January 31, 2023 Discovering Shara Tfilo and Mount Calvary Church
HBI staff recently toured the former Shara Tfilo Synagogue at 9-19 Otisfield Street in Roxbury, known for the last 62 years as Mount Calvary Holy Church. Designated a Boston Landmark in 2022, the building has been vacant for the last ten years, although it remains under the ownership of Mount Calvary Holy Church of America.
We’re sharing photographs from our visit along with an abbreviated history of the buildings there, taken from the Boston Landmarks Commission’s recent study report for the designation of the property as a Boston Landmark.
A congregation founded in 1906, Shara Tfilo’s members were mostly working class, Orthodox Jewish families. Founder Simon Cabelinsky (1866-1938) an immigrant to the US from Lithuania is commemorated in one of the windows of the complex’s school, an institution he and his wife Ida also helped to start in 1918. Shara Tfilo was among the oldest of the many small Jewish congregations that dotted Roxbury and Dorchester in the early 20th century when the neighborhood reflected the surge of Jewish immigrants to Boston.
The synagogue at 15 Otisfield Street was built in 1916 to designs of Boston architect Albert J. Carpenter Jr. The next-door Roxbury Hebrew School was organized in 1918 and yet the school building that remains today was not built until 1923, also designed by architect Albert Carpenter. The school could hold 600 students, and included three libraries, a recreation room, offices, meeting rooms and twenty classrooms. The school had 19 teachers and administrators. Founders Simon and Ida Cabelinsky donated 10,000 textbooks, some of which remain today within the current structure. Published reports at that time noted “a spacious yard at one side of the building is given the pupils for recreation, in the center of which has been erected a beautiful monument.”
As many Jewish residents left Roxbury in the mid-20th century, many neighborhood synagogues moved or closed. Congregation Shara Tfilo sold its property to Mt. Calvary Holy Church of America, Inc., in 1961.
Mount Calvary Holy Church of America was incorporated in Winston-Salem, N. C. in 1928. Within a year, its national leader, Bishop Johnson, arrived in Boston to charter Mt. Calvary Church in Massachusetts. A 1960 fire at its national headquarters in Buffalo prompted the church to move headquarters to Boston where the church purchased Shara Tfilo’s Otisfield Street property in 1961. National meetings were held at Otisfield Street until 1991, when the church’s headquarters moved to Washington, D.C.. Mt. Calvary Holy Church in Boston continued on under the leadership of Bishop Nellie Yarborough (ca. 1925 – 2012), only the second woman to be ordained as a bishop in the national Mt. Calvary Holy Church. A powerful preacher, known for leading the congregation’s outreach work, particularly for the homeless and mentally ill, Bishop Yarborough served Mount Calvary until her retirement and subsequent death in 2012.
Mt. Calvary Holy Church on Otisfield Street was closed in 2013 by the national church. The property has been vacant since then, although local members continue to worship together and hope to repair and re-activate the former synagogue and church building again.