1907: The Ceremonial Burning of the Mortgage

Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.
Program for the ceremonial burning of the mortgage on January 2, 1907. (Photo: Shala Howell)

When I think of special church services, I think of Christmas, Easter, baptisms, and weddings. I don’t think of the ceremonial burning of financial documents. That’s really more a private thing.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came across a program from the special ceremony the Congregational Church of Needham (then called the Evangelical Congregational Church) held to burn its mortgage in 1907.

A $5,000 mortgage may not seem like a huge amount in today’s terms, but it was a substantial burden for a 74-member congregation to take on 1886. A burden that was complicated over the next ten years by declining church attendance, the decision to borrow an additional $3,000 to purchase a parsonage, the need to make substantial repairs to the new building, and difficulty replacing revenues lost when the Church stopped collecting pew rents in the 1890s.

A hint of the financial difficulties the mortgage caused for the Church can be found in the resignation letters of the pastors who served during this period.

In 1893, Rev. Gleason, who had overseen the building of the new church, resigned when, with his salary already in arrears, the Church voted to reduce his salary to $850 so that it could meet its interest and mortgage payments.

When his successor, Dr. Walker, resigned in 1898, his $1500 salary was also in arrears. The church had to borrow money to pay it.

The next pastor, the Rev. Ralph J. Haughton, received a reduced salary of $900 from the outset. Although there is no record of his salary ever being in arrears, Rev. Haughton was plagued by the Church’s financial difficulties and resigned just two years later.

Photo of the now paid-off church building from the back of the program. Sadly, the church itself would burn in 1924, sparking another capital campaign, and yes, the acquisition of yet another mortgage to finance the building of a new sanctuary. (Photo: Shala Howell)

In fact, the only minister who didn’t appear particularly troubled by the church’s financial woes was the Rev. Frank Estabrook.

When he resigned on May 31, 1903, he cited the puritanical attitudes of its 157 members towards playing sports and smoking tobacco, not the soul-crushing weight of the congregation’s debt.

Although Rev. Estabrook may have been more concerned with the general disapproval of his love of sports and smoking, the church itself was still in financial trouble. In 1903, the church still owed $4,900 on its mortgage.

Those financial troubles didn’t resolve until the church called Daniel R. Kennedy, Jr. to be its pastor in July 1905. To pay off its mortgage, the church was forced to sell the parsonage. The proceeds from the sale and a $50 gift from the First Baptist Church finally enabled the church to pay off its mortgage in January 1907. Small wonder the congregation, which by then had stabilized at 121 members, held a special church service to burn it.

Order of the Service for the Burning of the Mortgage, which included a reception hosted by the Ladies’ Friendly Society. (Photo: Shala Howell)
Source: The History of the Evangelical Congregational Church of Needham, Massachusetts as compiled by Edmund W. Trowbridge, Church Historian, 1957.

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