WorcesterThen: from the beginning


Churches of the Common


This essay traces the churches that have been located on or facing the Common since the beginning of the town – from the original town meetinghouse up to five churches in the year  Worcester became a city, 1848, and back down to a single remaining building, one which served as a church for 78 years before being desanctified in 2007.  The churches of the Common are traced in terms of both the buildings and the religious organizations that have occupied them. It is only an outline, focused on the physical history of the several churches, and no serious accounting of any of the church organizations is undertaken.


The total number of church buildings ever on or facing the Worcester Common is five, while the number of separate congregations inhabiting those church buildings is seven.



Adjacent to the Common at the east end was a triangular open public space, or roadway, known as Salem Square, which in this early map of the inner town of Worcester was called “Baptist Hill.”  The “hill” was in the neighborhood of three feet in elevation above the surrounding terrain.


At that time, all that separated Baptist Hill from the Common was the walled-in burying ground which was no longer being used for new interments.  Otherwise, the two blended into each other as if the “hill” were part of the Common.


Church buildings on Salem Square faced the Common as much as did the ones on Front and Park Streets, although at a bit of an angle.






The Meetinghouse,

later First Parish Church

Built 1719, rebuilt 1763

on the Common near Main Street


It is believed that the original building used as the meetinghouse was erected in 1719 on the Common. Having outgrown that building, the town constructed a new, larger one in 1763.






When a doctrinal split resulted in the formation of the Second Parish (Congregational Unitarian) in 1785, and a building was constructed for the group near Lincoln Square, the meetinghouse assumed the title of First Parish. It eventually became known as the “Old South” church, although its true name was the First Parish Congregational Church. Its familiar name came, of course, from being older than the new one and located south of it.

This photo is of a page in a pamphlet which serves as its title page,“First Church, Old South.”  No author given.

Church shown as rebuilt in 1763.



First Parish church:  two artists’ portrayals, separated by a century.


There are some differences between the two versions, which may reflect actual changes in the physical shape of the building. The early version has seven windows across its long side, facing Main Street, with a door to the street, while the 1863 version shows nine windows and no side door.  Also,by 1863 the front extension has been widened and a roof added, and the steeple, formerly a tower from the ground up, now emerges above the roofline. These changes presumably reflected normal adjustments over a century’s passing. It is also possible that one or the other was drawn inaccurately, or that both were. It is unclear how seriously to take such drawings. More reliable portrayals may exist elsewhere.




  First Baptist Church

Built in 1813

on Salem Square

The second church on the Common, the third church in Worcester.



Sketches and information  from Harold D. Woodbury,

“The Story of the First Baptist Church,” January, 1976  (Worcester Room, Worcester Public Library)

Built 1813

elements of Federal style

Renovated 1826

added wings and tower

burned in 1836


Rebuilt in 1836,shown

 as enlarged in 1844


Fire destroyed the second building in 1836, “supposedly by an incendiary,” according to Charles Nutt (p. 828).  A new structure was promptly erected on the site that year, and was enlarged in 1844. It was distinguished by its Roman arcade style: three entrances between pillars of tall, thin ionic columns, mounted on pillars for greater height, more Renaissance Italy than ancient Greece.

Primary source: Woodbury’s account of the First Baptist Church.






This view from City Hall Tower, ca.1926-28, shows the First Baptist church beyond the Common, with Franklin Street on the right, and the Bancroft Hotel at the far right. 


The Common at this date still had the tree-shaded walking paths that were designed and created under the hand of Public Grounds Commissioner  Edward Winslow Lincoln in the last quarter of the 19th century.




From the collections of the Worcester Historical Museum,

Worcester, Mass.





Union Congregational Church


Built 1836

Front Street at Carlton (now Commercial St.)


Ichabod Washburn, a Deacon of the church, was its principal founder and benefactor.  











Unfortunately, we have no image of the original Union church. Most likely it was in the Greek revival style which was so popular at the time. 



According to Charles Nutt, the church was “a plain brick house, 54 by 90 feet,”  before being enlarged in 1845-46. (v.2, p.806)  A new building was erected on the same site in 1880.


A view of the rebuilt Union Church is faintly evident in this Kingsley and Knab picture, ca. 1894. The steeple tower is barely perceptible behind the tree limbs to the right. It was about eight building stories high, exceeded only by the tower of the adjacent Chase building.


