Historic Christ Episcopal Church in Downtown Quincy is the longest, continually-active Episcopal congregation in Massachusetts. First gathering in 1689, Christ Church has survived the constraints of Puritanism, post-Revolutionary Era retribution, world wars, flu epidemics, and multiple fires to remain an open, welcoming, thriving community in Christ. The parish self-funds its own rector and programs, and holds annual meetings to elect parish officials, review bylaws, and set its own budget.
There was no “Quincy” in 1689; it was still just a northern section of Braintree (or, “Brayntree,” as it was commonly spelled then), one of several flourishing Puritan communities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thousands of new colonists had arrived in the colony since it was originally settled in 1628, but not all of them were Puritans – a growing number were common English folk who had been raised in the Church of England and still considered themselves Anglicans. Although a few Anglican churches had been built in the colony — King’s Chapel in Boston, most notably — the only church in most of these communities was the official town church, which was supported by tax dollars, and strongly influenced community rules and bylaws.
According to a letter from the Rev. William Vesey, the first rector at Trinity Church in New York City, he could remember holding small, quiet services in his father’s house in Braintree as far back as 1689. There was no church building, nor a minister leading the services; just a gathering of faithful Anglicans reading from the Book of Common Prayer.
Services remained informal until 1701 when the first missionary was dispatched from England to lead this small group of Anglicans. Christ Church continued to struggle, however, in these early days. A succession of missionaries came, and left, hampered by the lack of a formal building and the small size of the congregation, among other reasons. Particularly problematic was the congregation’s inability to financially support its own minister. Town bylaws required all residents to pay taxes in support of the town church, and the Anglicans couldn’t afford to support both the town church and their own parish. This frustration led to the 1713 arrest of one of the parish founders, William Vesey, for refusing to pay 26 shillings in support of the town minister.
But by this time, the first green shoots of tolerance and liberalism — traits that would later contribute to colony’s push for independence — had begun to sprout in Massachusetts. The Rev. John Hancock, whose son would become one of the most famous American patriots, was the town minister in Braintree and he sympathized with the Anglican’s plight. At a town meeting in 1727, with the support of the Rev. Hancock, the town voted to relieve the Anglicans of their financial obligation to the town church, and instead allow them to support their own minister.
That minister was the Rev. Ebeneezer Miller, a native of Milton and graduate of Harvard College. On Christmas Day, 1727, the Rev. Miller began a 36-year tenure as Christ Church’s first American born and parishioner-supported minister. He helped open the parish’s first church building, a small wooden structure located on a donated parcel of land on what is now School Street.
Parish record book, circa mid- 1700s
As interest in American Independence grew, many parishioners of Christ Church remained loyal to the crown putting them at odds with some of their other neighbors, such as John Adams and John Hancock, who was born in Braintree, but moved to Boston to live with family following the death of his father. Members of the church, including then-minister the Rev. Edward Winslow, reported being “harassed” for continuing to pray for the king and royal family, as required by the liturgies contained in the Book of Common Prayer. At a town meeting in June, 1777, the Rev. Winslow and other church members were indicted for supporting the British. The Rev. Winslow, ultimately, was allowed to become a chaplain in the British Army, and the church members were never prosecuted.
Christ Church remained without a rector until 1822, but continued to meet during that time for lay-led services. As freedom of religion became a guaranteed right, the parish began to thrive, with membership growing from 13 families in 1822, to 78 families in 1829. To meet the religious education needs of the growing congregation, the first Sunday School classes were held in 1820, consisting of 50 children led by four teachers, one of whom was John Adams granddaughter.
Christ Church was still meeting in its original church building. Despite adding a pair of wings to accommodate the growing congregation, by 1830 it was clear a new, larger building was needed. A parcel of land was donated at the corner of what is now Elm Street and Quincy Avenue by the Althorp family, who had already been members of the parish for four generations. Among the congregants at this time was Louisa Catherine Adams, the British-born wife of President John Quincy Adams. The musically-inclined First Lady wrote a hymn that was used at the consecration of the new church building in 1832.
That building, a large-wooden structure with exterior towers, large gothic windows, and an interior balcony, was destroyed by fire in 1859. The building was not insured and the parish had to sell its rectory to finance a new stone building. At least some of the stone for the new structure was hewn from a local granite quarry owned by the Adams family; President John Adams had stated in his will that stones should be given to the town’s “Episcopal Society” if they ever requested it. A new stone, Gothic-style church building opened in 1860, however, 13 years later the building was partially destroyed, again by fire, when rags being used during a painting project spontaneously combusted. The church building had been insured this time, however, the fire was the same year as the Great Boston Fire. With many insurance companies failing due to the massive losses, the church only recovered about half the money it was owed.
