Monday, July 22, 2024

The 1721 cockerel weathervane atop First Church in Cambridge. (Photo: Archives of the First Church in Cambridge)

The golden cockerel weathervane atop First Church in Cambridge is scheduled to come down in the coming weeks after 150 years after a drone video found it deteriorating, with substantial discoloration on one side of the gilded copper body.

The congregation is divided on what happens next. Some members are in favor of restoration and preservation, while others hope to sell it to cushion the church financially. The church says it won’t move forward with any decision until all congregants are consulted.

“People do have strong feelings and emotions when they hear about [the removal]. But I think it would be very wrong to leave it up there, and it would be very wrong to leave it in storage. It would be very wrong not to consider selling it and put the proceeds in support of the work of the church,” said Lindsay Miller, co-chair of First Church in Cambridge’s archives committee, who did not disclose the estimated value of the cockerel. “Money is really not what it’s about. It’s being good stewards, taking care of the right thing. The church, to thrive, needs money too.”

First Church has been dipping into its financial reserves to complete projects, Miller said. Profit from the cockerel would be invested in the missions of the church and act as a financial foundation.

“Our church is lively,” she said. “It’s got kids, it’s got racial justice stuff going on, it’s a living, breathing church. And its financial situation is not going in the right direction.”

The immediate next step is to secure the right permits from the city and hire a steeplejack company to remove the cockerel from its place atop the church. Once it comes down, the congregation will decide the best course of action.

A Boston chicken first

The cockerel has a storied Cambridge history.

The 5-foot, 5-inch 172-pound solid copper artifact was created in 1721 by Shem Drowne, the same coppersmith who made the grasshopper at Faneuil Hall. The cockerel was perched for 152 years at various Boston churches before landing at the First Church in Cambridge in 1873 to top the sixth meeting house at the corner of Garden and Mason streets.

It first topped the New Brick Church on Hanover Street in the North End – known as both the Cockerel Church and the Revenge Church. (“Revenge” came from an incident in 1720 when congregants objected to Peter Thatcher’s ministry at New North Church and walked out, built the North Brick Church and commissioned Drowne to create the cockerel.)

The cockerel had a clear view of many milestones in U.S. history, including the arrival of British warships in 1768, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 and the evacuation of the British troops and independence of America in 1776.

Sexton Benjamin Wyeth and the cockerel in 1873. (Photo: Archives of the First Church in Cambridge)

The cockerel took flight once in its history – during the Great Gale of 1869, which toppled the tower of the Second Church of Boston (which merged with New Brick Church in 1777 and took its name) and flew into a nearby building.

It was repaired, but not replaced. It was kept in a closet until 1873 when William A. Saunders, head of the building committee of First Church in Cambridge, bought the weathervane for $75 – nearly $4,500 in today’s dollars.

“It’s got personality”

Cantabrigians outside of the First Church community can also feel a connection to the cockerel weathervane that surveys Cambridge Common. “It is so striking, and a lot of people who live in Cambridge feel emotional about it just walking by it,” Miller said.

On Oct. 8, the Sunday nearest to St. Francis Day, the congregation joined together for its annual Blessing of the Animals. For the first time in its 150 years perched above the church, the cockerel weathervane was given a special blessing.

“Because it’s coming down, we are feeling its preciousness,” Miller said. “It’s not a person, but it’s got personality, and it’s a creature we care for. Many people in Cambridge have gotten the gift of direction from it.”

“There are people who feel very strongly it belongs in Cambridge. There are other people who say it’s a national treasure,” she said.