Friday, 27 August 2010
INTRODUCTION and JUST A FEW EARLY CHURCH MEMORIES
If you have read my other blogs, then you know all about my passion for the past and how it has made me the person I am today. I present here my reflections and vivid memories of growing up in and around Brookline, Massachusetts…a wonderful place that has helped to shape and mold me in so many ways. The years I shall write about will be mainly the 1960’s until the 1980’s. I shall dip back even further to include earlier times (1900-1950) that would have been part of my mother’s and my grandmother’s formative years in Brookline.
Some church memories…1968-1972
The other day I found a few snapshots online of River of Life Church in Jamaica Plain and my mind wandered right back to 1968 and some of my very first church memories.
Brookline in the late 60’s was going through some radical changes in the area of religion and churches. I was born in 1965 and baptized in Saint Paul’s Church on St. Paul Street in April of that year.
Saint Paul’s had been my mother’s church since about 1948, when she decided it(after visiting many times over the years) was the place to be since all her friends went there and she felt the church provided an exciting program for young adults. She found herself in confirmation classes at age 14 sitting with all the 11 and 12 year olds…she felt a bit awkward but wanted to be part of Saint Paul’s very much and went through with it. She really enjoyed these classes with Reverend Lawrence (who would soon become Bishop Lawrence) and she enrolled in young adult Sunday school with a delightful and wise Eleanor Mitchell as the teacher. My mother thought of Eleanor Mitchell as a powerful role model and inspiration for the rest of her life. Saint Paul’s was now her church and soon my grandmother transferred her membership from Harvard Church to join her there as well. My mother’s 1955 wedding at Saint Paul’s was all she hoped for and the albums with photos of this special day were cherished.
I grew up knowing Saint Paul’s was my church, too. But the Brookline church scene was changing as was all of the country in those turbulent times of the 1960’s. The Baptist Church and Saint Mark’s Methodist Church were closing their buildings and merging with Harvard Church to form United Parish. The Leyden Congregational Church on Beacon Street would soon close all together. Congregations were shrinking quickly. Saint Aidan’s Catholic Church closed its small school and convent and sold off the land. The town just had too many churches and not enough members anymore to support them. Saint Paul’s by the late 60’s was facing a decline as well. Murray Dewart was the minister at this stage, my minister and a dear family friend. The Sunday school had ceased weekly operation in the mid-1960’s due to the declining numbers of children in the parish and sadly, this meant I had no Sunday school to attend when I came of nursery age. Murray felt terrible and he offered my mother the assurance that Saint Paul’s would have a Sunday school again as soon as he could interest some other families in working as a team to restart it from scratch. He knew my mother, a former Sunday school teacher from the 1950’s, would help…but in the meantime I had to be taken to another church for religious classes.
In 1968 I was 3 and I recall my mother trying to get me to sit quietly in a Sunday school room in Harvard Church…her old church from pre-Saint Paul’s days. I cried and would not sit still. It was not my church and the teacher was a stranger to me. I had attended select services and other parish events at Saint Paul’s and knew it well. People knew me there and I felt I belonged…Harvard Church was strange, new and not part of my young world.
Saint Paul’s had shaped my view of what a church should be…at least in architectural terms. The beautiful church built in the mid- 1800’s was perfect in so many ways. Sitting in a pew as a young child I felt in awe as I gazed at the graceful wood beamed arched roof soaring over my little head, the many memorial plaques affixed to the walls, numerous ornate stained glass windows depicting all manner of eye catching designs and the powerful pipe organ situated to the left of the altar. I truly felt God lived there…I was sure he was standing behind one of the large columns supporting the roof. At less than 5 years of age, I had a sense of what “holy” meant. I begged my mother one day after a mid-week Lenten service to let me see the organ. A kind and talented organist sat me down next to him on the bench in front of the console to the right of the altar and let me press the great pedals with my tiny feet. The magnificent explosion of sound behind me thrilled my soul and I started a life long passion for the church organ. Saint Paul’s was home.
It seemed like I would not go to Sunday school until Saint Paul’s had one of its own.
Enter my grandmother. She lived in a large house owned by a family on Stedman Street.
The upper floors had rooms that they rented to single ladies, very quaint and so old time Boston.
My nana had a nice sized bedroom with sitting room area plus a tiny kitchenette. All the ladies shared a single bath…there were just 4 of them and I never saw a queue.
The family lived downstairs and knew me and my small family quite well. My grandmother’s landlady offered a suggestion. She was a very active member in a small, but lively church in Brookline on Clark Road.
The church was a branch of the Christian & Missionary Alliance and it had a small but weekly Sunday school with a very sweet, older lady who ran the nursery class.
So one Sunday I was taken to this new church on Clark Road in Brookline (since torn down to make way for an office complex). I recall seeing the church and saying right away…“It has no steeple!” The church was a flat roofed, one level building with normal house style windows…no fancy stained glass. I was not impressed with the building…even at 3 years old I had my church fixation and knew what I liked. But I followed my mother inside and met Mrs. Buck, the nursery Sunday school teacher.
She was so warm and she seemed to just fill the room with sunshine. She wore a Sunday hat and looked like the perfect, 1960’s style Sunday school teacher. She even let my mother sit in on the first class.
