FOREST HILLS—The former St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church complex has been sold to the local Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church as its new headquarters.
“We will use it primarily for our worship services, and we’re planning on moving our offices there as well,” said Rev. Ray Hammond, Bethel AME’s co-pastor and a high-profile Boston activist, in a Gazette interview.
Bethel AME is planning no new construction and only minor renovations at the five-building complex, Hammond said.
“We don’t anticipate a change in the use of the property,” he said. “There’s not going to be any housing. We heard that [concern] over and over.”
The congregation is aiming for occupancy by early summer. “We want to move tomorrow,” Hammond said with a laugh.
As the Gazette previously reported, the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School next door is in talks with Bethel AME about possibly renting space in the St. Andrew’s complex. Bethel AME rents space in its current home at 215 Forest Hills St. to Parkside Christian Academy. While St. Andrew’s will become Bethel AME’s official home, it will keep 215 Forest Hills as well for expansions of various programs.
St. Andrew’s was once home to infamous child-molesting priest John Geoghan, whose crimes there later sparked the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. Maryetta Dussourd, a mother and aunt of several Geoghan victims, has led a controversial effort to have St. Andrew’s landmarked and some type of memorial to sexual abuse survivors established there. Dussourd could not be reached for comment.
Hammond said he is open to discussing a memorial, emphasizing that Bethel AME doesn’t want to “whitewash or pretend things didn’t happen.” But, he added, the church also wants to celebrate the site’s good memories, especially with St. Andrew’s 90th anniversary and Bethel AME’s 20th anniversary approaching.
“We don’t see ourselves as the beginning of something there as much as a continuation of many good things that happened there,” Hammond said.
St. Andrew’s at Walk Hill and Wachusett streets is one of many former church properties sold off by the cash-strapped Boston Archdiocese in recent years. That includes Hyde Square’s Blessed Sacrament complex, which also went to a largely local development team. JP’s major former Catholic Church properties remain in JP hands.
Bethel AME sealed the St. Andrew’s deal on Dec. 17, paying $2.6 million for the roughly 3-acre complex, including a historic stone church.
Bethel AME won a bid for the property months ago, but was not announced as the winner as the archdiocese’s typical confidential negotiations and financial exams went on. A Bethel AME source told the Gazette in September that the church had bid on St. Andrew’s but that it did not appear to be the winning bidder.
Meanwhile, residents and former parishioners have expressed worry about the fate and future of the site.
“We certainly haven’t been trying to hide out. We didn’t want to make a lot of pronouncements until we were pretty certain what the outcome was,” Hammond said, describing it as “absolutely” a relief to finally be able to talk about the sale.
Hammond said he closely followed press coverage about community concerns.
“We certainly understand a lot of the anxiety,” he said. “We understand a lot of it was a function of people not having a clear understanding of what the plans were.”
A Bethel AME Christmas caroling session in front of St. Andrew’s and around its neighborhood last month was just the beginning of outreach, Hammond said. The church will introduce itself at meetings of local organizations. It also has an “open-door” policy for anyone with questions or comments, he said, offering the church’s phone number.
Hammond or Rev. Robert Gray can be contacted at 524-7900.
City Councilor John Tobin said it’s a relief to hear that a JP organization bought the property.
“Obviously, Reverend Hammond’s reputation is well-known. It’s comforting,” Tobin said.
“That makes sense,” state Rep. Liz Malia said about Bethel AME’s purchase. “They’ve always seemed to be one of the really hands-on churches in the area.”
She noted the concern that “it was going to be some big outside monolith” that bought the site. “Maybe this will be a win-win in the long run,” she said.
Hammond and Gloria White-Hammond, his wife and co-pastor, are well known for local and national activism. Hammond is board chair of the highly influential Boston Foundation and a founder of the Ten Point Coalition credited with cutting Boston 1990s youth crime wave. White-Hammond has helped boost the Sudan genocide and slavery/kidnapping issues into the national spotlight through such organizations as My Sister’s Keeper. Bethel AME hosts these and many other programs, including the expansive Generation Excel Youth Program.
Hammond and White-Hammond have also sometimes been controversial for conservative social positions, particularly Hammond’s advocacy for the federal ban on same-sex marriage. That stance drew criticism and counter-criticism in recent issues of the Boston Phoenix.
On the purely religious side, Bethel AME is among Boston’s strongest churches, with more than 400 members. Bethel AME recently drew attention when Liz Walker, the former WBZ-TV news anchor who left her highly successful job to join the ministry, became an ordained deacon there.
Church as church
The reuse of the main church building as another Christian church matches the archdiocese’s number one preference for former Catholic Church properties. It should also allay concerns of major new construction or demolition of the historic buildings, which lack any formal historic protections.
It will mark a major change for Bethel AME. Despite the congregation’s size and power, it has never worshipped in a formal church. Since its 1988 founding, the churchless church has gathered in Hammond’s living room, a former nursing home and most recently the 215 Forest Hills gymnasium.
Hammond said he recently discussed the St. Andrew’s move with a parishioner who grew up in Bethel AME, and who commented, “‘A church to me is a gymnasium with folding chairs.’”
“It is, for us, going to be a culture shock after 20 years of folding chairs,” Hammond said.
“We were growing,” Hammond said when asked why Bethel AME decided to bid on St. Andrew’s. “We’re a little bursting at the seams.”
He said he learned about the St. Andrew’s sale the day after Bethel AME’s annual meeting, where he had discussed the need for more space. While it looked like an answer to their prayers, Hammond said, he was still skeptical.
“We were hoping it was a godsend, but we had to wait to get the studies back,” he said with a laugh.
