On an afternoon in November, 33 years ago, a member of the local Episcopalian congregation stepped around the side of the stone church on Massachusetts Avenue and asked a woman on the steps if she was waiting to enter the church.
“I found my home there. The atmosphere was immediately welcoming, just like home,” said Sylvia Weston, the senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Beech Street.
Weston said she was church-hunting shortly after her move to the area from the Caribbean, when she first visited St. James and found the doors closed to the keep out the chill.
“I came from a culture where doors were always wide open, so I was waiting for the doors to open,” she said. “I found, when I moved here, how loving and inviting they were and how accepting they are.”
Her role, as senior warden, is to care for the congregation, Weston said. During times of transition, the senior warden is canonically responsible for the interim process, for ensuring the congregation has priests to carry on services and to work in collaboration with priests to make sure services run smoothly.
Weston said St. James is currently in the process of finding a new rector, after the retirement of Priest Michael Pulvi, who headed the congregation for six years.
And, after withstanding over a century’s worth of strain from the elements, the historically registered stone building is in a process of transition as well, said Peter V. Merrell, the property chairman of St. James.
While outside St. James, Peter V. Morrell said the church is trying to decide how to replace the old, bell-shaped speakers which previously piped the sound of carillon bells into the neighborhood, from within the congregation.
“Part of what the church is interested in is letting the community in and finding ways to make the building more welcoming to the public,” he said.
With funds raised through a parish based capital campaign and with the help of grants from both the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Cambridge Historical Commission, the congregation recently hired Abbott Building Restoration Co. Inc. to begin dismantling the church’s bell tower, Morrell said.
Contractors hope to find the tower’s foundation solid enough to rebuild on, he said. They plan to mostly reuse the stones from the original tower in the reconstruction, and any additional stone required for patching will be similar to the local, Roxbury pudding stone with which the church was originally built.
Morrell said, in terms of architectural style, St. James is categorized as Richardsonian Romanesque, as the church’s appearance emulates Copley Square’s Trinity Church, designed by architect Henry H. Richardson. “We’re looking for ways to open the building during the day so people can come in and enjoy the space.”
Although less ornate and articulate than the Trinity Church, St. James features a similar, striking all-wood interior, arches and trusses, impressive lantern, and beautiful stained-glass windows, currently concealed from the outside, he said.
“It’s a good thing to show the community that we’re here and hopefully we’ll still be here in 100 years,” said St. James’ historian John R. Hixson.
Founded in 1864, and originally known as Christ’s Church, members of the congregation met to worship in Harvard Square, Hixson said. In 1888, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf, sister of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, provided funding for the construction of the current structure.
Hixson said he and his wife joined St. James in 1978, when the congregation was largely comprised of people from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. These Canadian families began the tradition of donating funding for the installation of stained glass windows to the church and, as a result, these windows show the wonderful history of the people who have been members of the congregation throughout the years, he said.