The current English Gothic-style granite building was consecrated in 1875, featuring a monastic-style choir section, with the altar placed in an apse surrounded by stained glass. Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, the church more doubled in size, due mainly to the large number of British immigrants settling in Quincy to work at the nearby quarries and the Fore River Shipyard.
The church grew so large that a pair of nearby mission churches were started to provide another place for local Episcopalians to worship. These missions became St. Chrysostom’s in Quincy’s Wollaston neighborhood, and Emmanuel Parish in Braintree.
Approximately 21 Christ Church parishioners fought in World War I. During that time, the parish did its part, knitting and sewing for soldiers and sailors, making donations to relief organizations, and even briefly closing the church building in 1918 and holding services in the parish hall in order to conserve oil.
The church building briefly closed again later in 1918, as part of a statewide ban on public gatherings due to the Flu Epidemic. When the church reopened, then Bishop Lawrence prohibited worshipers church wide from drinking wine directly from the chalice, as was the standard practice at the time, but was not helpful in trying to prevent the spread of the influenza virus. Instead, for the first time, worshippers were required to practice intinction, or dipping the wafer into the wine. The Rev. Howard Key Bartow, who would become rector at Christ Church in 1921, had been among the first church figures in the nation to support switching to intinction. While rector at St. Stephen’s in Cohasset in 1912, the Rev. Bartow had exchanged letters with the nation’s Surgeon General, and organized a petition to the bishop, supporting the practice.
Until 1919, the church had raised income through pew rentals. A family would pay an annual fee essentially to reserve a pew for the 11 a.m. Sunday service. If that family was not at least in the churchyard 20 minutes before the service started, the pew would become available to anyone. However, in 1919, the parish voted to switch from pew rentals to general membership pledges, and since Easter 1920 Christ Church has been a “free” church open to all.
The original parish house had been built in 1885 to handle the growing number of congregants and organizations. By 1922, the congregation had again outgrown the hall and voted to build a new stone, two-story parish house that was dedicated in December 1930 and is still in use today. A basement chapel for the church’s youth was added in 1941 and a Memorial Room dedicated to those who had served in the world wars, as well as to past rectors was dedicated in 1945.
The Rev. Chester Porteus arrived in 1944. Still remembered fondly to his day, he served as rector for 30 years, retiring finally due to ill health in 1974. While rector, he oversaw a thriving church of more than 300 families. Crowds for Easter and Christmas services often spilled out into the Upper and Lower Halls. The Rev. Porteus was involved in the community as well serving as chaplain for the Quincy Fire Department and Quincy Rotary Club. He also served as a member of the Diocesan Board of Examining Chaplains, charged with recommending hopeful candidates for Episcopal priesthood.
During the post-war boom, nearby Downtown Quincy developed into one of the region’s biggest retail centers. Known as Shopperstown USA, Hancock Street was filled block after block with stores, including Sears, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, and Remmick’s. With the opening of an electrical appliance store across the street, and a dry cleaners a couple of doors down on Quincy Avenue, it appeared the retail district was going to extend straight down Route 53, into Weymouth Landing. To prevent becoming boxed in on all sides, and in need of space for parking, the church voted in 1955 to buy an adjacent plot of land that housed a small factory. For more than a century, most parishioners had entered and departed the church using the stone entranceway on the building’s northwest corner off Elm Street. However, this new land purchase altered that traffic flow to the southwest corner entrance. To better handle this flow of traffic form the new parking lot, a new main entrance, called a narthex, was built in 1963.
Up until 1974, Christ Church rectors and their families had lived in a wooden-two-story rectory located on the corner of Elm Street and High School Avenue. The structure had originally been attached to the church building, but moved eastward approximately 40 feet following the 1871 fire. Starting in 1974, rectors began receiving a housing stipend and living off-property. The rectory, now known as the Porteus House, became an outreach of the church providing single-occupancy housing for men. It underwent a significant renovation in 2009 and is now managed as affordable housing through a partnership with Neighborhood Housing Services.
The social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s did not skip Christ Church. A long, steady decline in membership began as children who had grown up in Quincy and attended Christ Church moved to the suburbs, or stopped attending altogether. Nationally, there was a fight over revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in 1968 and the introduction of a new liturgy known as Rite II. The Rev. Porteus meanwhile continued using the 1928 liturgy known as Rite 1 throughout the remainder of his tenure. When his successor, the Rev. Steele Martin tried to introduce Rite II, he was met with some resistance from more traditionalist parishioners.
The current minister, the Rev. Clifford Brown, uses a blend of liturgies, including language and prayers from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, and music from both the traditional 1982 Hymnal as well as the folk and gospel-based book, Lift Every Voice and Sing.
As Christ Church starts its 4th century, it remains in many ways similar to how it began: a small, thriving, faithful, self-determining community in Christ, open to all looking for a closer relationship with God.