Belmont’s Blessing in Disguise

“Belmont’s Blessing in Disguise,” Ensign, Apr. 1987, 26

Belmont’s Blessing in Disguise

When the new Belmont, Massachusetts, chapel burned down, the community rallied around to help the Latter-day Saints rebuild.

The morning of 1 August 1984 began routinely for Lu Anne and Bert van Uitert of Belmont, Massachusetts. Lu Anne was in the kitchen fixing breakfast, and Bert was jogging on his mini-trampoline while he watched the news before leaving for his insurance office in downtown Boston.

Lu Anne heard Bert cry out, “Oh, no!” and rushed into the family room, thinking something had happened to her husband. She found Bert in tears, and what she saw stunned her. The television screen showed a local church in flames.

She immediately recognized the building—it was the new Belmont chapel, the first Latter-day Saint meetinghouse to be built in the Boston area since the Cambridge chapel was dedicated in 1956.

Bert van Uitert was the first bishop of the Cambridge Ward when the Boston Stake was organized in 1962, and in the twenty-seven years they lived in New England, the van Uiterts had witnessed the growth of the Church there. They had mingled with thousands of LDS students who have attended the more than fifty colleges and universities in the greater Boston area, associated with the numerous “Western transplants” who had come East to work or teach, and fellowshipped the ever-growing number of new members who had joined the Church.

Long before the Belmont and Arlington wards were created from the Cambridge Ward in June 1984, the need for another building site was evident. Early in the 1970s, L. Tom Perry, then president of the Boston Stake, commissioned a demographic study that showed the growth of the Church to be in the suburbs west of Cambridge, not in Boston itself.

A major parking problem at the Cambridge Ward had developed when the city of Cambridge passed an ordinance restricting parking to Cambridge residents only, except on Sundays. This was done to prevent commuters from parking their cars on the streets of Cambridge and catching the subway into Boston at Harvard Square. The LDS Church, without a parking lot adjacent to the building, was allotted five parking permits, hardly enough to handle even a ward council meeting, let alone enough for ward members involved in Primary, Relief Society, and Mutual during the week. In the days before the consolidated Sunday meeting schedule, people who parked their cars on Cambridge streets to attend church meetings received fifteen-dollar parking tickets. Mission headquarters were also located in the building, which put further stress on the parking situation.

A search for land was begun. But in the metropolitan area, large sites of raw ground were rare. Most of the usable land had been built on hundreds of years ago. A beautiful, thickly wooded parcel of land was finally found on Belmont Hill, located just off Route 2. The Church purchased the sixteen-acre site in 1979.

Although the initial response of the Belmont community to the Church’s purchase was positive, residents of Belmont Hill later protested. Many who lived in the area were afraid that a Mormon church in the neighborhood would decrease the value of their property. Others didn’t want a parking lot and increased traffic. The protests went so far that a meeting was held to try to stop construction of the building. The zoning board finally responded by refusing to approve a parking lot on the site.

After a great deal of negotiating and compromising over the parking lot issue, construction of the building began in 1983. By the summer of 1984, it was close to completion, and the members of the Belmont Ward were eagerly anticipating their new quarters. Only the interior remained to be finished before the scheduled October opening of the new chapel. Then came the fire.

Although the cause of the fire was not pinpointed, fire officials viewed it as “suspicious,” especially in light of the recent rash of church fires in the greater Boston area. The fire began in the chapel sometime during the night of August 1, entirely destroying it, and buckling the copper-clad steeple which had just had been set in place. Minor damage was also caused to the classroom wings and cultural hall. Because of the church’s secluded location, the fire burned for some time before neighbors spotted the flames and called the fire department.

Flames shot fifty to sixty feet above the steeple. According to firefighter George Butler, “It looked like Dresden during World War II.”

Ruins left by the Belmont chapel fire

Ruins left by the Belmont chapel fire.

The fire department notified Gordon Williams, president of the Boston Stake. He, in turn, called his neighbor, former bishop Kent Bowen, and they immediately drove to the chapel.

“I don’t know when I’ve felt lower,” Brother Bowen remembers. “So much had gone into that building. The ward was extremely proud of it.”

