It was built as a Unitarian Church by the Upper Falls mill owners in 1827. It was the home of the Methodists for more than 170 years (1832-2006) and now it is the new home of the Tzu Chi Foundation. The Tzu Chi Foundation is a Buddhist relief organization that originated in Taiwan and does charitable work all around the world.
The beautiful old church on Summer St in Upper Falls is the second oldest in the city (St. Mary’s Episcopal in Lower Falls is the oldest). While the Methodists thrived there for many years, in recent decades their congregation slowly dwindled. By 2006, when they sold the building, their congregation had shrunk to a handful of regular attendees.
The Tzu Chi Foundation bought the property in 2006 with plans to transform it into their Boston Service Center. The Foundation has 300,000 members across the US, 10 million worldwide. The historic church building on Summer Street was to become their center of activity for the whole New England area.
From the start though, the project didn’t go quite as planned. Once construction began they realized that the supports for the entire first floor were structurally unsound. The scope of the project, the schedule, and the budget all began to mushroom as the job turned into a completely “gutting” of the interior.
Later on, they began working outside on the surrounding property. Once again things went awry. They mistakenly asked the wrong office at City Hall whether they could cut down trees on their property. After getting what they thought was the OK they went ahead and cleared the woods behind the church. The neighborhood erupted at the clear cutting and they then learned that they did not in fact have the proper permission from the city.
The Foundation has been working hard to make peace with the neighborhood and the city. They planted 180 new trees at the city’s behest. They’ve run Open Houses and invited neighbors to see the wonderful work they’ve done inside. They overhauled the plans for the exterior after hearing concerns from some neighbors and the Historic Commission. Perhaps their best community outreach asset though is Terrence – their ever cheerful, ever friendly, hard working landscaper/gardener who is outside working on every nice day and has a friendly word for every passerby.
Now that the worse seems to be behind them they’re able to spend more energy on their charitable missions rather than property issues. The Tzu Chi Foundation has been involved with disaster relief work in virtually every major disaster around the world. In the US they were on the scene within hours to help the 9-11 victims’ families. They were there for Katrina. Here in Massachusetts they assisted in the aftermath of the tornadoes in Springfield last year.
Aside from disaster relief, they do work in environmental protection and they also do all sorts of day-by-day, person-by-person good works – visiting the elderly and the sick on a regular schedule at nursing homes in Greater Boston for example.
It’s been a rocky road for the Foundation since they arrived in Newton, and they definitely spent well more than the $2660 that the Methodists paid for the church in 1834, and well more than they were planning. I hope all the difficulties of the past few years soon fade away and they enjoy many fruitful years to come in their new home, doing their good works. As someone who lives just a few doors away, I’m thrilled to have them as neighbors and delighted that the sad and crumbling church building of a few years ago has had new life breathed into it.