by Alanna Nelson
Here I sit in the Writers Studio, gazing at the stone walls and slate roof of the First United Methodist Church. I can almost reach out the window of this bookshelf-lined room and touch those roof tiles. For nearly 130 years, the building that is now the Follow Your Art Community Studios was the church parsonage.
Melrose architect Joel Brown designed the Queen Anne Victorian home for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Church members raised $5,700 to cover the 1889 construction costs to build on the same location as its first parsonage. The turret, wrap around porch and large double hung wooden windows were characteristics of many Melrose houses constructed between 1888 and 1904. Inside, details like stain glass windows, and “Chelsea tile” on the first floor fireplace demonstrate the congregation’s commitment to a comfortable home for the minister and their family.
“In 1889, it made perfect sense to have the parsonage right next door to the church,” says Jim Bennet, who sits on the board of the Melrose Historical Commission and is a member of the First United Methodist Church. “Having it right next door made it convenient for the minister, but difficult to separate church and private life.”
In 1903, a fire that destroyed the wooden church fortunately spared the parsonage. The membership, which was in the planning process for a new structure, quickly raised funds to build the grand stone we see today in the Melrose Downtown Historic District.
The Methodist Episcopal Book of Discipline outlines specific requirements of an adequately equipped parsonage. The first version of this guidance was established in 1784 and is currently updated every four years. At least four bedrooms and a study was a historical and current requirement. The Book of Discipline also limits the term that any minister should stay with any congregation. As a result, the average minister’s tenure in the parsonage has been five years. Many families have lived in Follow Your Art Community Studios!
Dr. Lemuel K. Lord arrived with his wife, Doris, in 1947. Their tenure in Melrose was much longer than most. The Lords raised their four daughters in the parsonage and stayed for nearly 20 years. One of their daughters was married in the church and had her reception in the parish hall.
“Dr. Lord wore black robes and had a show on the Boston University radio station,” life-long church member Alison Burke recalls. “Doris Lord was fabulously educated and held meetings of the Women’s Society of Christian Service in the parsonage.” Until the 1970s, this group raised funds to furnish and maintain the house. That’s right! Many a Methodist minister lived in a furnished parsonage.
In between ministers, the Melrose parishioners would repaint, repair and freshen up for the next minister’s family. Members wanted to welcome the minister with a strong sense of community and continuity for the minister and their family.
As the years went by, the families became smaller, and spouses of the minister were more likely to work outside the home and church community. “We paid the most, so we tended to get the best educated, most established ‘all-star’ ministers, says Alison. “As a result, many of our ministers had grown children.”
Carol Ann Parsons, the first female minister of the Melrose United Methodist Church, was a perfect example of that. Her children were already adults when she came to the parsonage in the 1990s.
Living next door to the church in the 21st century didn’t have the same importance to the church or the minister that it did one hundred years ago. In addition, Main Street, Melrose, has changed, too. A large home with a small back yard on Main Street was less desirable to ministers with families. In 2018, the new minister moved into a parsonage elsewhere in Melrose and the United Methodist Church membership decided to sell the big yellow house.
The rest, you might say, is history.
“We were open to any ideas, and delighted that Follow Your Art could create its new home in the parsonage,” Alison relays.
I stop my daydreaming, look over to the fireplace and imagine how many ministers wrote Sunday sermons, radio shows and newsletters in this room over 130 years. Downstairs, I can hear voices from the after-school art sessions. Melrosians and neighbors gather to support a beautiful building, finding community, joy and inspiration together.
Alanna Nelson is a member of the Writers Studio at FYACS.