As he watched the flames eat away at the roof, he thought back to the sacrifices of the numerous people who had donated time and money for the building. Many ward members had donated five percent of their incomes to the building fund. He particularly remembered some of the widows living on fixed incomes whom he had admonished not to donate but who had nevertheless insisted on contributing.

Mitt Romney, then bishop of the Belmont Ward, was vacationing with his family at Cape Cod when he received word of the fire. He returned almost immediately. The Arlington Ward was meeting in the Cambridge building, and with school resuming in just a month, the student wards at Cambridge University would fill the Cambridge chapel to capacity. That meant his congregation would need to meet elsewhere while their new meetinghouse was being rebuilt.

The community of Belmont solved that problem in a tremendous outpouring of concern and love. Father Rodney Copp of St. Joseph’s parish extended his condolences and offered his school for the LDS ward to meet in. Within days after the fire, Bishop Romney received letters from seven other churches in the town, also offering their buildings. The Board of Selectmen of Belmont offered the town hall. Other churches not only extended their sympathy but also held fundraisers to help with the reconstruction of the LDS meetinghouse.

“So many people wanted to help,” says Brother Romney. As a man of vision, he felt all those offers should not be turned away by the Belmont Ward. Seeing the good that could come from this disaster, he responded to all the ministers and pastors who had offered their buildings and looked at each building.

However, not every church had the twenty-one classrooms the ward needed. “While it would have been far more convenient to use just one building, we decided to use every building where the facilities were sufficient for our needs,” he recalled. It was very difficult to adapt the meetings to these non-LDS meetinghouses, but Bishop Romney wanted the people in Belmont to get to know his ward members and accept them as friends.

Not only had the parking lot dispute caused some bad feelings among the townspeople, but according to Brother Romney, there had been hints “that we weren’t wanted. Some people in Belmont thought of Latter-day Saints as bizarre, and we were not part of the church community.”

During the nine months of reconstruction, the Belmont Ward met in the town hall for one fast meeting, in the Catholic school for three months, then in the Protestant Armenian Church meetinghouse, and finally in the Congregational Church. Connie Eddington, who has lived in Belmont for several years, says, “It gave us a different feeling to hold church elsewhere. When we were in the Catholic school, my feelings immediately changed toward every Catholic I knew. Every time I would see one of my Catholic neighbors, I would tell him or her that we enjoyed meeting in their church. I really wanted to thank them for their kindness to us.”

Not only did her feelings change, she found that “as soon as we started meeting in other churches, there was an immediate softening of everyone’s hearts toward us. Everyone felt so bad about the fire.”

Connie’s husband, Don, a scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observes that “the fire changed the attitude of the townspeople toward the Mormons. For the first time, people began accepting us as a legitimate church. I don’t think we had ever been included as one of them before.”

The Eddingtons were asked by Bishop Romney to be in charge of a fire sale. “Because so many townspeople had expressed a desire to help,” Don says, “we decided to have a rummage sale where people from the town could donate items to be sold. We were very gratified by the response. We did little advertising, yet we raised several thousand dollars.”

To show the three churches who shared their buildings how much the Saints appreciated their hospitality, five families were assigned each Monday morning to clean up after Sunday’s use. According to Connie, “The bishop was very adamant that we not hire someone to do this, that we show them how we felt about what they were doing for us by doing the work ourselves.”

Joann Hartunian, the assistant pastor of the Protestant Armenian Church in Belmont, had previously attended Homemaking meetings with an LDS friend. When she found out about the fire, she called the Relief Society president, Christine Christensen, and offered the Armenian church for Homemaking meetings for the whole year—provided the Armenian women could also participate.

The Armenian women taught miniclasses in cooking Armenian foods and performed a traditional Armenian dance for their new friends. The LDS women in turn invited their Armenian friends to their annual wreath-making party as well as to other miniclasses, including a highly popular aerobics class. Many of the associations between the two women’s groups continue today.

Although the Belmont chapel was rebuilt and ready for occupancy in March, the open house to celebrate its completion and to thank the community for its support was delayed until June so that the landscaping and finishing touches could be added. Nearly three thousand people attended.

