For local members of the Mount Calvary Holy Church of America in Roxbury, their church at 9-19 Otisfield Street is property designed to serve their area through religious services and other community programs. A conflict with the national ministry of the same name, which acts as an umbrella organization for the Boston Church and other affiliates across the country, could pose a problem for this mission.
Mount Calvary Holy Church of America, based in Washington, DC, wants to demolish buildings on Otisfield Street and build housing there, said Queen Warnum, community activist, organizer and longtime member of the Roxbury Church.
To protect the building and its history, local congregation members are working to declare the church a local landmark with the Boston City Monuments Conservation Commission.
The church building, which was built in the early 1900s as a synagogue for the Roxbury Jewish community, was transferred to the Holy Church on Mount Calvary in 1961.
After the death of Nellie Yarborough in 2012, who served as pastor and then bishop of Roxbury Church, National Ministries became involved in church governance.
Warnum said they removed the pastor Yarborough had appointed before her death. The congregation found a local bishop who continued to preach, but the national organization completely closed the congregation’s access to the site in 2013.
“They just came to our church and said, ‘This is the last Sunday this man will preach,” Warnum said. “There was no explanation. There was no meeting with the parishioners. There was nothing. They said, “We will return to the building, hopefully next year.”
But since then, parishioners have not been able to resume services indoors.
The national organization began selling two houses that belonged to the local church. According to the Massachusetts Transaction Register, the 250 Seaver Street property was sold for $ 440,000 in 2015. The Yarborough home at 156 Ruthven Street, which also belonged to the church, was sold in 2017 for $ 500,000.
Warnum said the local church saw no money.
Also in 2017, the national organization began demolishing the interior of the main sanctuary at 15 Otisfield Street, Warnum said, while the smaller sanctuary at 9 Otisfield Street was leased to other churches and groups. However, the local congregation was not given a meeting place in buildings that they considered their own.
In October 2020, Warnum said that she and other members of the local assembly had been informed that the national ministry wanted to demolish buildings and rent out land. Warnum said they were told the ministry wants to build up to 100 housing units.
“This community doesn’t want to see 50 to 100 apartments on this little street,” Warnum said. “[The community] said it would be like a project. He’s already overwhelmed. “
To protect the church, Warnum and other community members worked through the City’s Landmarks Commission to declare the complex a Boston landmark. Once the site has become a landmark, any proposed plans for rehabilitation or redevelopment of the structure, including complete demolition, must first be approved by the committee.
At a meeting of the Ground Landmarks Commission on April 13, LeAnn Suen, Bruner / Cott Architects, acted as a spokesperson for the project and presented to the Commission on the State and Regional Importance of Protecting the Site. Suen, who assisted the local church throughout the appointment process, said the structure has a long history with a significant proportion of the Jewish population in the region. In addition, the site serves as a view of the usual daily worship of the local Jewish population, which is often not represented in protected sites.
“Around the corner, there is a temple called Adat Yeshurun, which is now the First Haitian Baptist Church on the national registry, but is not a Boston landmark from my understanding,” Suen said. “Many temples like this focused on sightseeing and recognition, but these small residential buildings actually did a much better job of reflecting how many people were worshiping.”
For local members associated with the church, becoming a monument offers the hope of protecting property and being able to return to it to continue serving their community through religious services, as well as access to food and a homeless shelter, mental health awareness groups. food pantry management; and a host of other programs that the church ran under Yarborough.
“This is a property that has been public property since its inception,” said Apostle Detavia Thomas, who has preached several times at Roxbury Church and now serves as a pastor in Florida. “It has served society in many ways. We are talking about social services, food banks, but most of all it was created in order to spread the Gospel in the city and in the world and to educate people in this part of their life, if they choose to. So, to demolish such a structure, in my opinion, would be gross negligence. “
But the opportunity to renovate and renovate will also serve as a chance to upgrade their services to accommodate a growing community.
“[The neighborhood is] more varied than ever, therefore [they want] work in a more diverse manner with people from all walks of life, nationalities, all and all ages, ”Warnum said.
Warnum and other local church board members are also facing legal challenges. Following the Yarborough Memorial in June in the Church Gardens, National Ministries did not send out invasion notices. Warnum and board members will stand trial on Wednesday for allegedly unauthorized filing, in which the secretary of state names Warnum and other church officials and directors, and for trespassing on church property.
Warnum said the national ministry, which oversees more than 80 branches, has never owned the church and that it has always belonged to local members. For her, it’s the hard work of the congregation, supporting the church after they were forced to disperse to other churches after 2013 and eventually came together again for virtual services through Zoom, starting about a year ago.
“They don’t live here,” Warnum said. “They never put money into this church, never supported the roof, never hammered in a nail.”