First Parish Church of Dorchester
The First Parish Church in Dorchester is a Unitarian Universalist church in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Emigrants from Dorchester, Dorset and the southwest of England founded the town of Dorchester March 30, 1630 and established the church in 1631.
The first church building was an crude log cabin thatched with grass. As well as the church, the Puritans founded the first elementary school supported by public money in the New World. They held the first town meeting at the church, which determined policy through open and frequent discussion. The congregation's fifth building burned in February 1896, and the current building was completed in 1897.
As of spring 2014, First Parish is scheduled to complete phase three (of five) of a $5 million restoration project, which began November of 2006. This phase included accessibility improvements, exterior repairs and painting, and steeple restoration.
The church played a strong role as the hub of political and social life in Dorchester. The original Puritan congregation is still remembered for establishing the country’s first tax-supported, free public school in 1636. The first four meetinghouses acted as Dorchester’s town hall. The fifth building, built in 1816, was the host to many social justice leaders, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker, because of First Parish’s long-standing pastor Reverend Nathaniel Hall who was dedicated to the abolitionist cause. In the 1880s, the work of First Parish’s minister, Christopher R. Eliot, and the Fields Corner Congregational Church’s minister, Reverend T.J. Volentine, inspired First Parish members and friends to organize the Fields Corner Industrial School for local children, which evolved into Dorchester House, a multi-service health center.
Today, First Parish is an important resource for Dorchester’s Vietnamese, African-American, Caribbean, Irish, Latino, Haitian, and Cape Verdean residents. The staff collaborates with educators, health-care providers and other local groups to alleviate hunger, violence, racism, and other effects of poverty.
Originally from First Parish Dorchester
In its 383 year history, many people have come through First Parish and made an enduring impact on their communities.
First Parish ministers and their periods of tenure were:
Rev. Arthur R. Lavoie (2005 – present)
Rev. Victor H. Carpenter (Interim, 2003 – 2005)
Rev. David W. Thompson (Interim, 2001 – 2002)
Rev. Shuma Chakravarty (1998 – 2000)
Rev. Kenneth R. Warren (Interim, 1996 – 1998)
Rev. Elizabeth Ruth Curtiss (1994 – 1996)
Rev. David W. Thompson (Interim, 1991 – 1994)
Rev. James Kenneth Allen (1954 – 1991)
Rev. Robert MacPherson (1951 – 1954)
Rev. David Bruce Parker (1950)
Rev. Robert Arthur Storer (1937 – 1950)
Rev. Lyman Vincent Rutledge (1921 – 1927)
Rev. Adelbert Lathrop Hudson (1921 – 1938)
Rev. Harry Foster Burns (1918 – 1921)
Rev. Roger S. Forbes (1908 – 1917)
Rev. Eugene R. Shippen (1894 – 1907)
Rev. Christopher R. Eliot (1882 – 1893)
Rev. Samuel J. Barrows (1876 – 1880)
Rev. Nathaniel Hall (1835 – 1875)
Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris (1793 – 1836)
Rev. Moses Everett (1774 – 1793)
Rev. Jonathan Bowman (1729 – 1773)
Rev. John Danforth (1682 – 1730)
Rev. Josiah Flint (1671 – 1680)
Rev. Richard Mather (1636 – 1669)
Rev. John Maverick (1630 – 1635)
Rev. John Wareham (1630 – 1635)
Notable historic lay leaders include:
Caroline S. Callendar, co-founder of the Fields Corner Industrial School (later known as Dorchester House)
Abigail Adams Eliot, nursery school movement pioneer
Emily A. Fifield, second woman elected to the School Committee
First Parish Church in Dorchester is the sixth meetinghouse erected by First Parish Church since 1630, and the fifth building to stand at this location on Meetinghouse Hill since 1673. It is the only example in Boston of Colonial Revival ecclesiastical architecture stylized after the traditional wooden New England meetinghouse.
