Excerpted from Michael McAuliffe, "Church's fate to be decided," The Republican [Springfield, Mass.], June 24, 2007.
Church's fate to be decided
SPRINGFIELD - Old First Church needs a miracle.
The oldest church in Western Massachusetts, founded in 1637 and located in the heart of the city at Court Square, could be shuttered by the end of the year because a dwindling congregation of barely 150 - half of whom are senior citizens and about two-thirds of whom do not live in the city - can no longer afford to keep up with badly needed maintenance and improvements to the 1,000-seat white-steepled Congregational church.
The congregation will decide the fate of the church and the adjoining parish house in September. In the meantime, a breakfast meeting is set for Thursday morning at the church to attempt to stir the community to action before it is too late. . . .
The city literally grew up around the church, which was first built in 1645 and for a time was where residents came to pay their taxes and to hold town meetings. The current building, constructed in 1819, is the fourth church and meeting house, and through its doors came the abolitionist John Brown and the statesman and orator Daniel Webster. The body of the country's sixth president, John Quincy Adams, even lay in state in Old First Church in 1848.
The church was designated a state historical landmark in 1971, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
But the Rev. J. Thomas Gough, the church's 23rd senior pastor, said just the critically needed improvements - a new heating system, a new roof, drastically improved handicapped accessibility - would cost $800,000 to $1 million. At the same time, Saunders said, the church brings in only about $80,000 a year in pledges from the congregation, meaning the church has had to dip into its endowment.
"What we've been doing is eating our seed money," said Robert A. Walker, who has been attending Old First Church for 51 years and is chairman of the board of trustees. "We've been talking about that. You don't have corn if you eat your seeds." . . . Gough believes that should the end come for Old First Church, the city would suffer an important loss.
"I think what's lost is, simply by virtue of its location and the theological inclinations of the congregation, I think the city loses a prophetic voice," Gough said. "It loses a piece of its conscience."
"It loses its tie to its own history." . . .