St. Paul’s Episcopal Church: A Short History to Celebrate Sixty Years in Bedford

Land-dedication-1956
Land dedication ceremony 1956: The building site on Pine Hill Road was dedicated on September 8, 1956, with suffragan bishop Frederic C. Lawrence presiding – Courtesy image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

Submitted by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

This week marks the 60th anniversary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bedford. Last weekend the parish and other community members celebrated with an evening service of Advent Lessons and Carols, which included a special visit from their bishop, The Rt. Rev. Alan Gates. As part of the celebration, St. Paul’s has put together a condensed version of its parish history to share with the Bedford community, as an offering of gratitude for the first sixty years of the church’s living, praying, and serving in this special place we all call home.

The Early Years

The newly completed building in the spring of 1958 - Image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
The newly completed building in the spring of 1958 – Image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

As early as 1952, the Massachusetts Council of Churches began considering sponsoring an Episcopal church in Bedford.

“The mills of God grind slowly, or rather his millers grind slowly. At the last meeting of the Church Extension Committee of the Department of Research and Strategy of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, it was voted to conduct a study in Bedford despite the fact that we have had no apparent interest on the part of local clergy.” —from a letter dated October 24, 1952, written by suffragan bishop Raymond A. Heron to Reverend William Clark, rector of Trinity Church in Concord.

During the summer of 1955, a town-wide canvass was undertaken, led by Mr. Henry Bird, a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School, to assess whether an Episcopal mission was needed in Bedford. Most Bedford Episcopalians at the time attended Trinity Church in Concord or Church of the Redeemer in Lexington. In the fall of that year, around eighty people met at Alan and Barbara Maier’s home on North Road to discuss the possibility of starting a church in Bedford.

The first service of the Bedford Episcopal Mission was held December 18, 1955, at the Anthony-Hunt-Hamilton Post of the American Legion, with Mr. Henry Bird, officiating. The parish register recorded 155 persons in attendance. The Bedford Episcopal Mission quickly outgrew the American Legion space, and beginning on March 10, 1956, services were held at the Bedford Town Hall. Sunday School classes were held in the cafeteria of Center School, a block away. Henry Bird was ordained to the priesthood in the Town Hall in December 1956 and became the fulltime vicar of the new church, which parishioners voted to call St. Paul’s Mission Church, after the principal Anglican church in Bedford, England.

The sanctuary under construction in 1957 - Courtesy image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
The sanctuary under construction in 1957 – Courtesy image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

As the new mission prospered, obtaining land and building a permanent church became high priorities. Assisted by the Diocese, the executive committee purchased land on Pine Hill Road in 1956. A mortgage was obtained and a building fund was established. The site was dedicated on September 8 of that year. (The parish was enjoined by the previous landowner, who still maintained crops on the site, that “if you hold a picnic, your parishioners, particularly the children, should be kept away from the crops.” [underline in the original])

Gustav Hagen was selected as the architect, and plans were drawn for a building in which the main room could serve both as the church and the parish hall. The Mondrian-style stained glass windows that Hagen designed remain a treasured symbol of the church today. Parishioners helped in the construction of the church, and the Furnishings Committee was charged with acquiring (at low or no cost, preferably) suitable furniture, linens, prayer books, vestments, and serving ware. Other churches provided the mission with prayer books, altar cloths, a pulpit and baptismal font, choir robes, and communion cups. Parishioners donated many more furnishings, including kneelers and collection plates. The free-standing altar, pulpit, and lectern were designed by Mr. Alle Dobson. St. Paul’s Church in Bedford, England, sent a fifteenth-century carving of an eagle, which is now displayed in the narthex. The first service was held in the new building on Easter Eve, April 5, 1958.

EasterEve58sigs
Signatures of the attendees at the first service in St. Paul’s new sanctuary, on Easter Eve in 1958. The signature of nine-year-old Wendy Morris (now Wendy Ciaccia), daughter of founders Warren and Edith Morris, can be seen in the middle of the right-hand column. Wendy’s children and grandchildren now attend St. Paul’s as well – Image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

In October 1959 Rev. Henry Bird accepted a call to a parish on Martha’s Vineyard, and Rev. James Whitaker became the new vicar. In 1960 St. Paul’s purchased a house for its vicar and his family on Springs Road, near the center of Bedford. (The rectory was sold in the 1990s, with proceeds from the sale held in a housing trust with the Diocese.) During the Reverend Whitaker’s twenty years at St. Paul’s, the parish grew and matured, and the St. Paul’s Mission achieved parish status on January 29, 1968. Permanent pews were placed in the church, and the pipe organ (now dismantled) was obtained, restored, and installed.

Growth and Change

Consistent with the rapid growth of Bedford itself, St. Paul’s experienced growth in membership during the 1960s. Social events were a regular feature of parish life, with the Pine Hill Club offering dinners, outings to Boston, and the annual Caroling and Progressive Supper, which still occurs today. St. Paul’s Weekday Nursery School, an independent, secular preschool still thriving today, was founded in 1960 by parishioner Jean McCaffrey.

The parish hall under construction in 1976. Improvements and expansion to the parish hall were made in 2005 and 2013 - Courtesy image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
The parish hall under construction in 1976. Improvements and expansion to the parish hall were made in 2005 and 2013 – Courtesy image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

In 1976 the parish hall was constructed, with Bedford High School student Ken Larson assisting in drafting the plans. The 1970s were marked by declining attendance and challenging financial circumstances, mirroring the general state of organized religion in the country at the time.

