The History of Christ Church in Needham

The Founding of Christ Church in Needham

In the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, the Rev. Bowen Clarke of Needham’s Oakland Hall Institute held occasional Episcopalian church services in his schoolroom on Sunday afternoons. The school was located near Oakland Street, just off Highland Avenue, and north of property now owned by St. Joseph’s Church. Also at this time, some Episcopalians attended St. Mary’s in Newton Lower Falls while others went to St. Paul’s in Newton Highlands. It was not until the Rev. Frederick Pember visited Needham that people realized that there might be a strong enough interest to form an Episcopal parish in Needham.

In October 1894, a notice appeared in the Needham Post Office stating that: “There will be a service of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Town Hall, Needham, on Sunday afternoon, October 28, at 3 o’clock. All are welcome.” This service marked the beginning of the first Episcopal mission here. Plans were made to continue to meet weekly. The name Christ Church was chosen in honor of Christ Church College of Oxford University in England where the Rev. Pember had been ordained as an Anglican priest. Needham’s Christ Church has not missed a Sunday service since that October 28, 1894.

Attendance increased and interest grew to the point that participants wanted to organize as a parish. To that end, the group applied for a charter of incorporation from the state. On August 19, 1895, ten men held an organizational meeting in Masonic Hall. Frederick W. Lester was chairman of this meeting and William C. Payne was clerk. The group adopted the name of Christ Church, engaged the Rev. Frederick Pember as Rector, and notified Bishop William Lawrence. Out of this group of men came the first Vestry with nine members, including Albert E. Collishaw as Senior Warden.

The Building of Christ Church

Needham was a small rural town until the turn of the century. Until 1900, Christ Church held services in the Town Hall. An evening service often took place in Whetton’s Hall in Highlandville, where a large percentage of the parish lived. At this time, many people lived in Needham Heights, or Highlandville as it was first known, and were employed by a knitting company located there.

In May 1900, the parish purchased three buildings at the corner of Highland Avenue and Mellen Street: a poolroom, a paint shop, and a blacksmith shop. The poolroom and paint shop combined to form the structure of the church with chancel and vestry rooms. Bishop Lawrence formally dedicated the church on September 20, 1900.

The location of the church in the Height’s Square caused dissension with the members who lived farther from the church and nearer the center of Needham. This minority petitioned the diocese for permission to hold separate services in Needham under the name of Trinity Mission. Christ Church members gave their permission. Thirty-two persons signed the original charter for the mission. The Rev. Pember, with assistance from several local clergy and lay readers, served both congregations. When the Rev. Pember became seriously ill in 1903, The Rev. Newton Black filled in until he was called to be the second full-time rector of Christ Church in 1906.

Both Bishop Lawrence and the Rev. Black hoped to unify the two congregations. When the property at the corner of Highland Avenue and Rosemary Street (the present location of Christ Church) became available for purchase in 1912, Bishop Lawrence made it possible for this hope to be realized. The cornerstone of the lovely new stone church was laid on June 28, 1913. It served well from 1914 to 1955, when it was outgrown. The parish grew steadily as people worked tirelessly to raise the funds to pay the bills and to carry out their sense of mission. Gradually the nave of the church was extended to include a new chancel and pipe organ. By 1917 the parish house was added to the church building.

With the advent of the automobile and a building boom during the 1920’s, Needham became a suburban community of homes, schools, churches, shops, and some small industry. The Rev. M. Oakman Patton was rector from 1919 to 1925, a time when new equipment was purchased and a fund started for a new organ. During his few years as rector (1925-1929), the Rev. Richard G. Preston brought new life to Christ Church. He was a fine administrator, and from his time all records were kept systematically. In 1927 the newsletter, The Visitor, began its regular appearance in the homes of the parishioners. A rectory was purchased on Highland Avenue next to the church; and a new Franzee pipe organ was installed. By its 35th anniversary in 1929, Christ Church had gone from the status of mission to that of an independent parish.

The Growth of Christ Church

During the rectorship of the Rev. Harry Hamlin Hall (1930-1955) the membership nearly tripled from 327 to 960 communicants. By the early 1950’s a larger building was needed for the burgeoning congregation. Three separate services were being held each Sunday morning in the small church building, and the Church School had two crowded sessions. In 1955, with the Rev. Hall’s encouragement and the cooperation of the parishioners, architect Arland A. Dirlam drew up plans for a new church edifice. To provide space for the new construction, the house that had been serving as rectory was moved across Highland Avenue. As time approached to break ground, it was discovered that there was not quite enough land to meet legal requirements for the footprint of the new church. To solve this unexpected problem, the house on Rosemary Street, just next door to the church, was purchased. Also shortly thereafter, a house on Homestead Park was purchased as a new rectory.

Space for the increased membership was becoming an issue. Elinor Ward recalls that the land across the street from the church was to be sold and the church wanted to buy it. The land was owned by a widow in Dover whose husband had been a member of Christ Church, though the woman was not. From Elinor, the woman learned about the church and its need for the land. Apparently pleased with what she learned, the woman quietly made a gift of the land to the church in memory of her husband.

In September 1956, the Rev. Harold D. Chase, Jr. Became the sixth rector of Christ Church, and the groundbreaking ceremony for the present church building took place 23 days later. The first service in the new building would take place during Lent in 1958, with the first Easter service following ten days later.

The new construction increased formal church capacity, but the old stone church (now the chapel) remains unmatched for its history, intimacy, and charm. The chapel, conveniently attached to the parish house, continues to be used regularly for services, weddings, funerals and special programs.

During the years of extraordinary growth between 1955 and 1965, the membership reached a peak of 1,574 communicants and 2,409 baptized members, including a total of 725 people involved in the Christian program. Young families who had moved to Needham after World War II flocked to its various churches.

Christ Church Today

The Rev. Chase served as rector for 31 years until October 1987. Then on May 10, 1989, the Rev. Roy Cederholm, also known as “Bud,” became the seventh rector of Christ Church. During “Father Bud’s” tenure much of the church was refurbished and brought up to date. Christ Church also celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 1994 with many Centennial celebrations. In 2001, Father Bud left Christ Church to become Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts. Receiving the call in 2002, the Rev. Robert G. Windsor served as the eighth rector until his retirement in January 2013. The Rev. Nicholas Morris-Kliment was installed as the ninth rector of Christ Church in November 2014.

Christ Church, as it exists today, is located on one and one-half acres of land at the corner of Rosemary Street and Highland Avenue. The main church is of modified English Gothic architecture and the chapel of old country Gothic. Approximately 450 people can be seated in the main church and 200 in the chapel. The church’s building comprises upstairs offices, the upper parish hall, the Memorial Room and a kitchen; downstairs are classrooms, offices, a large kitchen and a large meeting room—Fellowship Hall. Christ Church owns the 77-space parking lot across from the main church on Highland Avenue and two residences: the rectory on Homestead Park and a house on Rosemary Street adjacent to the church.

The large and active membership celebrates the rich history of Christ Church everyday by continuing many of the traditional programs and activities of the church. But change has also been necessary over the last 100 years, and has been an equal partner in building Christ Church into what it is today, providing a place of worship for a fellowship of believers living and acting in faith.

Taken in large part from Christ Episcopal Church: The First One Hundred Years