The Closing of Phillips Church in Watertown, MA, October 2007

Years ago I remember the departure of the pastor of my church.  There was the traditional last service and a dinner followed.  At the table one of the attendees noted that “The funeral was well attended”.  Some people were sad at his leaving and some were mad.  That person was glad.

There is a lot of emotion when a pastor leaves a church.  It thrusts the church into the unknown.  It can bring about reflection about the tenure of the pastor.  What did and didn’t happen, what could have been, should have been.  “If only” …….

Yesterday I attended the “funeral” of Phillips Church in Watertown.  The church is closing and combining with another church.  There was a service, reflection on the church’s history, music and a prolonged “passing of the peace”.  But despite the fact that the brass quartet played a rousing version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” at the end of the service, I was experiencing the death of a church.

Walking into the church evoked so many memories I started to tear up but remembered “No crying until after I have finished singing my solo”.   I stopped attending Phillips Church 10 years ago and there were many faces to see this day, and many that were missing. One attendee who had also left Phillips church said that she was reflecting on her possible contributions to the death of the church in what she did or did not say or do.  That one made me think.

The church closing reminded me of how I came to Phillips 20 years ago.  On my second visit to Phillips my friend and I sat in the next to the last pew – the quick exit seats.  By “God-incidence” the choir director and the lead soprano were sitting in the pew in front of us.  When the service ended they turned around and asked us to join the choir.  I sang in the choir for 11 years. At the final Phillips Church service one of my choir directors was there along with other choir members.  We all sang/played during the service.  We hugged and traded stories and said we should get together.

After the service and some chatting with people I walked around the building – my last walk.  I don’t ever remember saying goodbye to a place in my life that I really cared about.  When my parents sold my childhood home I was away in college, so there was no tearful looking into empty rooms. This time there were tears.  Each room was filled with memories of those 11 years.  There was the kitchen – where I spent hours washing dishes.  There were the many meals and meetings that we had in the lower fellowship hall.

There was the auditorium with the stage, the movie projection room, and the offices surrounding the second floor.  Here we produced countless concerts, dinner theater, the Pirates of Penzance, Godspell, Agnes of God, and many other productions.  I remember the many rehearsals.  I remember the wedding receptions there. Eric reminded me of when Robin and Linda hung sound baffles in the auditorium with bungee cords.  God was good, as they could easily have fallen and killed someone.

There was the room downstairs where I stored my furniture for a month before I moved into my house.  This was also the rehearsal room of the “Intermission” music ministry.  There was the room where we stored the drums for the band. There was the room where the people were rehearsing the night lightning struck the church.  They were thrown on the floor (no injuries), as the lightning traveled through the church, blew out the sound system and blew off the top of the steeple.  There had been a recent disputed decision NOT to upgrade the sound system – then lightning struck.  We always thought that God had overruled the decision.

There was the replacement sound system we named “Sputnik”, as it looked like a space craft.  There were the ceiling fans – I remember when five minutes after church ended the fan dropped onto the pews.  It also could have killed someone.  (Thank you God one more time). There was the “counting room” where we had endless tense discussions on the Finance Committee about money.  How could a church with a million dollar endowment fund have had so many problems with money?

There was the MacDonald room with its wonderful fire place and grand piano.  We had many meetings and small concerts there.  I remember David and Lisa’s wedding day.  Someone was playing the piano, the fire was going, there were hors d’oeuvres and the spirits were very high. They had wanted a country wedding theme so they had brought in bales of hay.  This of course broke every fire law in the town.

There was the Pastor’s office – how many meetings we had in there.  I remembered the year I almost had a nervous breakdown.  I remember sitting speaking with the pastor, holding onto my secrets.  There was also fun and laughter there.  We used to go through the office to get to the choir pews. This church is huge – bell tower, attics all over the place.  There are four or five pianos in the building.  There is an indoor gym, a million little closets and rooms.  There are five stairways to the basement.  It is a big place.

Then there is the sanctuary – I remember when the pastor of six years left.  I did not really know how to grieve so I cleaned the sanctuary.  Other’s joined me in the cleaning.  We polished all of the pews and started washing the walls.  We remembered the day Robin almost fell off the ladder trying to clean the walls.

I remember the first service when we decided to introduce a drummer and have “a band” on Easter Sunday.  We started rehearsing on Friday.  I had to queue the drummer.  Did I forget to mention that he was blind?  That also reminds me of the time I walked the drummer home (he lived across the street) and I took him to the wrong house.  I have this problem of going to the wrong house in my life…….  Oh yes – I also walked him into a tree and discovered why blind people wear protective gear, for people like me.