Commercial real estate magnate Ransom C. Taylor, for reasons of his own, thrust the tower of his new building a few feet higher than the pinnacle of the church. 


More about Kingsley & Knab.



The two women are walking across the “mall” behind City Hall. It was fashioned by the hand of Public Grounds  Commissioner Edward W. Lincoln to serve as an attractive park-like walking lane, lined with benches and trees, along the former railbed of the tracks which ran across the Common there until 1877. In all likelihood, the walkers are on the state’s first “rail trail.”





This picture, also from Kingsley & Knab, offers a slightly better, but still limited, view of the Union Church in the mid-1890s. It was taken on Front Street at Salem Square, looking toward Main Street. The church appears to have been made of stone; its steeple tower was at the corner; it had gothic arches in the belfry. Otherwise, few details can be discerned in this limited picture.



Note the utility poles at two heights, some with with nine crossbars





Kingsley and Knab, p.11, detail


For a larger image with color removed and zoomed in, click here.



Methodist Episcopal Church


Built 1845 

Park Street


On Park Street, later renamed Franklin Street, directly across the Common from the Union Congregational Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church was completed in 1845.

This picture (right) from Kingsley & Knab shows the steeple tower of the church but not much else. A better sense of the shape and appearance of the building can be seen in the view below of the rear of the building in this detail from a photograph taken from Burnside Court.



The style of the church appears to this amateur to have been basically Romanesque. Note the use of brick and the steeple tower with a four-sided roof with dormers over the Roman arch windows of the belfry. 


The area to the side and rear of the church is the abandoned yard of the former Norwich & Worcester Railroad. The date is estimated at 1895-1905, before significant new construction got underway on Park Street about 1910.  For three decades the church had a freight yard for a nearby neighbor, and after that an abandoned freight yard, with all the attendant junkiness. The area sat “unredeveloped” after the lifting of the rails in 1877 until about 1910, when the Worcester Daily Telegram bought the land and put up a new office building for itself on Park Street.


In 1869 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, acquired the church, and by 1870 had converted it to serve as the parish church of the French-Canadian community of Worcester, Notre Dame des Canadiens.





Salem Square Congregational

Built in 1848

Salem Square 


Built in 1848, only about 500 feet from the Union church, which had been constructed only 12 years earlier and had recently been enlarged.   


Its distinguishing architectural feature was its Greek Temple style – a case of the high end of the Greek Revival movement of that era, usually seen at this scale in large public buldings.  Distinguishing features include its six corinthian columns, the entablature (with no script visible), and the great pediment.



Source: Salem Covenant Church website.


Charles Nutt, p. 828






The city was growing rapidly, and the Congregational Church was its largest denomination.


Church building and renovating was very active in the area of the Common in the mid-to-late 1840s:

  1844 Baptist church enlarged

  1845-46  Union church enlarged and renovated

  1845  Methodist Episcopal church built

  1848  Salem Square Congregational church built





1870 Atlas view of Common area


The five churches are marked by the symbol v.


Why the Union church was not shown in black like the others is unknown.


The railroad tracks across the Common would be taken up in 1877, but the freight yard next to the church on Park Street would remain for many years.  The Atlas indicates “M.E. Ch” for the one on Park Street but by 1870 it had been acquired and converted to Notre Dame des Canadiens.





Numbers in decline.

The first change among the five churches of the Common came two decades later with the sale of the Methodist Episcopal building to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, in 1869. This was a change of denomination but not of the physical structure. Another change, highly visible to people at the time but not involving any change in ownership or usage of the buildings was the radical change in the appearance of the Salem Square Congregational in 1871. Note that the Greek temple façade is gone, replaced by a more traditional late 19th century style of New England church building.

 Kingsley and Knab, p.12


The first church building to disappear was the First Parish, the Old South church. It relocated in 1887 after a long and difficult separation from the city. The problem was a dispute centering on ownership. Was the owner the organization which had taken shape over the past century as a religious entity, in response to the establishment of other churches? Or was the owner the whole community, which had originally owned the meetinghouse as a public place, with no denominational distinction?  Over time what had originally been the congregation of all residents of the town, had in time become one religious entity among many others.

