This Christmas, after standing empty for nearly two years, the former Catholic church at 170 Rindge Ave. will once again be home to holiday celebrations.
Soon, Christmas lights and decorations will festoon the newly renovated house of worship for both its Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.
For most of its history, the building was known as Our Lady of Pity Church, serving first the French Canadian community. In 1998, the church became the home of the Haitian Apostolate of the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese, where Haitian Catholics could celebrate the songs and prayers of the Mass in their native Creole.
That all ended in 2003, when the church, rectory and school buildings that once comprised a bustling campus, were closed as part of the archdiocese’s parish reconfiguration plan.
With the property up for bidding, developers competed with religious and educational institutions, such as the Mormons, M.I.T and Harvard, for the deed. In the end the complex was sold to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cambridge for $6.2 million.
That year, faced with declining membership and rising costs, the Archdiocese sold Our Lady of Pity for $6.2 million.
The new owners moved in May 8, and they brought with them new songs, new prayers and a new sort of joyful noise to heard inside its walls—and they brought a band.
The emphasis on music was not an afterthought. The Vineyard movement was strongly influenced by one of its founding leaders, John Wimber (1934-1997), who once wrote in Christianity Today that he was beer-guzzling, drug-abusing pop musician, who converted at the age of 29, while chain smoking his way through Quaker Bible study.
Wimber, and his fellow founders, started the Vineyard movement to reflect a more intimate worship relationship with the Holy Spirit than they were finding in other churches.
The movement was formally launched in 1982, and there are now more than 850 Vineyard churches around the globe. The movement is still based in California, where it was born.
The Vineyard was mostly unfamiliar to local residents before its arrival in the neighborhood, and its worship service and atmosphere are far less structured as the traditional Catholic service.
The severe wooden pews have been replaced with soft padded seats, the wood floor is carpeted in muted green and the kneelers have been dismissed.
The chapel is now a café and reception area where church members gather and mix before and after services while enjoying continental breakfast.
At Vineyard services, the dress code falls somewhere between business casual and casual casual with many comfortable in blue jeans.
The mood is more Left Coast than Legacy Coast, as exemplified by Pastor
Christopher Greco’s admonition at the beginning of his Nov. 20 sermon:
“Give yourself permission to feel.”
Later in the service, there was a children’s dedication ceremony drew friends and family from all over the city.
Throughout a typical service, Biblical passages are supplemented by anecdotes about Home Depot and recalcitrant cell phone service providers.
Creco’s sermon, which incorporated a scene from William Nicholson’s play about C.S. Lewis, “Shadowlands,” was lively and emotional, and the many songs – performed by a full band that includes both drums and electric guitar – kept the congregation on its feet for nearly half the service.
Video screens , Power Point presentations, and a high-end sound system give morning worship an accessible, contemporary spin.
The modernizations present an interesting juxtaposition with the church’s soaring ceiling and gorgeous stained glass windows and the traditional mural program that still circles high on the church’s walls.
Although from the outside, the church looks much the same as it did in its Our Lady of Pity days there have been a number of important improvements and changes, said Julie O’Connor, Vineyard’s project manager for the $2.2 million renovation of their new home.
O’Connor said she also oversaw the move from the congregation’s former home at Morse Elementary School on Memorial Drive
Most strikingly, the back of the church has been re-imagined as the entrance, providing a meet-and-greet space for visitors before they enter into the main hall.
The bathrooms, electricity, lighting, and carpeting have all been
redone, the walls have been repainted, the parking lot has been
repaved, and the entire building is now handicapped accessible.
Not all of these changes have sat well with the church’s neighbors, and the Vineyard is still working out the kinks in its relationship with the Cambridge community.
Approximately 50 percent of the congregation is locally-based, and parking has been an issue, though it is one the church is working to address, O’Connor said.
Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, at the corner of Bolton and Sherman streets, has opened its parking lot to congregants on Sunday mornings, and announcements flashing across the church’s video screen during service ensure that any illegally parked cars are quickly moved, she said.
In the parking lot on the church grounds, large signs inform drivers that parking spaces are reserved for families with children, first-time visitors and the handicapped. Everyone else must park somewhere else.
The church also ignored neighborhood concerns when it paved over some of its lawn area, eliminating vital green space, said Michael Brandon, a spokesman for the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee.
The paving may not have been consistent with zoning ordinances, he said.
Neighbors have also been troubled by the noise coming from 170 Rindge, especially during the summer when most of the heavy equipment was being used in the morning, he said.
“They are extremely noisy,” said Irma Bickerstaff, who lives directly across the street from the Vineyard.
Newly elected City Council member Craig Kelley said there needs to be a delicate balance between the needs of the large church community and those of local residents.
“There seems to be some dialogue now, and they’re talking to each other, which helps,” said Kelley, who for 10 years had been the chairman of the NCSC until he resigned this fall to concentrate on his city council campaign.
Vineyard members are working hard to win over their new neighbors and do the stuff of the Bible in Cambridge, said O’Connor.
Vineyard-sponsored outreach programs include the Harvest Food Pantry, which serves approximately 100 needy families, and the Storehouse, a short-term food assistance program, she said.
The Vineyard also successfully renegotiated a lease of one of the church buildings to the Benjamin Banneker Charter School, allowing the school to remain on the property it has occupied since 1995, she said.
Overall, church members say they are optimistic about their relationship with the community.
The Vineyard’s goals for the future include having 10,000 or more congregants in church every Sunday, according to its Web site.
It may not be there yet, but, as it approaches its first Christmas the Vineyard has come a long way already.