NEW BEDFORD — Thanks to a collaborative effort between elected officials, community organizations and religious leaders, one of New Bedford's most historic buildings is here to stay.

The groundbreaking for renovations to the First Baptist Church saw a large turnout on Monday afternoon. City officials and community leaders gathered to officially kick off the much needed renovation process to keep the historic building standing.

“This day has been a really long time in coming and it's really exciting to be here and be part of this,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell during the ceremony. “My hope is that this project and things that could be added here and discussed and talked about over the years ahead will become front and center of an even more rich narrative for our city.”

The decaying church, located in New Bedford's downtown on Williams Street, entered a purchase and sale agreement with the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) and Your Theatre Inc. in 2015 to undergo a $1.8 million restoration effort.

As part of the agreement, access and use of the Church's sanctuary, currently used Reverend Saeed's congregation, will be taken over by Your Theatre following the completion of the renovation. Your Theatre says they will be reserving space in the building for the congregation to meet.

Mayor Mitchell thanked Reverend Saeed for allowing the church to be handled by Your Theatre, saying that “worship is probably the most personal thing you can do, the most intimate thing you can do,” before noting the amount of character it took for the Reverend to allow the house of worship to be put to other use.

Reverend Saeed provided a humbling response to the praise he and his congregation received for handing over the keys to the building. Saeed says he noticed that the church needed work when he first arrived roughly 20 years ago.

“We felt that it didn't just belong to the church, it's a historical building, and it belongs to the community. We are thankful to the Lord and to the friends that have been walking with us through the years to see this moment,” said Reverend Saeed. “As a small church we were struggling to find ways of getting resources and means to have this building preserved. A few years later we started organizing a preservation committee, and we are thankful for all of the friends that joined us.”

Mitchell also took the crowd back to the days of the Civil War in 1863 to tell the story of the Church's role in the creation Robert's Rules of Order. He expressed the importance of Robert's Rules to the legislative process across the country as well as another historical contribution to society by the City of New Bedford.

“What happened here should really be part of the bigger New Bedford narrative. It goes somewhat unheralded that this is a big part of our history and we've contributed to the betterment of the world here,” said Mitchell.

Volunteer work by New Bedford union carpenters and others have repaired damaged areas around the building. The steeple is expected to be restored within next three months with additional repairs planned for its weather vane, tower, and bell.

John F. Shea Co., Inc. out of Avon, is currently working on the project. An exhibit of the Robert's Rules of Order is expected to be added to the inside the church, while Your Theatre is planning a play depicting the creation of Robert's Rules.

Tim Dunn/Townsquare Media.
Tim Dunn/Townsquare Media.

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