When the fifth building was lost to fire in February 1896, church members decided by a vote held only 11 days after the fire that “a meeting-house be built substantially upon the lines as to the exterior as it was before.” On the dedication day of the sixth building in May 1897, the building committee’s chairman shared with the audience that “The vote determining the character of the building was, we believe, expressive of the desires, not only of our own people, but also of a great number of others, who from direct or collateral descent trace back their ancestry to the old meeting-house or one of its predecessors…It was therefore thought wise, while making a more symmetrical and harmonious whole, to preserve the better features of the old colonial type of meeting-house, thus keeping unbroken the train of ideas which came with the good ship ‘Mary & John’ [in 1630].”
Indeed many descendants of the original Puritans still resided in Dorchester and were members of First Parish. These living representatives undoubtedly influenced the decision to replicate a traditional building exterior. However, the members did not allow themselves to be trapped by cloying nostalgia too much; they soon voted to demolish the smaller vestry that survived the fire in order to create a larger Parish hall. In 1913 they expanded the building again to install a stage to accommodate activities that would attract younger people, and ensure membership growth. The scale of the new building was intended to host large numbers of people for a variety of activities; church meeting notes regularly record concerns about serving the community needs – socially, spiritually, and economically.
The original architects were principals of the Boston architectural firm, Cabot, Everett and Mead, which designed buildings for notable people and institutions. Arthur Greene Everett and Samuel W. Mead, former draftsmen of Edward Clark Cabot, joined as principals of the firm in 1885. Cabot is best known for his design of the Boston Athenaeum. Under Everett and Mead, after Cabot’s retirement in 1888, the firm designed a large shingle style home in Nova Scotia for Alexander Graham Bell four years before their work at First Parish. Everett was originally from Boston, though served an internship with the famous New York City architecture firm, McKim, Mead & White. Mead and Everett had connections to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of architecture, the former teaching classes there and the latter as an alumnus. Mead also had traveled and studied in Europe, as the second winner of MIT’s prestigious Rotch Traveling Scholarship. For a congregation steeped in Boston heritage, this pedigree surely mattered and their design helped the congregation succeed in the goal of creating a near-replica of the fifth building.
The few alterations that have occurred on the site were shaped by the minds of other influential Boston architects, also with MIT connections. In 1909, Mr. Everett worked with Arthur Asahel Shurtleff (later known as Shurcliff) to complete a landscape project on the site, including the design and installation of the cast-iron fence and memorial gates that stand today. Shurtleff, an MIT graduate of the Engineering department in 1894, had partnered with Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to form the first four-year landscape architecture program in the country at Harvard University ten years before the First Parish landscape project. In 1913, architect Edwin Lewis, Jr., provided his services to oversee changes to the Parish hall that would provide more meeting and entertainment spaces for the congregation and community. In 1907, Frank Chouteau Brown, editor of the Architectural Record and fellow Boston architect, lauded Lewis, another graduate of MIT’s school of architecture (1881), as one of the leading architects of suburban Boston. Fortunately for First Parish, he was also a member and lay leader who provided his services at a reduced rate for these projects, and donated the organ chimes in 1925. Lewis designed many of the large single-family homes in the more affluent neighborhoods of Dorchester.
The current congregation is mindful of their church’s legacy; it signed a preservation restriction agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to ensure that their investment in its preservation is secure and future alterations will respect the historic integrity without sacrificing community service.
- "Notable Events in Massachusetts". MassHome.com. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
- "First Parish Church in Dorchester Records". Massachusetts Historical Society. 29 September 2004. Retrieved 2013-11-20.
- Forry, Bill (11 April 2013). "Inside a tented shop, First Parish Church steeple work nearing the top-off". Dorchester Reporter (dotnews.com). Retrieved 2013-11-20.
- "Meetinghouse Restoration Project". firstparishdorchester.org. Retrieved 2014-05-04.
- First Parish Church in Dorchester Website
- First Parish Church (Dorchester, Mass.) Records 1636-1981 Guide to the Collection
- Construction photos of the reconstruction of the steeple, November 2006
- Boston Globe article, March 27, 2006, on the installation of Rev. Arthur R. Lavoie as the 26th minister.