St. John St. James Church, Roxbury

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Community Living and Social Activism / 1967 & forward

The period from 1967 forward was a very productive period for social activism at St. John's and then St. John St. James. The Reverend Richard D'Onofrio became the Rector of St. John's in 1967, and led the church, along with Father Mitchell from St. James through the decision to merge and the transition to 149 Roxbury Street. The building became a residence for people drawn to the community ministry of the church and the community outreach. Residents included divinity students, conscientious objectors performing alternative service and others.

The Community Information and Referral Center launched during this time, providing a community organizing network for the church and surrounding community. The church provided courses in black history, the arts, music and more for members and neighborhood residents. Seminarians and others provided youth programming, including camping, the arts and other enrichment opportunities for youth. The church also participated in luncheons for seniors and in networks with neighboriing churches.

Warren Steel, who worshiped, played organ, and lived in the residence at St. John St. James from December 1968 to August 1972, writes:

After the two churches merged and moved into the former St. Luke's Home, the parish worshiped in the old chapel, designed by Cram. There was a historic pipe organ made either by E & G G Hook, or Hook & Hastings. I played this instrument daily for practice, and occasionally played for worship, although the regular music director was Miss Docia Dockett. Then the new worship space was constructed in the back of the old nursing home.

There was also an indoor passageway from the nursing home to the old chapel, and this was removed at the time of the renovation. After Miss Dockett left, I played at services until 1971, when I took a job as music director at St. Paul's Church in Brookline.

Photo: Warren Steel, 1969. The peace banner, in front of the former passageway between the chapel and main building, was made to support the anti-Vietnam War movement, as well as the Christian principle of peace. The banner was made in a large, airy laundry-drying room that was over the kitchen on the west side of the mansion--that second-story room was removed in the 1970 renovation.

Father Mitchell lived at the church, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Ming. Other young men who lived there for varying lengths of stay included: Victor J. Schamm (seminarian), H. Camp Gordinier (seminarian), Thomas R. Taylor, Jim Taylor, John Hardy, Antonio "Chino" Serrano, Brother Varghees, and myself. [As I recall, the second floor was used for Sunday school classes and other purposes. Mr. Gordon Ming, the sexton, lived with his wife on the third floor, and ran a tight ship. Father James Mitchell also lived on that floor. On the top floor lived the seminarians, conscientious objectors, and other young men, of whom I remember Victor Schramm, Antonio "Chino" Serrano, Camp Gordinier, Tom Taylor, Jim Taylor, John Hardy, and Brother Varghees from the Syrian Indian church which held services in St. Luke's Chapel. My room was in the northeast corner of the fourth floor.]

After the worship moved into the new space, a group from India, from the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, an "Oriental Orthodox" church, approached Father D'Onofrio looking for a place to worship. They worshipped for several months in the chapel. Their pastor was Father Varghees (George), and there was a young monk of the same name who lived with us in the parish residence. On one occasion the church was visited by the Patriarch from Lebanon, who officiated at the baptism of one of Father Varghees's children.

Rick D'Onofrio was an interesting character, and something of a mentor to me in those years. A Roman Catholic native of Hartford, he converted to the Episcopal church in order to follow a priestly vocation within marriage. He attended seminary in Saskatchewan, and was deeply involved in the civil rights movement as rector of St. Paul's Saginaw, Michigan. He also studied Jungian psychology in Switzerland. In more recent years, after leaving Roxbury, he joined the "continuing Anglican" movement, and served St. Margaret's Anglican Church in Conway, New Hampshire. He died 8 December 2008.

In 1968-72 the parish was a combination of African Americans with Southern U.S. roots, including parish leaders Nell Daniels and Richard Giddens, and West Indian immigrants, including church warden Mr. Walter Daniel, and Mrs. Haynes, as well as white members including Mary Seager and the Quaker Helen Peabody.

The former nursing home has a large kitchen, and church women cooked lunch several days a week for the staff and visitors.

Steel explains that he had attended the old St. John's church, either in late '66 or early '67, and was strongly impressed with the building, the worship, and the spirit of the congregation, and again in the fall of 1967, but by this time the worship was in a storefront. He writes:

[The storefront] was a large former shop, with enough space for worship in one part and Sunday school activities in another, and I'm almost sure it too was on Tremont Street, perhaps also in the highway/redevelopment zone. In the fall of 1968, I reconnected with the church, now at 149 Roxbury Street. The Mings and Father Mitchell were already living there, as well as at least two seminarians. I moved there in December 1968 and began my two years of alternate service as a conscientious objector. Father D liked the idea, and worked with the authorities to get the church accredited as an alternate service venue, where the young men would be working through the Community Information and Referral Center. The process took several months, but it was made retroactive so that my service was completed by the end of 1970. Other COs also worked and lived at the church.

I attended Episcopal Theological School as a special student from Fall 1969 to Spring 1971. In my final year at the church I worked in Cambridge for the Architects Design Group (who had designed the church addition) and served as organist-choirmaster at St. Paul's, Brookline.

Warren Steel is a Professor of Music Emeritus, University of Mississippi. He attended Harvard College, the Episcopal Theological School, and the University of Michigan.

December 28, 2019