This simple building built on a very small budget had two main areas. One was a large assembly room for services and meetings with folding chairs and a piano for music. The other section of the building was just a group of small rooms divided by partitions for Sunday school classes and adult Bible study. I learned here that God was more likely seen in the nice people and not in the trimmings. I understood this concept slowly but still longed for trimmings!
I loved Mrs. Buck right away and felt like I belonged to this little group…even if I knew it was only temporary. My mother reminded me that she would not be joining this church and I was only there until Saint Paul’s was ready for children again. We continued to visit Saint Paul’s and Reverend Dewart often thus keeping informed about all the various events taking place. Christian & Missionary Alliance Church in Brookline understood our unique position and my mother did attend some adult classes and a few proper services but that was that.
I recall one day my mother and nana hosted a small lunch for Mrs. Buck at our home. Mrs. Buck wore a hat and had white gloves...so proper and such a lady.
She was a wonderful guest and even told me that swiss cheese, which was on a platter ready for lunch, had little holes in it to make it easier for a mouse to get in. I giggled and enjoyed the genteel banter.
My dad, never a church man, used to drive us there and pick us up each Sunday. My nana continued to go to Saint Paul’s during these years but did drop in on me in the little church from time to time. In 1969 Christian & Missionary Alliance Church of Brookline merged with a very small, declining Baptist church in Jamaica Plain to form Rock Hill Alliance Church. The small building in Brookline was sold and we moved into a handsome, proud church on top of a small hill in Jamaica Plain.
The church had been the Baptist congregation’s since it was built in 1904 and it felt old and seasoned. The small Baptist building was a “real church” to my 4 year old mind. It had a few stained glass windows, a small tower and…a little pipe organ with pipes. Not a rival to Saint Paul’s but enough trimmings to keep my young eyes and ears busy. Mrs. Buck carried on teaching the younger children and I was in her class in the basement of the Jamaica Plain church for the next few years. The Sunday school remained small but it was wonderful to go upstairs and be part of the Sunday adult services sometimes. I recall hearing the organ through the ceiling of the basement and I was so excited to be brought up the backstairs, through the church parlor and passing through the large folding doors into the sanctuary.
The sanctuary was much smaller than Saint Paul’s and far less ornate. The Baptist congregation had been founded by German immigrants and the atmosphere was one of dignity and simplicity. The choir stalls with organ console (covered by a screen), organ pipe casing, pulpit and a raised semi-circular dais with communion table were faced by rows of old, wooden pews set at various angles to maximize congregational viewing. I believe the mysterious and never seen baptismal submersion font was located beneath the moveable floor panels of the platform. Being from an Episcopal background, I found adult baptism very intriguing and longed to see it opened. Alas, it never was while I was around…oh, well.
The walls were plain and the windows were stained with colorful patterns but not with lavish Biblical depictions…it reflected simple beginnings and the proud people who once had worshipped there.
I recall standing on the platform during a Christmas service in 1970 and reciting a poem I learned with Mrs. Buck. It was called…I Am Glad. The pews were full and my grandmother and father had come to hear me and sit with my mother. The church was growing now and the merger had produced new “life” in the old building.
We stayed with Rock Hill Alliance Church in Jamaica Plain until the spring of 1972. Murray Dewart was still “my” minister and was keen to bring me back to my home church and it was wonderful news in 1972 that Saint Paul’s Church would again have a Sunday school.
Mr. Carter and his wife (both life long members of Saint Paul’s) were organizing the new Sunday school that was slated to open in September of 1972 and my mother was asked to teach…she was thrilled and said yes.
My years at Rock Hill Alliance Church grew to a close and a new chapter began which will be written about in future updates on this blog.
Now fast forward to today.
The photos of Rock Hill Alliance Church I found on Facebook recently brought back so many memories. I learned that the church had merged again with yet another small church in the 1990’s and together they changed their name…it was now River Of Life. The photos showed no pews but stackable chairs…the old, beautiful wooden organ casing had a projection screen up over it to be used for computer presentations and a drum set, keyboard and other large musical instruments filled the front for a more “contemporary” style service. The stained windows are still the same and were really what brought my mind back to the late 1960’s… as a young child I loved looking at them as I sat in this simple little church, the way the sun made them twinkle. I am sure that the members of the church today probably feel the old fashioned building is dated and needs to be kept current for the changing needs of the congregation. I wonder if the organ is even used anymore…it was not large but filled the small sanctuary with resonating tones that produced a thrilling sensation in me that I can recall still to this day.
One last note about Mrs. Buck.
In 1989, when my dad passed away, a sweet little card arrived at my mother’s home. A very old, but fully “with it” Mrs. Buck had seen the death notice in the Boston Globe and just had to write and share her love with us again. I cried. My mom cried. Dear Mrs. Buck had reached out over the long years and sent us a hug. She was still at the same church in Jamaica Plain and had lost her husband a few years before…still the same wonderful lady, loving, caring and very faithful…the heart and soul of a church that was changing rapidly around her. I believe she said she was one of last 1969 merger members still around and I am sure her inner sunshine warmed all who came and went…a lasting reminder of what really is important and never changes!