THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Members, community to say farewell to Arlington church

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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It was well before the Civil War when members of the Pleasant Street Congregational Church first began meeting in Arlington Center to worship and join one another in song.

Inside the walls of the circa 1844 sanctuary, now on the National Register of Historic Places, countless members have been baptized, or married, or had their passing mourned.

But next Sunday there will be an event that the church’s congregation hoped it would never see.

After years of dwindling membership and resources, the congregation has decided to close and sell the classic steeple-topped sanctuary at 75 Pleasant St. Next weekend will see the church’s final Sunday service, and on Feb. 5 its members will host an open house and reception for one last meeting with the community.

“We have been putting boxes of tissue on the pews because we know people are going to need them,’’ said longtime member Sally Rogers. “More and more now, those tissues are being needed.’’

Church members said they have suspect ed for years that the congregation would be forced to close, after watching the number of active members drop from several hundred in the 1950s to about 80 today. They explored merging with another United Church of Christ congregation, but earlier this month the members voted to disband.

Several tenants, including the Rogers-Pierce Children’s Center, which the congregation started in the 1960s, will remain in the building while the historic property is put on the market, said the Rev. Reebee Girash. The church’s pastor said she considers it likely that another religious organization will buy the building.

Some longtime members said they don’t know where they will go after the church closes.

For Rogers, who is 88 years old, Pleasant Street Congregational has been a part of her life ever since she joined it in 1957, when about 500 people regularly attended services.

Rogers said she helped launch the church’s day-care center after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, in an effort to provide a biracial facility where children could grow up without prejudices.

She said the sadness of the church closing hit her recently during a Sunday service, as she looked at the beautiful stained-glass window in the sanctuary and then at the familiar faces in the church choir.

“I’m beginning to shed tears,’’ she said. “I hadn’t been until now.’’

Sara Stackhouse, a member of the church council, said the declining membership has affected the church’s charity and mission work. The congregation was founded around 1842 and completed the church building in 1844. Since then, members said, the church has had a rich history of outreach programs, including working to feed and house the poor, and helping to provide care for orphans as far away as South Africa.

“You need to serve your congregation, but you need to serve the world outside, too,’’ she said.

So instead of waiting until there were only a handful left, Stackhouse, 41, said, the members decided it was best to close the church “when we could do it with some legacy.’’

Closing the congregation has been a lot of work, and Helene Vecchione, an Arlington resident who has been member at the church for 15 years, said there hasn’t been much time to dwell on the sadness, or to think about where she will worship in the future.

Vecchione, 55, said members have talked about making “field trips’’ to other churches until they find a good fit. Vecchione said she hopes to stay in touch with members of the congregation, but she knows it will be increasingly difficult.

“In reality, it is just like when you move,’’ she said. “I’m sure people are going to drift’’ apart.

Even Girash, who has been the pastor here for more than four years, said she doesn’t know where she will go when the congregation closes.

“I feel really compelled to be focused on the now until this process is complete,’’ she said. “The thing I’ve been preaching to our members for two years is that we are an Easter people. Whatever happens to this physical place, our ultimate faith is in a God of resurrection.’’

The Pleasant Street Congregational Church’s celebration of its legacy on Feb. 5 will begin with an open house at 3 p.m., followed by a worship service at 4 p.m. and a reception at 5:30 p.m.

Area residents planning to attend the reception are being asked to RSVP with the church office by Tuesday with a call to 781-643-0553 or via e-mail at pscc1@juno.com.

Contact Brock Parker at Brock.globe@gmail.com.

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