Local, national church battle over real estate
For local members of the Mount Calvary Holy Church of America in Roxbury, their church at 9-19 Otisfield Street is a property meant to serve its neighborhood through religious services and other community programing. A conflict with the national ministry of the same name that acts as an umbrella organization for the Boston church and other affiliates across the country may pose a challenge to that mission.
The national ministry Mount Calvary Holy Church of America, based in Washington, D.C., wants to demolish the Otisfield Street buildings and build housing there said Queen Wornum, a community activist and organizer and long-time member of the Roxbury church.
To protect the building and its history, members of the local congregation are working to designate the church as a local landmark with the City of Boston’s Landmark Commission.
The church building, which was constructed in the early 1900s as a synagogue for Roxbury’s Jewish community, was given to the Mount Calvary Holy Church is 1961.
Following the death of Nellie Yarborough in 2012, who served as pastor and later bishop at the Roxbury church, the national ministry began to involve itself in the running of the church.
Wornum said they removed the pastor that Yarborough had appointed before her death. The congregation found a local bishop to keep preaching, but the national organization shut down the congregation’s access to the space entirely in 2013.
“They just came into our church and said, ‘this is the last Sunday this man will be preaching,’” Wornum said. “There was no explanation. There was no meeting with the congregants. It was nothing. They said, ‘we will be back into the building, hopefully next year.’”
But the congregation hasn’t been able to resume services inside the space since.
The national organization proceeded to sell two houses that had belonged to the local church. A property at 250 Seaver St. was sold in 2015 for $440,000 according to the Massachusetts Registry of Deeds. Yarborough’s house at 156 Ruthven St., which was also owned by the church, was sold in 2017 for $500,000 dollars.
Wornum said the local church hasn’t seen any of the money.
Also in 2017, the national organization started to demolish the inside of the main sanctuary at 15 Otisfield St., Wornum said, while the smaller sanctuary at 9 Otisfield Street was rented out to other churches and groups. Still the local congregation wasn’t given space to gather in the buildings that they saw as their own.
In October 2020, Wornum said she and other members of the local congregation were informed that the national ministry wanted to demolish the buildings and lease the land. Wornum said they were told the ministry wanted to build up to 100 units of housing.
“That community does not want to see a 50 to 100 units on that small street,” Wornum said. “[The community] said it’s going to turn out like a project. It’s already over-congested.”
To protect the church, Wornum and other congregation members have been working through the city’s Landmarks Commission to designate the complex as a City of Boston landmark. Once a landmark, any proposed plans to rehabilitate or redevelop the structure — including complete demolition — would have to first be approved by the commission.
In an April 13 meeting of the Landmark Commission, LeeAnn Suen, an architect at Bruner/Cott Architects served as a representative for the project and presented to the commission on the state and regional significance of protecting the site. Suen, who has been helping the local church throughout the designation process, said the structure has a long history that involves a significant Jewish population in the region. Furthermore, the site serves as a view into the regular day-to-day worship of the local Jewish population, which is often not represented in protected landmarks.
“There’s a temple around the corner called Adath Jeshurun which is now the First Haitian Baptist Church which is on the national register but is not a City of Boston landmark as far as I understand,” Suen said. “A lot of temples like that have been focused on for landmarking and recognition, but these smaller, sort of residential-scale buildings were actually much more representative of how a lot of people worshiped.”
For local members associated with the church, getting landmark status brings hope of protecting the property and letting them get back in to continue serving their community, through religious services as well as access to food and shelter for the homeless, operating mental health awareness groups, running a food pantry and a host of other programs that the church ran when it was led by Yarborough.
“This is a property that has been a community property since its inception,” said Apostle Detavia Thomas, who preached at the Roxbury church several times and now serves as a pastor in Florida. “It served the community in various ways. It’s been about social services, food banks, but most of all it was established to get the gospel out among the city and amongst the world and to train people for that part of their life if that’s what they choose. And so, to tear down such a structure would be a gross negligence in my opinion.”
But the opportunity to renovate and repair would also serve as a chance to update their services to provide for a growing community.
“[The neighborhood is] more diverse than ever, so [they want] to work in a more diverse fashion with all walks of life, nationalities, everyone, all ages,” Wornum said.
Wornum and other members of the local church’s board also are facing legal challenges. Following a memorial celebration in June for Yarborough, held in the church’s garden, the national ministry served no trespassing notices. Wornum and the members of the board will appear in court Wednesday for allegedly unauthorized filings of documents with the Secretary of State naming Wornum and others as officers and directors of the church and for allegedly trespassing on the church’s property.
Wornum said that the national ministry, which oversees more than 80 affliates, never owned the church and that it was always owned by local members. For her, it’s the hard work of the congregation that has kept the church going after they were forced to disperse to other churches following 2013 and eventually coming back together for virtual services over Zoom starting about a year ago.
“They don’t live here,” Wornum said. “They didn’t put any money into this church never supported a roof, never put a nail in.”