Funds will help pay for renovations to Dorchester congregation’s historic building.
On Jan. 20, the auction house Sotheby’s in New York City sold the congregation’s collection of 17th and 18th century beakers, chalices, and tankards, made by American and British silversmiths. The congregation received a total of $1.6 million. There were 27 pieces in the sale. Eight did not sell.
The most expensive item was a pair of standing cups given the church in 1701 by William Stoughton, a member of the congregation and acting governor of Massachusetts for about six years at the end of the 17th century. Stoughton was also magistrate for some of the Salem witch trials. The cups sold for $1.08 million, earning the congregation around $900,000. Crafted by Jeremiah Dummer, the cups have baluster stems with leaf collars. A tankard made by Paul Revere Sr. was among the items sold.
The silver has not been used by the congregation for at least 75 years and has been stored at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The money will be used to help pay for a $5.2 million restoration of First Parish’s 105-year-old building. The congregation was founded in 1630 and is the oldest congregation of any denomination in the city of Boston. It was one of the six congregations that founded Harvard College.
The Rev. Arthur Lavoie said the congregation struggled with whether to sell the silver. “It was a hard decision,” he said. “For many years the congregation held onto the silver as part of its legacy. Then when we got the assessment from the architect as to the cost of restoring our building, the congregation realized if we didn’t act soon to do this work we wouldn’t be able to save the building. And the building is more important than the silver.”
He said the discussions about selling the silver were framed in terms of the congregation’s mission. “We’re doing this so we can continue to serve the community that we are in. This meetinghouse is used by many community groups who have a variety of needs.” He said neighborhoods around the church include people of many cultures—Vietnamese, African-American, Caribbean, Irish, Latino, Haitian, and Cape Verdean.
Twenty percent of the money from the auction will go into the church’s endowment fund, Lavoie said, and the rest will be used for the building restoration, which includes installing an elevator and a new heating system, replacing some of the building’s wooden frame, and rebuilding the steeple. The congregation has raised around $750,000 in addition to the silver sale.
The congregation hopes to raise additional funds through grants and from a capital campaign, which will kick off this spring. “We’re doing that a little differently in that we’re going to reach out into the community,” said Lavoie. “This congregation has a history of really close connections to the community. Local civic and community leaders are going to help us solicit gifts. And we’ll do a lot of grant writing.”
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and State Sen. Jack Hart participated in a groundbreaking ceremony in August for the first phase of the work. “We have a grand building,” said Lavoie. “Everyone in the community knows where it is and what we do. So there’s a lot of political and public support for this.” Lavoie said sale of the silver gives the church credibility in seeking funds from outside the church. “This lets everyone know we’re serious about doing this.”
He is also hoping other congregations and individual UUs will want to participate. Contributions may be sent to the church at 10 Parish Street, Dorchester, Mass. 02122-3029.
A description of the work to be done is on the congregation’s website. Sotheby’s also prepared a video about the silver, including interviews with Lavoie and other First Parish leaders and shots of the building itself. The renovations will take about three years.
Lavoie said the 80-member congregation, which saw its numbers diminished in past decades by white flight and crime in the neighborhood, is growing again. Sunday attendance, now at 70, has more than doubled since 2005, he said.
Other UU congregations which have sold heirloom silver in recent years include the United First Parish Church, Quincy, Mass., which in 2001 received $2.7 million when Sotheby’s auctioned 11 pieces of Communion silver.
Arlington Street Church in Boston sold its silver collection at Christie’s in New York City in 2002, receiving $335,000. First Parish Cohasset, Mass., received $176,000 in 2009 from the sale of a set of silver Communion beakers and an antique chair.
Lavoie said the common denominator for these congregations is old buildings. “We’re all doing this to fund major restoration projects.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.