Park Street Church

The Freedom Trail site where social justice began

Park Street Church on Boston's Freedom Trail
Park Street Church on Boston's Freedom Trail

The soaring 217 foot steeple of the Park Street Church used to be the first landmark that people saw when coming into Boston.

Now, although the tall buildings of modern Boston frame it, the steeple still reaches for the sky.

Located at the corner of Tremont and Park Streets across from Boston Common, the church stands on a site filled with history that ensures its place on Boston's Freedom Trail.

But the church, built in 1809, is actually one of the buildings on the Trail, and is most famous for events that occurred almost 100 years after the War for Independence.

 

Colonial Beginnings

Park Street Church, built well after the American Revolution, occupies land that once belonged to Boston Common.

Because the Common was considered public land, everything from grazing livestock to executions took place there. The Common was also the logical site for public buildings and other uses, such as graveyards.

The Puritans built one of these public buildings, a long wooden structure called the Old Granary, in 1729 in the space now occupied by the church.

Almost 100 years after the first Puritans settled on the Boston peninsula and endured their first winter of near-starvation, periodic food shortages still threatened the Colony. During the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Colony's poorest citizens rioted because they had no food.

To prevent more riots, the Granary provided storage space for grain to be sold at low prices to the poor.

Adjacent buildings included a workhouse, where the poor and the lazy were forced to work, an almshouse where the poor could receive money or other charitable donations, and a prison to house criminals and the insane. A graveyard that became known as the Granary Burying Ground had occupied a couple of acres since 1660.

Park Street Church on Boston's Freedom Trail
Granary Burying Ground next to Park Street Church

After rats and weevils infested the Granary, the Town of Boston sold the building to new owners who cleaned it out and used it for commercial purposes. The first sails for the USS Constitution were stitched here.

By 1796, the Old Granary had become quite dilapidated. Meanwhile, Downtown Boston had expanded enough so that the site, once a dank corner, began to seem more desirable.

 

Park Street Church is Built

Park Street Church Steeple - BostonWhen designing Park Street Church, English architect Peter Banner combined some of Charles Bulfinch's design elements with the soaring spires that Sir Christopher Wren had popularized in London. This proved to be an inspired combination.

Upon completion in 1809, the church commanded immediate attention as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

It still does.

Unfortunately, the steeple had to be shortened after becoming unstable in the late 19th century - but the church continues to be one of Boston's loveliest sights.

Whether the Boston weather is sunny, full of dark clouds, or even producing snowflakes, you're sure to enjoy the vision of the graceful steeple against the sky.

Park Street Church began as a Trinitarian Evangelical congregation, and remains so today. The original founders broke off from Old South Church in 1804 due to concerns about the growing influence of Unitarianism, and formed a "Religious Improvement Society." They formally organized themselves as a congregation in 1809 prior to building Park Street Church.

Partly because preachers delivered so many thunderous sermons emphasizing hellfire and brimstone from its pulpit and partly because a crypt in the basement contained real "brimstone" (sulfur, a component of gunpowder) during the War of 1812, the corner of Park and Tremont where the church stands is known as Brimstone Corner.

 

Freedom and Social Justice

Park Street Church's contributions to the nation and the world have not been limited to religion. A number of firsts closely associated with American freedom and the church's mission of human rights and social justice have taken place here.

In 1829, William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major speech in Boston against slavery from the pulpit. In 1831, the Park Street Church Children's Choir sang Samuel Francis Smith's America (My Country 'Tis of Thee) here for the first time.

The Boston chapter of the NAACP and prison reform both had their beginnings at the Park Street Church.

Additional important Park Street Church "beginnings" include the 1815 launch of the world-renowned Handel and Haydn Society of Boston (America's first oratorio society), the Animal Rescue League (America's first humanitarian society), and the American Temperance Society (a group opposed to drinking alcoholic beverages).

In addition to being part of the Freedom Trail, Boston's Park Street Church conducts well-attended Sunday worship services and offers numerous community activities.

The church welcomes Freedom Trail and other visitors from Tuesday through Saturday, but is reserved for church services on Sundays.

 

Insider tips

If you are visiting the Park Street Church because it is part of the Freedom Trail, you may not feel a particular need to explore the inside of the church. For photos, the best views are from the outside. I find that the best place for viewing and taking photos is in Tremont Street. If you try this, be careful not to get hit by a car!

As a better alternative to standing in the middle of the street, try the sidewalk along Boston Common. Because the steeple is so tall, you'll have to peer up at it. Be sure to check out the weathervane at the top of it.

The busy Downtown Crossing shopping area is just a couple of blocks away. If you're interesting in shopping or eating in this area, find the street corner where Park intersects with Tremont, jog slightly to the right and continue on what would still be Park Street if it were straight - it's not, of course, plus the name changes to Winter Street. Walk two short blocks to Washington Street, the main intersection of the pedestrian-only (except for trucks and occasional police cars) Downtown Crossing.

Food Court in Downtown Crossing in BostonYou'll find dozens and dozens of moderately priced chain stores, plus lots of unique independently owned Boston stores. 

Also, if you're hungry, you'll find a very good food court with some great inexpensive choices on the left side (if you're facing away from the Common) of Winter Street, plus lots of other good places to eat nearby.

Or, for additional choices, head to one of Chinatown's many affordable Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, or other Asian restaurants.

To get to Chinatown from Winter Street, turn right on Washington Street and walk about 5 short blocks (4-5 minutes) to Essex Street.

 

Details and Directions

Open: Tuesday - Saturday, 9:30am - 3:30pm for visitors; worship services on Sundays
Location: One Park Street, Downtown Boston
Closest T station: Red and Green Lines/Park Street
For more information: Call 617-523-3383

 

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