Church attendance is down all over America, but especially in New England, where only 17 to 22 percent of the residents report weekly attendance. Almost half of all Americans report they rarely or never go to church. One web site lists 27 churches in Massachusetts for sale to developers. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has eight pages of closed or merged parishes from the 1990s through 2011 listed on its web site.
Closing a church is a dicey business. Parishioners in St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Scituate who objected to that church’s closing have occupied it for more than 10 years, despite court rulings that have affirmed the right of the Catholic Archdiocese to close it. Sometimes there is a fight over the money brought in by the sale of a church.
But since it was sold to a residential developer in October, 2014, the mission church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street on Beacon Hill has been dealing with a different problem from most. It is a question: “What shall we do about the garden?”
“Our congregation cared about this,” said St. John’s priest-in-charge, the Reverend Katharine Black. The congregation’s numbers had dwindled long ago, but there were still members and friends for whom the church and especially its garden were important. “There was no way to sell the building without a plan for the garden.”
The garden was special because it had been affected by events unique to the end of the 20th century.
When gay men began dying of AIDS in the 1980s, their friends and family faced a trying situation, Black reported. Many cemeteries, not knowing how the disease spread and fearing that a dead body might still be contagious, refused to accept AIDS victims’ bodies for burial.
Church members felt anguish over such rejections. Many gay men had found sanctuary in the church, and members believed it was their duty to take care of them.
So they decided that those who wished to do so could instruct that their remains be cremated and the ashes scattered in the garden. Church members dug holes for the ashes, some near the hostas, some near the Japanese maple or the rhododendrons to mark the spot. Soon, the bodies of others, including three children and a young man who committed suicide, were cremated, and their remains were also scattered by church members or friends.
Massachusetts has laws regarding graveyards. When a body has been cremated and buried in an urn, it can be excavated and re-buried. But what does one do about ashes scattered in an entire garden?
The congregation came up with a solution. They would scoop up dirt from various sections in the garden, sometimes by the spoonful, and place the dirt containing ashes in an urn. But where would they place the urn, since the church was closing?
Plans were for St. John the Evangelist to merge with the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street. The $4.5 million received from the sale of the mission church would go toward the cathedral’s renovation. As part of the work, a chapel would be built commemorating the Church of St. John the Evangelist. The chapel was constructed so the urn could be placed in a wooden box, made by St. John’s facilities manager, Jim Woodworth, and that box would be placed in the floor.
When the floor was ready, the congregation of St. John carried the urn with the garden dirt and the remains inside. With due ceremony they proceeded up Bowdoin Street and down through the Common and placed it in the chapel’s floor. A placard in the container describes the contents.
St. John is still negotiating with Mount Auburn Cemetery to see if it will take the top layer of remaining dirt from the garden.
The church building and the adjacent mission house will soon undergo construction into large two and three-bedroom condominiums. The church’s hope and that of the neighborhood is that families will be enticed to move in.
Still to be decided is what to do with religious artifacts, pews, and some of the church windows. But compared to the garden and its sacred holdings, the disposition of other church possessions is easy.
The Reverend Katharine Black is satisfied by the solution that was worked out for bereaved friends and relatives. “It was important to do the right thing,” she said.