Upon the relocation of the church to Main Street at the corner of Wellington in 1887, the old meetinghouse-church building on the Common was demolished after 124 years of service, and after about 170 years of there being such a building standing on the site.  About a decade later the vacated space would become part of the larger footprint of today’s City Hall, which opened in 1898. 

The next of the four remaining buildings to come down was the Union church on Front Street. In 1895, the Union Society of Worcester purchased land and began construction of a new edifice on Chestnut Street. Early in the 1896, the Salem Square Congregational church around the corner inquired about a merger of the two churches and an agreement was quickly reached. The two were united in the impressive new building on Chestnut Street in September of that year, retaining the name Union Congregational Church. After the Front Street site was demolished, the land was sold to commercial real estate tycoon Ransom C. Taylor, who erected a six-story commercial building on the site, which became the home of the C.T. Sherer department store.

The Salem Square congregation which had agreed to merge with the Union church, sold its building in June to the First Swedish Evangelical Congregational Church of Worcester, which remained there for about three quarters of a century.  (For a history of the Swedish Congregational church see E. Malcolm Parkinson, “Surely They Are My People,” at www.salemccworcester.org/archives/index)   


The two building sales and one demolition reduced the number of churches on or facing the Common to three: the Baptist, the Catholic, and the Swedish Congregational.

In 1908, after a fire damaged the church and other buildings on Park Street, the parish relocated to the building on Salem Square previously occupied by the First Baptist Church, which had moved to Main Street. The decision to move Notre Dame had been in place for a number of years, the Diocese having acquired the building back in 1902.  Reasons for the delay are unknown.


After the relocation, the Park Street building was converted to an elementary school, the School of the Holy Family, and in 1911 the property was sold to the Bancroft Realty Company for the construction of the Bancroft Hotel.   


Thus, the number of churches on or facing the Common fell to two: Notre Dame des Canadiens at its new address, and the Swedish Congregational, also on Salem Square.



Notre Dame remained there for two decades before moving, in 1929, into the elegant new structure it had erected next to the older building, on the Franklin Street side, facing Salem Square in the same alignment as the older building, which was then demolished. Reasons for the decision to rebuild are unknown. The vacated building was only 85 years old when it was demolished. Whether there were structural issues of any significance, possibly resulting in its abandonment, is not known.


The new building was in the style of a Roman basilica, with a grand arch at the entrance and arch-framed windows.  Architectural historian Susan M. Ceccacci has described it as “a combination of traditional architectural elements, inspired by medieval churches, and clean-lined modern detailing. Distinctive features are its tall Roman arch and ornamental rose window on the main façade, flanking turrets, and a graceful lantern breaking the skyline.”



   Source unknown


Down to one:

In 1972, the Worcester Center Galleria and the planned eight-story bank building, principal components of Worcester’s Urban Renewal effort of the 1970s, intended to try to reverse the fortunes of the declining downtown area, needed the land occupied by the Salem Square (Swedish) Congregational church. The purchase was made and at the end of the year the fourth of the five churches of the Common was gone, as was the entirety of Salem Square.

The redevelopment of the area, and specifically the eight-story bank building on the former Salem Square, left the one remaining church, the relatively new version of Notre Dame des Canadiens, sitting off to the side at what now appeared to be a strange angle, since the triangular shape of Salem Square had disappeared. 

In 2007, the grand edifice of Notre Dame was abandoned and de-sanctified, a victim of demographics and economics, and of the Diocesan strategy of consolidation of its excessive number of church buildings.  As a result, a beautiful building of medieval design, no longer a church but still a majestic symbol of the Catholic Church in Worcester, and especially its French-Canadian population, has been left standing awkwardly amid the area’s second major downtown redevelopment, the CitySquare project. 


Two photos from the air from Google Maps make clear the present predicament of the building. Trees and fencing make it barely noticeable to passers-by, and the construction and landscaping near and around the building give it the appearance of being trapped. 


Google photo capture, December, 2016



Note the trees that have been planted in such a way as to hide the building from the view, leaving only a narrow slot on the newly-renamed Church Street.




The building at this writing is under immediate threat of demolition to make way for the CitySquare project,  If the effort to save the building does not succeed, there will be, for the first time in Worcester’s history, no churches or church buildings on or facing the Common.


That would be a real shame, in this onlooker’s opinion.


* * * * *

Don Chamberlayne, 2017