is West Roxbury’s Congregational Church? Every New England town has one of those wonderful white meeting houses at its center. Even if many have been rebuilt or repurposed over the years, our New England landscape is marked by the fact that in pre-Revolutionary times a town HAD to have a church, and in fact you had to be a member to be able to vote in the town. Even though West Roxbury wasn’t a separate town from Roxbury until 1851, there was a sense of town identity as much as a century earlier. So what was the story?

With clues from the Images of America: West Roxbury photo book (by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, published by Arcadia Publishing) I’d picked up months ago and on-line histories of what are now the Theodore Parker Church (https://www.tparkerchurch.org/) and the Stratford Street United Church (https://www.stratfordstreetunitedchurch.org/church-history.html), here’s the story I’ve pieced together. 

And when things open up again, I look forward to exploring The Congregational Library and Archives, where more of the history is being preserved.

A vintage photo of an old building

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In 1706, a group of citizens living in what is now West Roxbury petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to form a new parish, so they could avoid the difficult six mile journey to the Church of Christ in Roxbury (the Puritan Congregationalists who had settled the town). Tired of waiting for permission, they built a meeting site near Peter’s Hill in what is now the Arboretum, and after some drama they officially became the Second Church of Christ in Roxbury in 1712. They grew and in 1773 built a handsome white meeting house at the corner of Church and Centre, adding a spire in 1821, with a bell (added in 1827) that rang every Independence Day. There was, before midcentury, also a very handsome parsonage next door (where the Holy Name rectory now stands).

In 1837, Theodore Parker entered the picture, serving as pastor until 1846. He was a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a leading proponent of the new liberal theology sweeping New England. What was important, he preached, were the moral teachings of religion, not its doctrine. Some of his parishioners were influential in the Brook Farm utopian community (founded in 1841 on Baker Street), where Ralph Waldo Emerson and other prominent Transcendentalists were resident.

An old photo of a building

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The 1820s and 30s had seen the growth of Unitarianism in New England and a growing split between liberals like Parker and more traditional Congregationalists. While I can’t find much detail about the founding of West Roxbury’s Old South Evangelical Church in 1835, the timing and its name lead me to believe that the Congregationalists who didn’t like the liberal direction of the church up the street, took off on their own. They built a beautiful white Greek Revival church at Mount Vernon and Centre.  

Meanwhile, West Roxbury became an independent town in 1854, and the legislature officially changed the original church’s name to First Parish of West Roxbury. But evidently the locals still referred to it as “Theodore Parker’s Church.” It was by then evidently part of the Unitarian movement (and probably had been even before they called Parker as their pastor).

By the later years of the century, the town was growing, and the congregants were restless. When a somewhat suspicious fire destroyed the First Parish meeting house on January 22, 1890, one group decamped to Roslindale and built the Roslindale Unitarian Church, while the rest built a new meetinghouse on Corey Street – what is now the parish house of the Theodore Parker Church – followed just ten years later by the current sanctuary.

A vintage photo of a clock tower

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At about this same time, in 1891, Old South Evangelical was replaced by West Roxbury Congregational Church, with a new building on the same site at Mt. Vernon and Centre. The story behind these changes isn’t clear, but West Roxbury Congregational occupied that building until another fire, in 1973, following which the remaining congregation merged with Stratford Street Baptist to form Stratford Street United Church.

And in that same formative period in the late nineteenth century, West Roxbury was becoming the religiously diverse place it is today. Wesley Methodist was founded in 1890, Emmanuel Episcopal in 1892, St. Theresa’s in 1895, St. George Antiochian Orthodox in 1900, Stratford Street Baptist in 1904, Holy Name in 1927, and more to follow. The days of just one or two Congregationalist churches, located on Centre Street, had passed.

So what had been, from 1712 to 1835, one Congregational parish at the east end of Centre Street, became, from 1835 to 1890, two churches (one at each end of town). The fire and subsequent vacancy of the property of the original parish made space for Holy Name Catholic Parish to be founded in 1927. And after the 1973 fire, the other church deeded its land to the West Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library for the expansion that was built soon thereafter. The two original churches live on in the Theodore Parker Church at Corey and Centre and the Stratford Street United Church at Anawan and Stratford.

A Good Time for a Walk If you were to walk around your neighborhood with an historian’s curiosity, what might you see? How are today’s congregations windows on a longer story?

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org