In the Phillips sanctuary I experienced the best worship of my life – intimate, loud, personal, quiet.  Was it the energy of youth, the music, the acoustics or the Steinway piano?  You were never alone singing in that sanctuary.  I cried, prayed and sang there like I never have since.  On this last day I cried, prayed and sang one last time. I remember how I used go to the sanctuary in the early morning.  I would sing and play the piano at dawn (my favorite time).  I also loved dusk.  I would often play into the dark and let the street lights shine in for light.

I remember the day I thought I was going to get fired and I met Eric at the Sanctuary at 5:30 AM.  There’s no worship like desperate worship!  With no pretense or distraction it was just a desperate reaching for God and what a tangible outpouring of His blessing, grace and protection I experienced that day.  I’ve never known the like since.

There were so many great times in the choir pews.  Tom Whately (aka the class clown) could “throw his voice” and would always make us laugh.  There were so many great singers – Linda, Nancy, Eric, Robin, Merv, Tom, Bob Pardon, Kristen, David, Lisa, Todd, Bob Devivo (the best alto I know), Marian and Bess Hughes who sang so softly but she ALWAYS sang the right notes.  There was so much great music.

There’s was Eric’s “off” day of playing of the Doxology.  It was so bad that the pastor could not stop laughing through prayer time.  I remember when Eric was directing the Alleluia.  We could never sing that song right in practice.  During the Easter service the song was so perfect and the sound was so pure that Eric started crying while directing the song.  Most of the choir broke down after the song ended.

The choir was the heartbeat of Phillips church for me.  I had wonderful choir directors (Eric, Lisa, Dave and Lisa again) and great music.  I remember the Easter Sunday “chick band” (when all the male singers/musicians) had departed.  Lisa gave us all chicks that Sunday. I remember one member of the choir who played piano but did not like spontaneous requests.  Once I asked him to play on a “country song” the morning of the service and he became nervous and agitated and immediately said “No”.  Later he agreed and asked if we would prefer “Country piano from the 50s or the 70s”.  He played flawlessly.  He could take your breath away with his talent.

I will never forget the Christmas concert when we closed by singing an unrehearsed “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.  People afterward said they liked the way we faded in and out.  In truth: Nobody knew the song. I remember singing the Seven Fold Amen with the choir standing all around the sanctuary.  We could not hear each other and we were singing to the echoes.  I remember the day that I was singing a duet Eric wrote with my roommate and we showed up (separately) wearing the exact same outfit.  (They did not call us the Quimby Twins for nothing you know.)

I remember when one pastor gave a four month sermon series on “sheep”?  The choir director had to dig deep to keep finding sheep songs.  (How many times did we sing My Shepherd Will Abide With Me?) I remember singing in the dark in the balcony during Holy Thursday services.  I remember Bud Rockwell sounding like the booming voice of God behind us that nearly scared us to death.  I remember being stunned the first time I heard Merv sing.  It was breathtaking!

I remember being in the “technically inept” class where Linda desperately tried to teach us the basics of sound system setup so we could be of some use when the ministry band was on the road. I remember how when all the people who knew about the sound equipment had left the church, everyone came to me with their technical problems (like I had a clue).  I remember the pastor asking me to fix the VCR.  (I was clueless.)  I tried five times unsuccessfully.  I gave up and prayed over the machine.  It worked perfectly.  (I’m a believer!)

I remember when the church got a cordless mike.  They gave it to the interim pastor “turned on” right before he went into the men’s room.  The sound system worked just fine that day! I remember jumping up during prayer time to take the cordless mike all around the church so that the pastor (who had poor hearing in one ear) could hear the prayer requests.  I also used to light the candles before the service.

I was a member of this church for 11 years.  There was a lot of living that took place in this building.  My mother died while I was here.  I met some wonderful people and made some great friend there. I also went through many meetings, committees, parties and discussions there. I could state my opinion as to when and how the church died, but only God knows.   They spent all of their assets in the last few years to support their expanded programs – pastor’s salary, youth, choir, music directors and programs.  They attracted many people and lots of kids, but not the kind of people that tithe and not the number of people necessary to support such a massive structure.

I did not sleep well last night.  Maybe there were just too many memories to process and too much emotion.  I never saw the death of a church before. My current pastor said that there are life cycles to churches.  Our church was able to buy a church building, because one church was ending and selling their building.  A second church converted their assets into a bank for churches to buy church buildings.  This information is comforting, as I witness the death of Phillips Church.

Maybe someone will come along and buy Phillips Church, but I tend to doubt it.  Most churches that are looking for a building are not likely to take on one as old and in need of repair as this one.  It is possible only if God wills it. I have said goodbye to Phillips Church, but I am not yet at peace.  I will ponder a little longer how I contributed to the death of a church, how I can live better from my experiences and what I should carry forward from my time there. I wish the Phillipsians the best as they combine with another church.  I will mourn the passing of this wonderful church building from my history.  If it follows the pathway of the other closed churches in town, I expect to see condos on that block some time in the future.