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Church Fights To Save Chapel

By Michael A. Mohammed, Crimson Staff Writer

Nestled between towering William James Hall and boxy Gund Hall sits a diminutive Gothic chapel of the tiny Swedenborgian faith.

On a rainy Sunday morning, the Reverend Sarah Buteux starts her sermon Oprah-style, talking about personal growth and walking out among the 17 parishioners who have assembled for the church’s weekly service.

But she cuts her talk short this week, returning to the podium at the front of the chapel and telling the congregation that she will not be delivering the main sermon.

A guest preacher, visiting from a Swedenborgian church in Maine, will take over on the main sermon, she tells the parishioners, so that she can spend an extra hour organizing the chapel’s fundraising efforts.

For nearly four decades, the congregation has been fighting to hold on to its home, but in the past few years the fight has reached a feverish pitch.

According to the terms of a mortgage negotiated in 2000 with the Swedenborgian national seminary, the congregation faced a bill of $2 million to be paid in full by the end of this month—or they would risk losing their chapel.

Right now, they have raised about a quarter of a million dollars—just about enough to cover the interest on the mortgage.

But recent developments—chief among them a six-month extension on the mortgage deadline—have given the chapel’s congregation new hope.

The extension will give the congregation much-needed time to raise the money, says Lars-Erik Wiberg, the president of the Church Council and a member of the congregation for the past 20 years.

“The situation right now is somewhat relieved…we’re very grateful. It doesn’t look like we would have made it by the

end of this month,” Wiberg says.

But the extension also means that the congregation will have to pay interest on the $2 million for another six months—another major hardship.

“The question is whether or not we can afford to,” Buteux writes in an e-mail. “Though, with our fundraising where it is we really can’t afford not to.”

In the meantime, the church is struggling to raise the remaining millions. The Swedenborgians’ original fundraising plan—to create a board of governors for the church and sell endowed chairs for $500,000—did not meet with much success.

“No one [at Harvard], like the United Ministry or the Divinity school, has shown interest,” Wiberg says.

But the church has now hatched other survival plans.

They’re working to secure a new, more favorable tax status which would make it easier for the church to get grants.

And at the end of the month, they’ll find out about their biggest hope to secure funds. The Cambridge congregation is hoping to hammer out a lucrative agreement with the statewide Swedenborgian organization, which is looking to relocate a Swedenborgian bookstore currently in downtown Boston. The Cambridge congregation hopes to bring the bookstore onto their property, for which the statewide group would pay rent.

Above all, the approximately 30-person congregation is keeping the faith that they can keep worshipping in their century-old home.

Three Precarious Years

The Swedenborgian House of Studies—the national seminary of the denomination—was located in Cambridge until the 1960s, and still owns the property where the chapel remains.

They decided to sell the chapel more than 20 years ago, according to Jane Sibert, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Swedenborgian House of Studies, which now resides in Berkeley.

“It just didn’t make sense for the seminary to own a chapel that they were no longer using,” Sibert says. In 1999, the seminary attempted to sell its final holding in Cambridge—the chapel’s plot—to a developer, who wanted to construct an 11-story condominium with the chapel as a lobby.

A public outcry ensued, and Cambridge residents—opposed to the idea of a large-scale development in their backyards—helped the congregation fight for a designation as a historic landmark, as well as new zoning which cut the allowed height for development on the site to three stories.

Stymied in their efforts to sell the site, the seminary hammered out a mortgage contract with the Cambridge congregation.

According to Sibert, two separate appraisals of the property three years ago estimated its value at over $4 million—but the seminary knew that the congregation couldn’t afford that much money.

“We sat down in a negotiation with the representatives of the chapel, and we worked out this compromise to sell it to them at $2 million [plus interest],” she says.

According to the terms of the contract, the congregation would have had until March 30, 2003—the end of this month—to raise the over $2 million sum to purchase the chapel from the seminary.

Earlier this year, as the deadline neared and the money failed to materialize, raising $2 million seemed an impossible goal.

Sibert says that the House of Studies decided to extend the deadline to allow the congregation time to explore its numerous plans.

“We want the congregation to remain in the chapel if at all possible,” Sibert says. “They also have new leadership, and I think that there’s a new level of commitment. There have been some major positive developments in the last few years. We felt more optimistic about their ability to make good on their commitment.”

And according to the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian Morals and a member of the United Ministry, the restrictive zoning enacted in 1999 to prevent construction of a condominium would make the chapel a tough sell.

“Any other possibility would have to be adaptable to the use of the lot and the building, one reason that it wouldn’t be easy to sell to anyone else,” he says.