The rebuilt Belmont meetinghouse

The rebuilt Belmont meetinghouse.

Those who came to the open house heard a choral and instrumental concert and saw manned displays explaining the various auxiliaries, home teaching, and genealogy work. One baptism has resulted directly from the open house, and at least one other family whose interest was sparked investigated the Church.

Brother Romney feels that his ward learned some good lessons from the three congregations in whose buildings they met. He found that non-LDS churchgoers appeared to have more respect for their buildings. For one thing, food was never brought into the chapel, and children didn’t race in the hallways. When services were over, he observed that parishioners put all books used back in the book racks, neatly and in order. He observes that ward members now have greater respect for their new building, due, in part, to the perspective gained from the example of the other churches.

Another carryover is Belmont Ward’s “linger after” time, adapted from several of the churches’ post-service social hours. Instead of hurrying home, Belmont Ward members now stop by the kitchen for light refreshments after meetings, and then visit awhile in the cultural hall. With no overlapping of the Arlington and Belmont ward schedules, there is no rushed feeling to clear the building. Since ward membership is spread through several towns, and weekday contact is minimal, people enjoy the opportunity to chat.

But most of all, Bishop Romney feels that the members of his ward learned about other faiths and the goodness of people. “They, in turn, learned about us,” he adds. Although he didn’t feel there was a lot of antagonism toward the Church in the town, he does feel that there was a good deal of “benign neglect. We weren’t considered part of the church community,” he says. “Now the ward is part of the Belmont Church Council, which is an organization to further religious purposes. It has no ecumenical ambitions.”

No one in the Belmont Ward could have anticipated the great blessings the fire would bring. Although costly and inconvenient, the disaster increased community awareness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Belmont and also served to foster feelings of love and concern toward Latter-day Saints. As one Belmont Ward member points out, “There is no question that it brought the ward closer together, and deepened our feelings of love and appreciation for our neighbors.”

Another Blessing in Disguise

If it seemed like history repeating itself, it was also the reoccurrence of a bad dream. The Belmont chapel fire was the second fire in the Boston stake in one year.

In November 1983, the Marlboro Ward, located twenty-five miles west of Boston, had just finished renovations on their meetinghouse, a beautiful Episcopalian building purchased in 1979. Then in January of 1984, a fire was set in the building, totally destroying it.

The mayor of the town, the president of a bank, and several pastors and ministers immediately offered help.

The Marlboro Ward met in a United Methodist church while a new meetinghouse was built, and the bank president opened an account for people to donate to the ward’s building fund. Bishop Tom Murdock of the Marlboro Ward says, “I was pleasantly surprised that the response from the townspeople was so positive. The town really wanted us to stay in Marlboro.

“The fire occurred on Saturday; the next day we had testimony meeting,” relates Bishop Murdock. “We had a large attendance with a good number of outsiders, including representatives of the news media.”

The members of both the Belmont and the Marlboro wards will also long remember Sunday, 15 June 1986. Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated the two chapels. For those attending, it was an occasion for reflection and for rejoicing.

  • Janet Peterson, a free-lance editor and writer, is a counselor in the Relief Society presidency of the Butler Thirty-first Ward, Salt Lake Brighton Stake.

Photography by Marty Mayo

(Above) Townspeople donated items for a rummage sale that raised several thousand dollars to help rebuild the LDS meetinghouse.

(Left) Mitt Romney, bishop of the Belmont Ward at the time of the fire and during rebuilding.

Several groups offered their buildings for LDS meetings while the Belmont chapel was being rebuilt. (Above) Vartan Hartunian, minister of the Armenian Church, offered his congregation’s building for Sunday meetings and homemaking meetings. Members held one fast and testimony meeting at the Belmont town hall (top right) and met for several months in St. Joseph’s Catholic school (bottom right).

(Top left) Chapel of the rebuilt Belmont meetinghouse. (Bottom left) Kent Bowen, Belmont Ward bishop when the land for the new chapel was acquired. (Above) The Plymouth Congregational Church, one of the churches where LDS meetings were held during the Belmont chapel’s rebuilding.