BY RAY DUCKLER
Sunday, September 23, 2018
If Mary Baker Eddy could see those lights sparkling downtown, a long-lost glow that gave the skyline a much-needed boost, she might have said something like this:
“Where ya been?”
Then she probably would have smiled, excited that the First Church of Christ, Scientist – Baker’s church, the one she helped build by emptying her own pockets early in the 20th century – finally had its swagger back.
The church, at the corner of School and North State streets, is in the renovation stretch run, and the 165-foot granite tower, dormant for 30 years, stands tall above the rest of the facelift, lit each night from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Meanwhile, Cobb Hill Construction is finishing the huge task that remains inside.
“I saw it one night when it was lit up,” said Jeff Burd, who’s on the church’s house and grounds committee. “If you go up the hill right over here, it’s a pretty cool thing to see.”
It is cool indeed, and the rest of the church dedicated to Christian Science, scheduled to be finished by early December, is shaping up nicely as well.
With its majestic steeple, castle-like personality, huge archways, thick columns and high ceiling, the church shouts history to anyone who bothers to pause and take a hard look.
And, it turns out, its main financier remains a giant figure within worldwide religious history, yet she remains perhaps Concord’s most anonymous superstar ever.
As Ed Hannon, Cobb Hill’s supervisor of the renovation project, says, there’s still a lot to learn.
“When you reach out to look at Mary Baker Eddy, she had a home in Bow and a house near the Holy Trinity Church,” he said. “She reached a wide scale of people, and I learned about this all from being affiliated with the project.”
Added Larry Wolfe, a church member for nearly 40 years and the chairman of the Concord Church Preservation Committee, “I don’t think the Concord area knows her. People still come up to me and say, ‘Who was Mary Baker Eddy?’ ”
Wolfe downplayed the significance of the house of worship itself, telling me, “The edifice is the place to worship God, not edifices.”
He said he wants the focus to remain on the philosophy and Eddy herself. A Bow native, she founded a worldwide order, once the fastest growing religion in the world, that believes health and character can be transformed through prayer. She also started the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Boston-based Christian Science Monitor.
She donated about $100,000 to fund the construction of the Concord church, which was finished in 1904. Upkeep, though, hasn’t exactly been a priority through the years, which is one reason the tower went dark sometime in the 1980s.
Inside, the church felt like a time machine, transporting you back 114 years, with its woodwork, organ pipes, flooring and light fixtures all generally untouched since the place was built.
That’s all changed with a renovation project that’s been four years in the making, at a cost of $2.5 million. Fundraising has helped, and the church’s universal, communal following can be seen through the donations that have poured in from around the world.
Hannon stood in the church last week, at the intersection of the past and present. He showed me pieces of the original rubber flooring, which he said are now marbleized, comparing them to fossilized dinosaur bones.
The floor, once consisting of an endless number of rubber, jigsaw-like pieces that clipped together without adhesive, will be replaced next month with cork flooring.
The pews were pushed to the side, jammed hard against a wall, and will be put back once the floor goes in.
Some of the projects were monumental. Like the wiring, for example.
“With the electrical and fire alarm systems, we had to rip out every single wire,” Hannon said.
Light fixtures had to be polished. The ceiling, 65 feet high, had to be cleaned and repainted. Woodwork up there, which resembles the skeleton of some huge beast, had to be cleaned as well, as did huge stained-glass windows. A compressor had to be used to blow away dirt and dust that had survived two world wars and the end of the Cold War.
And then there was the cleaning, one by one, of those giant organ pipes, 1,054 of them, shaped like giant crayons, really, really heavy and forming a skyline-like landscape.
Although she did not spend much time at the church while living in Concord during her later years, a special study was built there for Eddy, which, remarkably, had lights positioned high on a ledge, facing up toward the ceiling, that still worked, and fixtures with the name Edison inscribed on them.
“Edison knew what he was doing,” Hannon reasoned.
Downstairs, in a musty stone basement, was a wheel, turned by groundwater, that still serves as a humidifier for the church upstairs.
On the wall hung the former fuse box, black and made of wood and featuring an electric switch plate, the kind used to send Frankenstein’s monster a life-giving charge.
Meanwhile, the tower with its newly installed lights, 35 of them, is a reminder of what was and what’s coming.
“I saw it the night it was first lit up,” Burd said. “I was waiting for that day.”