Keeping Faith: Historic Needham Church Faces New Future After Closing

October 6, 2023
• The First Baptist Church in Needham has closed its doors and merged with a Jamaica Plain Parish, but that does not mean it’s story has ended.

Over the course of its 167 years, the First Baptist Church has led parishioners in prayer, opened space for community organizations and served as the foundation for the growth of Needham’s downtown.

It’s a legacy that now enters a new chapter, after the church decided to merge with the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain last Janary. After acknowledging the union at a service of celebration on May 6th, the congregation officially started attending services at the JP location, about nine miles away.

In an online message to parishioners, Rev. Daryn Stylianopoulos, the last pastor of FBC Needham, signaled her optimism for the future and the importance of the “life-giving” decision.

Rev. Daryn Stylianopoulos, delivers remarks at the church’s service of celebration May 6, 2023, marking the merger between the Needham church and First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain. (Maria Barletta/Courtesy First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain)

“This is the first faithful step in a new direction,” Stylianopoulos wrote on the church’s website, “and while we cannot predict all that the future holds, we can do what seems good and right for this time and moment in the life of our beloved church.”

The parish will continue to host “life events” in the space, Stylianopoulos said in an interview, and the Cornerstone Assembly of God is using the chapel for its gatherings. The Needham Children’s Center plans to continue operating out of the church for at least the next year and a half, until they move into 1688 Central Avenue, Executive Director Pat Day said.

At the time of the merger, FBC Needham comprised just 12 active members, Stylianopoulos said, some of whom joined FBC Jamaica Plain while others found alternative religious fulfillment. With FBC Jamaica Plain, Stylianopoulos now offers pastoral care primarily for Needham members looking for consistency in their faith.

For Stylianopoulos, “continuity of care” was the goal in the transition. Because many of its church members are older, travel is difficult and they expressed anxiety about the future, Stylianopoulos said. Soon after starting as the senior pastor in January 2017, Stylianopoulos said congregants began asking questions about the care of the building and losing more members.

Stylianopoulos said those inquiries were “revealing” and triggered years-long talks about what the next few years hold for FBC Needham.

“Part of what we’re called to do as Christ followers is to be good stewards of the things that we’re given,” Stylianopoulos said, “and thinking about how we use our resources well for the people around us and the good of the world.”

The First Baptist Church of Needham is moved from its original location on from the corner of Highland Avenue and Great Plain Avenue to its current central location at 858 Great Plain Ave. in 1928. (Courtesy Needham History Center & Museum)

As the congregation shrank, the church building continued to be difficult to maintain, said Gloria Polizzotti Greis, executive director of the Needham History Center and Museum. The building has already survived a move — from the corner of Highland Avenue and Great Plain Avenue, the site of the Santander Bank, to its current central location at 858 Great Plain Ave. — and remains in its relatively original configuration, boasting a couple additions and slight changes to its exterior, Greis said.

While the Needham Common wasn’t established until the 1880s, and Town Hall wasn’t completed until 1903, the First Baptist Church started its own construction in the 1850s, Greis said, when the only other building in the area was “a converted house general store.” For that reason, the church — finished about 20 years later — largely steered the rise of Needham’s downtown as residents now know it, Greis said.

First Baptist Church of Needham sitting on the corner of Great Plain Avenue and Highland Avenue circa 1890. At the time, the church was one of very few buildings that now compose Needham’s downtown. (Courtesy Needham History Center & Museum)

“It’s the anchor for the downtown development in a lot of ways,” Greis said of the church. “It gives it credibility, and it gives it a place to develop around.”

The children’s center, which runs at FBC Needham and the First Parish in Needham Unitarian Universalist, has existed since 1980, Day said, and currently serves more than 100 families. Needham is home to a number of “beautiful places of faith,” Day said, and she said she’s fortunate FBC has allowed the organization to stay there.

“Nothing’s changing here,” Day said. “This has been our home.”

FBC Jamaica Plain currently serves about 100 people, Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird said, and about eight people from Needham’s church have joined since the merger.

Instead of deciding to “just hobble along painfully for 20 years” until they run out of money or people, Wiest-Laird said FBC Needham opted to shepherd its congregation, saving it from certain death.

In that way, Wiest-Laird sees the merger as a “resurrection” of sorts.

“It is a death, because First Baptist Church in Needham, even if they’ve merged with us, as it was, is no more,” she said. “That’s a loss, that’s a grief, and I feel like (Stylianopoulos) has done just a tremendous job in walking with the people here.”

Growing up, longtime parishioner Clif Holbrook recalls worshiping alongside 500 to 1,000 other locals — enough people for two church services. He joined the church around 5 years old and has lived in Needham for 78 years.

“One of my friends at the church said, ‘Do you remember the old people that we used to sit behind?’ She said, ‘Now we’re the old people,’” Holbrook said. “Time changes.”

The First Baptist Church in Needham holds a service of celebration after announcing its merger with the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain May 6, 2023. (Maria Barletta/Courtesy First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain)

Holbrook served on the committee that decided to shut down the church, given their lack of members. They initially tried to merge with the Needham YMCA, but the agreement apparently fell through when the YMCA voiced their intentions to buy the property, Holbrook said.

The closure has left Holbrook spiritually homeless — he’s occasionally attended services at Carter Memorial United Methodist and said he doesn’t foresee joining FBC Jamaica Plain. However, he said the merger with the church appeared to be the perfect marriage: They lacked assets but boasted an adequate membership, while Needham had the assets but very few remaining members.

Nonetheless, Holbrook said the decision was not an easy one to make.

“It’s like losing a family member or something like that,” Holbrook said. “You have to go through the grief process.”

The church is open to renting the space out to other community organizations, nonprofits, artists, social justice groups and more, Wiest-Laird said. They’re also open to hosting other functions, such as a concert, Stylianopoulos added.

The steeple atop Needham’s First Baptist Church, as seen on Warren Street. (Cameron Morsberger/Needham Local)

Greis said there remains a “public interest in maintaining” FBC Needham, given its history and status in the community.

“You see it every time you go downtown, and the steeple is visible from great distances,” Greis said. “It is an important downtown fixture and not one that anybody wants to see tore down.”

The merger is almost full-circle for Stylianopoulos, who was ordained at FBC Jamaica Plain. She now additionally works part-time at the First Baptist Church in Newton as its pastor of faith formation and the arts.

FBC Jamaica Plain emerged as a potential partner for its commitment to “inclusive ministry values” Needham’s church fosters, Stylianopoulos said. In speaking with congregants, they shared three priorities with the merger: The space remains a welcoming one, there remains a continued presence of worship or ministry and that “the legacy of First Baptist Church in Needham would be maintained here,” Stylianopoulos said. With FBC Jamaica Plain’s assistance, Stylianopoulos said she believes they’ve upheld those goals.

“I think that that was a really beautiful thing and has become this really beautiful possibility,” she said.

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