Restoring and renewing a sacred space at St. Peter's Church, Cambridge

Much of what was old is new again at St. Peter’s Church in Cambridge. The church is currently in the midst of a restoration that harkens back to the way the church looked in the 1930s: bright and welcoming. Even early in the process, it is possible to see the significant transformation brought about by the restoration.  

“The space is so luminous now,” said the Rev. Christian Brocato, Rector of St. Peter’s.  “It is radically changed.” 

Brocato and his parish are looking forward to having a worship space that reflects both the rich history and diverse community of St. Peter’s and its Central Square location. The church, which dates to 1842, is centrally located between Harvard and MIT and welcomes visitors every week. The sanctuary is also used by a Haitian Baptist congregation and an Ethiopian congregation.

1930s st peters Courtesy Photo The 1930s interior.

“St. Peter’s is a marvelously diverse community—ethnically, socioeconomically, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity—and that very much reflects Central Square,” he said. “In that diversity and strength is embedded a lot of opinions, but people are very excited,”  Brocato said.

This physical renewal serves to both inspire existing parishioners and welcome new ones. “We’re trying to grow, and enlivening the space both welcomes visitors and energizes parishioners,” Brocato said. 

The pre-restoration interior dates to the 1950s. The most distinctive feature of the 1950s renovation was the choice of paint for the walls and ceiling, a salmon pink. “It was very dolled up, for lack of a better word,” Brocato said.  The saturated color on the walls and ceiling made the sanctuary dark and gloomy. 

1950s st peters Courtesy Photo The late 1950s interior

That era's scheme for the sanctuary also featured faux-marble-effect columns with gold leaf capitals, a wall behind the high altar decorated with stenciled gold cross and crown emblems and fleurs-de-lis running along the insides of arches. The restoration will eliminate the ornate decoration, and use linen-white walls and ceilings to brighten the entire space.  Thanks to photographs and records kept by parish historians and archivists and the Cambridge Historical Commission, St. Peter’s knows what the church looked like in the 1890s, 1930s and 1950s.  The current restoration will roll back many of the 1950s additions, and return the church to the simpler look it had in the 1930s. 

“Lots of things have changed [in the church’s history], which enables us to embrace change without too much difficulty,” Brocato said. 

st peters today Ellen Stuart The restoration in progress. The simpler interior will also allow St. Peter’s historic stained glass windows to stand out. The windows were once surrounded by faux stonework, but now shine brightly against simple white walls.  The stained glass above the high altar was made by the famous Connick Studio of Boston. The window, which Brocato calls “priceless,” will be repaired this spring. Other significant windows in the church include a second Connick window and several windows from the Burnham Studio, a historic Boston company now operating in Medford as Burnham & Laroche Associates.  Burnham & Laroche  will be working on the restoration of the windows in the nave this year, a project funded in part by a grant from the Cambridge Historical Commission. 

The restoration is funded by a bequest from a beloved parishioner who recently died. 

“We were going to do it anyway, and we had all kinds of plans for how we were going to raise the money, but because of this bequest we’re able to pay for it…we know she would see this as a good use of her money,” Brocato said. 

Updating the interior has been a long process for Brocato, the vestry and the property committee. St. Peter’s has been working with Artech, a Worcester-based church restoration company. The first step was to seal the envelope of the building, a project that was completed this fall. 

“We had been having leaks over the years, and we knew we could not restore the inside until that was fixed,” Brocato said. Once the exterior was sealed, work on plastering and painting the interior could begin. 

The principal of Artech, Mike Cave, recently attended a service at St. Peter’s, and stayed afterwards to field questions and comments from parishioners.  Artech specializes in church interiors, and has restored more than 5,000 churches. 

“We really trust their judgment,” Brocato said. “They do amazing work and they have been really good to us.” 

Brocato said he expects that the restoration will be nearly complete when Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE visits St. Peter’s on Feb. 23.  “To have him here in the last year of his ministry, to celebrate the renewal of our worship space is very powerful and exciting,” Brocato said.  (Shaw plans to retire following the consecration of his successor in September.)

Brocato said that he is pleased that he has been able to help make this renewal happen during his time as rector of St. Peter’s.   He sees the restoration of the church as an investment in keeping the church active and vibrant for generations to come. 

“This significant restoration project is a legacy for the current leadership at St. Peter’s especially the vestry and the property committee, a legacy and also a commitment and investment in the future,” Brocato said.  “This is a renewal of our commitment to our parishioners and to our ministry and also to Central Square and the people of Cambridge.” 

--Ellen Stuart