Monday, May 20, 2024

Restoration to St. Augustine’s Church in Cambridgeport began in 2019. (Photo: Nicholas Miller)

As Marcus Garvey’s vision for the political and economic liberation of black people spread around the world of 1921, the movement’s religious arm sprang up in Cambridgeport.

It was there that George Alexander McGuire established the founding parish of the African-Orthodox Church, a denomination created by McGuire with the support of Garvey, who saw a separate black religion as a crucial aspect of independence.

Named St. Augustine’s Church, it quickly became a central institution for the extensive Afro-Caribbean migrant populations in Cambridge and Boston.

“St. Augustine’s was one of the most important hubs for Afro-Caribbean life in the whole United States,” said Kris Manjapra, a professor of history at Tufts University and chair of Black History in Action for Cambridgeport.

While Cambridge’s Afro-Caribbean community as well as the African-Orthodox Church as a whole declined after peaks in the 1930s, St. Augustine’s has remained as a community pillar. Now it’s undergoing a revitalization in an effort to further preserve the community it has served and the faith it preached for the past century.

St. Augustine’s Warden Edward Eccles signs a contract in April for the church’s exterior restoration. (Photo: St. Augustine’s)

After a 2019 renovation fixed the roof and made other improvements to a deteriorating 1866 building, Manjapra said, a facelift that began in May will provide replacement doors and windows as well as additional insulation and patterned shingles.

The restorations have been funded by matching grants totaling $150,000 from the Cambridge Historical Commission, a $110,000 matching grant provided by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and extensive contributions from community members and businesses.

The church was granted landmark status by the commission last year.

A Minuteman Building & Preservation worker works on the walls of St. Augustine’s. (Photo: St. Augustine’s)

Participant in the community

Beyond its physical revitalization, the church is developing educational and artistic projects that will help it remain a monument to the history of the Afro-Caribbean population in Cambridge as well as a participant in the city’s current black community.

Church leaders are going through St. Augustine’s documents to prepare oral histories and exhibitions to display the “rich history that the church embodies,” Manjapra said.

It is also working on a project called “the St. Augustine’s Center” that will house artists, musicians and social justice organizations in the church building, he said. The center is expected open after the church’s renovation is complete, sometime in the next year.

St. Augustine’s potential as a center for black history and culture in Cambridge is even more significant given the state of the city’s black community, Manjapra said, citing a 2021 report by the Cambridge Community Foundation that described black residents being forced out of the city because of living costs.

“The black community is losing out, and so it’s important for us as a community to preserve St. Augustine’s as a center for community wealth,” Manjapra said.

An active church

As these cultural and historical projects are implemented, the church will engage in another form of preservation by simply continuing to hold weekly African-Orthodox services.

The African-Orthodox Church at one point had more than 30,000 members and 30 churches across three continents. It’s “a lot smaller than it used to be,” Manjapra said.

Many of the churches no longer exist or hold regular services, including the other African-Orthodox Church in the Boston area, St. James’ Church, he said, and a living African-Orthodox Church in Cambridge is “precious,” given the decline of the denomination elsewhere. 

The exterior of St. Augustine’s shows progress Thursday. (Photo: Nicholas Miller)

Minister at St. Augustine’s the Rev. Charles Eccles said St. Augustine’s membership has certainly declined from its 20th century peak, when the congregation was too big to fit inside the church building.

The church has also been hit hard by the pandemic, with some of the older congregants having been lost, he said.

Still, Eccles is confident that the future of St. Augustine’s is bright. “We’ve struggled but we’re still here,” he said. “I believe that we will be able to bring back a lot of the congregation that we used to have.”

“If we build it, they will come,” he said.

Donations welcome

The church is still seeking donations. It remains about $14,000 short of the funding necessary for the current project and needs funding to create an entrance accessible to people with disabilities. That entrance is estimated to cost $100,000.

Donations can be made here or can be sent to Cathie Zusy, Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association treasurer, 202 Hamilton St., Cambridge, MA 02139.

“Once this [restoration] is done, you’ll be hearing a lot more about St. Augustine’s,” Eccles said.