Bethel AME warmed quickly to the location, he said.
“It’s certainly much more amenable to transportation,” he said, adding he is also interested in the site’s connection to a burgeoning community—especially the forthcoming redevelopment of land around the Forest Hills T Station.
“The other piece of it is, I know a lot of people in the neighborhood,” Hammond said. “We have a number of parishioners there. I think all of those are exciting features for us.”
Julie O’Connor, Bethel AME’s development consultant and project manager, said the only planned changes to the church building are the addition of a wheelchair ramp and the addition of bathrooms. Also, she said, the archdiocese plans to remove about half of the remaining stained glass windows as part of its standard reclamation of iconography.
Other than those relatively minor details, she said, “We’re not changing the exterior at all.”
Specific reuses of the other complex buildings are less clear. The buildings include a convent, a rectory, a school and a parish hall/kindergarten building. Offices for the church and some related organizations will go into some of the space, but tenants will also be sought, Hammond said.
That may include the growing Young Achievers school, which previously partnered with Urban Edge on an unsuccessful bid for the complex.
“We’re certainly open to that,” Hammond said of renting space to the school. “We’re great believers in building partnerships. None of this is new for us.”
He noted that Bethel AME rents space to another school at 215 Forest Hills and does collaborative programming with Boston Public Schools.
“Bethel AME has expressed interest in working with BPS and us,” said Young Achievers Principal Virginia Chalmers in a Gazette interview. She said the idea is renting space in the parish hall/kindergarten building directly across the street from Young Achievers.
“If something’s going to happen, we would want it to happen by next fall,” Chalmers said.
She noted that it would only be a temporary solution, as BPS is still advocating a move to a bigger building elsewhere as the permanent solution to Young Achievers’ space crunch.
“I still believe in the mission of Young Achievers and would like to be able to see them expand,” Tobin said of the potential rental deal.
In any case, nothing new will be built on the site—“not at all, and we know it’s been a concern for people,” Hammond said. Urban Edge’s proposal for many housing units on the site—the only proposal vetted by the public—divided the community.
As part of the sale, Bethel AME had to agree to various restrictions on the use of the site, including a ban on abortion clinics and stem-cell research facilities. When asked why the archdiocese would have such concerns about the St. Andrew’s site, Hammond and O’Connor laughed and explained that it is just legal boilerplate.
“That’s now a new thing they’re putting in all new [real estate] transactions,” O’Connor said.
Dussourd’s idea for a memorial to sexual abuse survivors at St. Andrew’s has drawn inspiration from two active churches elsewhere that have such monuments.
Hammond said he has been paying attention to Gazette coverage of the memorial proposal.
“We can certainly understand…,” he said, pausing thoughtfully. “We can certainly appreciate—I don’t know if we can ever understand it—the tremendous pain and sorrow people feel. Clearly, there a lot of families that suffered a lot.”
He said he wants to see how “our presence can be a healing presence” on the site and hopes that Bethel AME’s work can “in part be a source of some comfort.”
Hammond emphasized discussion, saying he wants to “hear out” and “share hearts” with abuse survivors, as well as anyone else with a stake in the site’s history.
Asked if that meant a physical memorial is off the table, Hammond said, “I wouldn’t put anything off the table.” Instead, he emphasized an attempt to hear out and balance the positive and negative history of the site.
“We want [survivors] to know their concerns haven’t been forgotten, their stories haven’t been forgotten or put under the rug,” Hammond said.
In a 2006 Boston Globe profile, White-Hammond revealed that she was sexually abused as a child by her father, whom she later confronted and forgave before his death.
Asked about the memorial idea, Young Achievers’ Chalmers said, “I presume if it were to happen, it would be done in a way that is tasteful and appropriate for the community and a school with kids. I would need to know a lot more about it.”
Dussourd has been putting together an official petition to have the site named an official Boston landmark—giving the city review of any demolition or exterior changes—under the idea that the church itself is a kind of memorial. That idea may be moot now that Bethel AME is not proposing major changes anyway. While open to memorial discussions, Hammond was hesitant about landmarking.
“I think the concern with any sort of landmarking process is it would possibly put some sort of strictures on [the site’s use] for ministry,” he said.
A couple of monuments already exist on the site’s front lawn: a time capsule buried by former St. Andrew’s parishioners in 2001, and the original church bell from a steeple removed in the 1970s. Both artifacts hold strong meaning for former parishioners.
Hammond and O’Connor said they hadn’t thought much about those monuments, but added that they have no plans for the lawn.
“We certainly aren’t planning to dig up that site to build anything,” O’Connor said.
On smaller details of the site, Hammond tended to focus on community. For example, while the parking lot will remain as is, the church may find a way to share it with the adjacent Parkman Playground, he said.
Asked about a semi-official entrance to the adjacent Forest Hills Cemetery cut into the iron fence at the back of the parking lot, Hammond said, “We’re aware of it.”
“We’ve had a little problem with dog excrement” in that area, he said with laugh. “As long as people remain neighborly, we don’t want to restrict access to that beautiful area there.”
While keeping quiet about the winning bid and the real estate negotiations was necessary, it appears to go against Hammond’s nature. The church attempted to “spread the word quietly” among some key contacts, he said, though the leaking didn’t seem to work as well as planned.
In the meantime, Bethel AME focused on working with its own congregation, including a series of focus group meetings.
“We wanted to make sure our oldest elders and youngest youths felt the church was for them,” Hammond said.
The next step is introducing itself to neighbors.
“We’re looking forward to getting to know the community better,” Hammond said. “We want to be a good neighbor. We certainly are not the types who believe high fences make good neighbors.”