Bostonians worship in some of the most historic, and some of the most extraordinary, places in the world. Here are a few–not all! And if I have neglected to mention your favorite, please let me know!
Here is my Top 10 list of churches from a year or two ago; it may have changed since! But below are some more. All of these are currently in use as places of worship.
The oldest church building standing in Boston is Christ Church, commonly known as Old North Church. Built in the 1720s, it is still an Anglican house of worship, though it is most famous for having given the Sons of Liberty a vantage point from which to signal that British forces were on the move in April 1775. At the time it was built, there already was “North Meeting House,” home of the Reverend Mathers, pere and fils. That one was older. How did this one become “Old North?” The congregation asked me to explain, so if you wondered, “How Old North became Old North.”here it is.
By the way, in the late 19th century the interior was painted to make it look more like a Congregational Meeting House–the puritans did not go in for stained glass, artwork, or other sensual pleasures. However, recent work has shown that the 18th-century interior was richly decorated–and now it is being restored. So you may visit next time and be completely surprised.
In the 1680s the British crown wanted to bring Massachusetts more closely under its supervision, and insisted that Anglicans–members of the Church of England–have their own meeting house. Governor Andros chose this site, and the first King’s Chapel came into being. In the 1740s a new building went up over the old–and has been here ever since, designed by the first real American architect, Peter Harrison. But during the Revolution the minister left, and the remaining congregation in the early 1780s asked James Freeman to be their pastor, and they became the first Unitarian parish in the United States. Here is more on the story of religious diversity in Boston after the Revolution.
This is the only remaining church in Boston designed by Charles Bulfinch. Built in the first decade of the 19th-century, it was a Congregational Church, but then the Congregationalists all moved out of the North End. It became a Unitarian Church–Francis Parkman, Sr., the father of the historian, was the pastor–then in 1862 it became the second Catholic Church in the North End in the middle of the century (after the Church of the Sacred Heart around the corner, before St. Leonard’s down Hanover Street). The church was raised another level (literally, though it might have also been spiritually) in the 19th-century, but then in the 1960s Archbishop Richard Cardinal Cushing had it restored to Bulfinch’s design. Appropriate–since Bulfinch also designed the first Church of the Holy Cross, later the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, on Franklin Street.
Father Anthony Matignon was the first Catholic priest in Boston; the first mass was only celebrated legally in 1788. Father Matignon came as a refugee from the French Revolution, and he and Father Jean Cheverus attended to the spiritual needs of all the Catholics in New England. When Matignon died in 1818, now Bishop Cheverus bought this land in South Boston and built this small mortuary chapel–which also holds the remains of many early priests and religious sisters, and over a thousand of Boston’s early Catholics, including veterans of the Civil War.
We visited St. Augustine’s to tell the story of the Ursuline Convent fire. One of the Ursuline Sisters who taught at the Convent school is buried in the Chapel floor.
The congregation began on Beacon Hill in 1838–a community of African-Americans who broke with the nearby Methodist Church to become part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1888 they purchased this building on Columbus Avenue, which had been the Temple Adath Israel. One notable event–in 1903 Booker T. Washington spoke in this church, and local writer and social crusader William Monroe Trotter rose to challenge Washington’s program for racial uplift. Washington had Trotter arrested, and the conflict lead Trotter to join with others to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Twelfth Baptist also began on Beacon Hill, when Boston’s African-American community centered on Joy Street; it traces its origin to the first African-American Baptist church founded in Boston in 1805. It moved to Roxbury later in the 19th-century. It was at the forefront of the antislavery movement–in fact, many members of the initial congregation were men and women who had fled from slavery. Its ministers, including Reverend Leonard Grimes, were leaders in this cause. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from its pulpit when he was doctoral candidate at Boston University.
The first Cathedral of the Holy Cross was a Bulfinch church on Franklin Street; during the Civil War, with a tremendous influx of Catholics into Boston, the Diocese began building this more imposing edifice, in the newly-developing South End. Patrick Keely, the Charles Bulfinch of Catholic church architecture, designed it–he was justly famous for his churches as worship spaces, and he took pride in his skills as a wood-carver.
This is one of the great architectural monuments of the world–designed for the newly-created Back Bay in the 1870s by architect H.H. Richardson, with stained glass by masters such as John LaFarge, and carvings of saints and other architectural features. The building itself gives its name to an architectural style–Richardsonian Romanesque. Here is more on churches in the Back Bay.
Here is another feature: in the courtyard behind Trinity, there is a small window setting-this comes from the Parish Church of St. Botolph in Boston, Lincolnshire. This was the home parish of many of Boston’s first Europeans in 1630, though the church itself was built in the 1300s. So this is the oldest window in Boston.
On Phillips Street on Beacon Hill, the Vilna Shul was built during and after World War One, as a synagogue. It is the only remaining synagogue building from this area, which was more attuned to Boston’s West End than Beacon Hill. It closed in the 1960s as the last of the members passed on, but then beginning in the 1980s has been revived as a the Vilna Center for Jewish Heritage, and even has prayer services in this space, undergoing restoration.
Notice the pews–the likely were purchased from the congregation of the 12th Baptist, which had moved from the Hill at about the same time this Jewish congregation built their new home. Here is more on the the Vilna Shul.