Keeping the Faith

Even with a six-month extension, raising $2 million is a daunting task for the tiny congregation.

But members of the congregation say they are hopeful—particularly with the prospect of getting a bookstore on their property.

Andrew Dole, Buteaux’s husband, says that the congregation hopes to work out a deal with the Massachusetts New Church Union—the statewide Swedenborgian parent organization—which could bring much-needed revenue to the Cambridge church.

“We’re hopeful of working something out,” Dole says, adding that members of the Cambridge congregation will meet with representatives of the New Church Union later this month. “We’ve only had a preliminary meeting, but we hope to be able to work together for a solution.”

Wiberg said he hopes that the statewide group will agree to relocate the Union’s Swedenborgian bookstore from Newbury Street to the Cambridge congregation’s land.

The bookstore would be housed in a new, separate building built next to the chapel—the current parish extension wing would have to be torn down to make room.

“It would be like…the bookstore next to Westminster Abbey,” Wiberg says. “This wouldn’t be a melted-down Barnes and Noble–it would be a charming place.”

Wiberg also said that the congregation is seeking a more favorable 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation from the IRS, which would allow them to apply for tax-free grants.

However, according to Wiberg, the designation would not help the congregation raise enough money by September.

“I think that our application to these grants will be productive in the long term but our immediate needs may not be fulfilled in this way,” Wiberg says.

And although the church’s original plan—to sell chairs on a board of directors for $500,000 apiece—hasn’t yet met success, Gomes says that the church might be able to find a buyer.

Gomes—a leader of the University-wide umbrella religious network, the United Ministry—says that he thinks that buying a chair might be a “reasonable, attractive proposition,” for the United Ministry, although the group hasn’t yet discussed the matter.

“It might address a space problem which the United Ministry has been facing,” Gomes added.

The University technically has right to first refusal on the property, but Harvard has not expressed interest in acquiring it, according to Dole.

“If anyone wanted to buy the chapel, Harvard could step in and buy it for the same price…but they say they aren’t interested in the land right now,” Dole says.

Mary H. Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations, stressed the University’s hope that the congregation will raise the money.

“We recognized that the congregation has been a good neighbor to Harvard and the community,” Power says. “Harvard’s interest is in seeing the congregation continue at the chapel.”

The Rev. Buteux, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1998, praised the University for its aid.

“The Harvard representatives we’ve been working with have offered their support…The conversations we’ve had have been very positive,” Buteux says.

So Happy Together

Swedenborgianism and Harvard have long been intertwined.

The denomination was brought to Boston in the early 19th century by friends of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Class of 1821, according to Eugene I. Taylor, Jr., a member of the congregation and a lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“The first Swedenborgian society to be convened in Boston grew out of a group of Swedenborgian ministers who were all waiting tables with Emerson back in the eighteen-teens,” Taylor says.

The small Christian sect has about 30,000 to 50,000 followers worldwide, according to Buteux. While they believe that any religion can bring salvation, rigorous intellectual analysis of the Scripture is at the core of their practice.

“One reason the church is so small is that there’s a great emphasis on personal responsibility,” she says. “It’s not instant-gratification salvation.”

Swedenborgians believe that all religions are equally valid paths to salvation, says Buteux.

“We believe that people of other faiths are all trying to do the same kind of thing, and become the same kinds of people,” she says.

Prominent Harvard affiliates who were involved with the Swedenborgian church include psychologist William James, philosopher Henry James, Sr., University President James Bryant Conant ’13, and Langford Warren, the father of the Design School.

Many turn-of-the-century Harvard philosophers attended the church or wrote about Swedenborgian beliefs, but few considered themselves full-fledged members of the church.

“The men talked about Swedenborgianism [but they] went to church because the women dragged them there,” says Taylor.

The religion found a home in Cambridge when the chapel at 50 Quincy Street was completed in 1901, just in time for Hellen Keller, a Swedenborgian of the class of 1904, to worship there.

These days, the chapel serves as common grounds for multi-ethnic, interfaith groups Cambridge groups, ranging from Alcholics Anonymous to the Peace Corps, as well as the services of two congregations from very different denominations—Anglican and Russian Pentecostal.

One Sunday, the Tibetan Association of Boston was dancing in the basement while the local choral group Orianna Consort was singing upstairs, according to Buteux.

“I came here and met a three-year-old Tibetan girl,” she says. “I asked her if she was a dancer, and she led me upstairs to the choir rehearsal and told me she wanted to be a choral singer…[It was] a perfect snapshot of all these different cultures and faiths and modes of expression meeting.”

—Staff writer Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at

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