April 2008 (Updated May 2015): More than three dozen religious institution projects have been funded with CPA historic preservation funds across the Commonwealth with projects ranging in size from small, discreet repairs to complete rehabilitations. Churches played an integral role in the history of Massachusetts, and are also often local landmarks. Many houses of worship continue to serve broad community needs, providing space for public uses and activities such as daycare centers, musical events, girl and boy scout meetings, adult education classes, and the like. CPA funds can be a critical factor in successfully preserving and restoring these important historic community assets, but the Coalition is often asked about whether the use of public CPA funds for private religious institutions is allowable.
New England is known for its historic villages, which traditionally include a church and town green at their center. In addition, churches were often designed by noteworthy architects and builders in the most fashionable styles of their time and provide some of the best examples of period architecture in the region. Historic churches are often community icons, used as points of orientation and as centerpieces of illustrations and photographs.
The same general legal arguments for private properties are also relevant to church projects. As described in the January CPA Update, public funds can be used for projects on private property as long as the funds are being used to advance a public purpose.
The legal issues regarding separation of church and state have been analyzed at the state and federal levels regarding public funding for these types of historic preservation projects, and many state and federal grants have been awarded to church preservation projects. For instance, the Massachusetts Historic Commission routinely funds historic church preservation projects through the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund. This type of grant program typically ensures that the public purpose is served through the acquisition of historic preservation restrictions which prohibit demolition and require approval for any major changes to the building. Each situation is unique, of course, and CPA communities should review these types of projects with Town Counsel to ensure compliance with all state and federal laws.
The following examples explain and illustrate how CPA funds have been used to preserve historic churches in Yarmouth, Easton, North Andover and Westford.
Yarmouthport's First Congregational Church
With the help of $300,000 in Community Preservation funds, Yarmouth was able to complete restoration work on the town's First Congregational Church. The building, constructed in 1870, needed extensive renovations due to both its age and proximity to salt water.
For more information, read the Cape Cod Times article on this project.
Easton’s Unity Church
In 2006, Easton appropriated $380K of CPA funds for the restoration of the Gothic Revival style Unity Church, which was built in 1875 and is located on Main Street in the Village of North Easton. The church was designed by architect John Ames Mitchell, who later created Life Magazine. The church boasts Lafarge windows, interior renovations designed by Henry Vaughan, and an archway designed by HH Richardson. The CPA funds went towards structural reinforcement of the steeple, restoration of the roof and gutter system, and cleaning and repointing stonework. Phase II of this extensive project will focus on interior restoration work.
For more information, read about the history of Unity Church and view a description and photos from Phase I restoration work.
North Andover’s North Parish Church
North Andover appropriated just over $141K of CPA funds in 2004 to restore the steeple and foundation of the historic North Parish Church. This project was part of a $2.1M renovation that included many building upgrades in addition to the historic restoration.
The church, which was constructed circa 1836, is located in North Andover’s Old Center. The church includes an 1807 Paul Revere Bell in the church steeple and a 1762 tower clock. Quoted in Merrimack Valley Magazine, Kim Adami, a member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation at North Parish, explains, “This church is an anchor for the historical section of town . . . When you see that steeple, you know you’re in an historic New England town.” Read the Merrimack Valley Magazine article on this project.
Westford's First Parish Church United
First Parish Church United in Westford existed before the incorporation of the town of Westford in 1729. In fact, the town could not incorporate without the church because, at the time, all towns were required to have a church and a settled minister. Westford's oldest book, Reverend Hall’s record book, which details births, deaths and other important events that occurred from 1727-1779 in town, is housed at the church. Reverend Hall was a controversial figure in Westford because he was the only Tory in the town! While the church has undergone several changes over the years, the original bell was the fourth church bell cast by Paul Revere, a unique historical feature Westford is proud of.
On March 27, 2010, the people of Westford generously voted to approve the use of Community Preservation Funds for handicap accessibility and historical archiving at First Parish Church. It was a monumental event in FPCU history, and it was a testament to the role the church played in the town’s history as well as the church’s continued involvement in town life such as Strawberry Festival, Apple Blossom Parade breakfast and so much more.
>> The following article discusses a court case over the use of CPA funds for the restoration of stained glass windows at the Oak
Bluffs' Trinity Methodist Church: "Judge Denies Injunction to Block Use of CPA Money for Church," Vineyard Gazette.
>> For more information, read our technical assistance article "Using CPA for Historic Preservation of Churches and Other Religious Institutions."