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Town Meeting to Decide If CPC Funds Should Be Used to Rehabilitate Church

May 1, 2019

BILLERICA -- Considered a local landmark, First Parish Church has stood in Billerica Center for over 350 years, and now it’s steeple is in need of rehabilitation.

When the project was brought before the Community Preservation Committee as part of a request to use Community Preservation Act funds for the repairs, questions were raised surrounding separation of church and state.

Next week, the project to restore the steeple will go before Town Meeting for a vote. Under Billerica’s newly adopted CPA, the CPC is recommending appropriating $52,877 for the work.

The project would restore the weathervane and clocks and would replace the railings and moldings of the belfry, as well as replace the lantern sections, according to the warrant article.

“We thought it was a worthy project,” said CPC member and Historic Commission member Travis Brown.

The CPA is a state act that allows communities to create a fund for open space protection, recreation, historic preservation and affordable housing. Communities create the fund by adding a surcharge to local real estate taxes. In Billerica, the surcharge is 1%. Billerica voters adopted the CPA in town in 2016, according to the town’s website.

The CPC’s recommendation attracted the attention of two out-of-state groups who wrote to the CPC in favor and against the project, according to CPC Chairman Jim O’Donnell.

In its letter opposing the project, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) questioned whether the steeple was historic and whether using CPA funds would violate separation of church and state.

It is a question that the committee itself asked when the project was first presented, said O’Donnell.

In an e-mail shared with committee members, Town counsel advised that as steeples have religious significance, the historical value of First Parish’s steeple must outweigh its religious value.

The committee felt it did and voted to recommend the project to Town Meeting.

“The steeple seemed to be a part of the community and we felt it passed the muster,” said O’Donnell.

According to Brown, the church was added to the National Register Town Common Historic District in 1973 and was added to the Billerica Center Local Historic District in 1990.

In its warrant article recommending the project, the CPC noted the steeple’s significance in the community.

“First Parish Church has played a significant role in the town for over 350 years. There is no greater historic representation of the importance of the church to the Town of Billerica, than to note the steeple of the church is featured on the Billerica town flag,” the article reads.

Among the church’s historical claims is a podium from which Ralph Waldo Emerson used to preach.

“It’s on our town flag, it’s kind of a symbol of Billerica, it’s what you see when you drive through the town center,” said Brown.

According to Brown, Billerica’s adoption of the CPA has opened a needed pathway for historic preservation in town. Since it was formed, the CPC has fielded several requests for historic projects including at the Historical Society House and the library.

“It’s good that there’s a mechanism now,” said Brown.

This year, in addition to First Parish Church’s steeple, the CPC is recommending other projects including rehabilitation work at the Billerica Masonic Association and restoration of a 1926 Maxim Ladder fire Truck.

Follow Emma R. Murphy on Twitter @MurphReports.