In 1981, Reverend Whitaker resigned as rector to become a chaplain at the Bedford VA Hospital. In February 1983, the Reverend Elsa Ph. Walberg became the third rector of St. Paul’s. She was instituted as the first full-time woman rector in the Diocese of Massachusetts on May 31, 1983, amid much excitement and interest by the larger community and the press. Elsa’s installation marked the beginning of more than fifteen years of female leadership at St. Paul’s, including deacon Rev. Barbara Smith-Moran, rector Rev. Patricia Handloss Stern, and priest-in-charge Rev. Ann Broomell.

Current JGMS eighth grader Joleen Ricci, held by Rev. Frank Fornaro, at her baptism in 2001, with her parents, Peter and Becky Ricci, at left, and godparents, Sybil and Armen Zildjian, at right. The Riccis are one of several multigenerational families at St. Paul’s: Joleen’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have all been members. Image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
Current JGMS eighth grader Joleen Ricci, held by Rev. Frank Fornaro, at her baptism in 2001, with her parents, Peter and Becky Ricci, at left, and godparents, Sybil and Armen Zildjian, at right. The Riccis are one of several multigenerational families at St. Paul’s: Joleen’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have all been members. Image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

In 1999 St. Paul’s called Rev. Francis Fornaro as its rector. During Frank’s tenure, parishioners became more actively involved in lay ministry during the Sunday Eucharist, as teachers in the growing church school, as members of the expanded vestry, and as participants in fellowship, Christian education, and mission. Significant improvements were made to the church building, and participation in worship was enhanced for many with the addition of a sound system. Frank also presided over a Capital Campaign to enlarge and improve the parish hall and add new classrooms, which coincided with the parish’s 50th Anniversary. On October 9, 2004, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling in Goodridge vs. Department of Health, Frank and his longtime partner, Charles Frates, were joined in marriage at St. Paul’s, with senior warden Paul Ciaccia performing the civil ceremony.

Rev. Chris Wendell with the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts of St. Paul’s on Scout Sunday in February 2013.- Image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
Rev. Chris Wendell with the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts of St. Paul’s on Scout Sunday in February 2013.- Image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

Frank retired on May 23, 2010, and after an interim period led by Rev. Margaret Schwarzer, the vestry called Rev. Christopher Wendell as St. Paul’s rector in 2011. Chris’s ministry has been marked by an increase in families with young children, strong interfaith relationships with other houses of worship in Bedford and surrounding communities, and renewed interest in adult education. The parish also completed a capital campaign in 2015 to fund property improvements, seed new mission and outreach endeavors, and eliminate all parish debt. Rev. Rachel Wildman came to St. Paul’s as a seminarian in 2013, and became the parish’s part-time curate in the summer of 2015.

Reaching Out to a Larger Community

A Sunday School meeting in the 1970s. Town Moderator Betsey Anderson and Capital Expenditure Committee member Barbara Perry are at center - Image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
A Sunday School meeting in the 1970s. Town Moderator Betsey Anderson and Capital Expenditure Committee member Barbara Perry are at center – Image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

Throughout its history, St. Paul’s has maintained a strong focus on mission and outreach projects, from local to national to international. The parish has sponsored several refugee families over the years, partnered with parishes in Zimbabwe and Uganda, and supported the Lowell Ethnic Covenant, the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership, the B-SAFE summer enrichment program through the Diocese, and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Lowell, among other organizations. Most recently, St. Paul’s has sent mission teams of youth and adults every few years to Haiti and Appalachia, for medical, education, and housing work. St. Paul’s has also supported the families living in transitional housing at the Bedford Plaza Hotel, providing meals, summer lunches, Charlie cards, and holiday gifts to the residents.

Non-parishioners in Bedford and surrounding towns may know St. Paul’s from its annual fundraising events: the Advent Fair and the Thrift Sale. St. Paul’s held its first Advent Fair in 1956, less than a year after its founding; for a period in the 1960s, it became the Harvest Fair instead. The Advent Fair is the biggest fundraiser of the year, offering gift baskets, handmade crafts, homemade food, and outreach gifts to the wider community. The Thrift Sale, now held in mid-June, started in the 1960s, as a general rummage sale intended to provide local residents with good-quality clothing, household goods, toys, and sporting equipment at very low prices.

St. Paul’s has also made a name for itself locally through its embrace of music and theatre. In the 1980s and 1990s the parish performed several musicals in the sanctuary, including a production of My Fair Lady. Beginning in 2005, the parish presented biannual productions of St. Paul’s Tonight!, a song-and-dance revue featuring scores of parishioners as singers, dancers, actors, and soloists. The next iteration of St. Paul’s Tonight is planned for 2017.

St. Paul’s Today

St. Paul’s removed its front steps in the early 2000s, making its front entrance fully accessible - Courtesy image (c) St. Paul's Church, 2015 all rights reserved
St. Paul’s removed its front steps in the early 2000s, making its front entrance fully accessible – Courtesy image (c) St. Paul’s Church, 2015 all rights reserved

After sixty years, St. Paul’s continues to grow in faith, mission, and membership. The church draws parishioners not only from Bedford, but also Billerica, Lexington, Concord, Acton, Chelmsford, Arlington, Belmont, and Hanscom. Sunday services are at 10:00am (9:00am in the summer), with nursery care and Christian education beginning at 9:45am. The church building is fully accessible, with provisions available for guests with sight or hearing difficulties.

Services are videotaped and shown on Bedford TV; sermons are also available for viewing on the parish website, www.stpaulsbedford.org.

2015 Holiday Services at St. Paul’s

This coming Sunday, December 20, St. Paul’s youth will present the annual Christmas Pageant during the regular 10:00am service. Christmas Eve services will be held at 3:00pm for families and children, with a carol sing at 9:30pm and candlelight Eucharist at 10:00pm. Christmas Day Eucharist will be held at 10:00am. All are welcome.


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