St. Augustine’s Church building represents the significance of the City’s African American and Caribbean community that dates back to the 18th century.
The first Africans arrived in Boston in 1638, and Cambridge, then referred to as Newtowne, was home to a handful of African-descended people throughout the colonial period. Although the colonial and antebellum history of African Americans in Cambridge has been well documented by historians, the history of African American and Caribbean migrants at the turn of the 20th century is equally significant.
By 1921, the year that Antigua native George Alexander McGuire founded the African Orthodox Church in St. Augustine’s, Central Square (now referred to as Cambridgeport) had one of the largest concentrations of African American and Caribbean immigrants in the U.S.
A November 6, 1887 article in the Cambridge Chronicle described a structure “prettily located on Allston street, near its junction with Brookline, in what was formerly known as the ‘pine wood district’, because of the many pine trees which stood there.” Originally called St. Phillips Church, the building, constructed in 1886, was a daughter church of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Massachusetts Avenue.
A new chapter began for the 137 Allston Street building when it became the home for the African Orthodox Church community.
In the early 1900s, a young West Indian medical student arrived in Cambridge to study at the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons. The student, George Alexander McGuire, from the island of Antigua, was also an ordained Episcopal minister. He quickly took up the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights and Social Equity for the Black community in Cambridge.
He established St. Bartholomew’s Church, serving a predominantly West Indian congregation. Reverend McGuire soon became a close associate of the visionary Jamaican political leader, Marcus Garvey, and his UNIA movement. The influential Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) promoted pan-African internationalism, Civil Rights struggles, and the social uplift of historically marginalized and disadvantaged peoples around the world.
Rev. George McGuire founded the African Orthodox Church in 1921, at the height of post-WWI Pan-Africanism, as an organization under the UNIA umbrella. Garvey appointed McGuire as the movement’s Bishop, the “Titular Head of the Church of Ethiopia.” The building at 137 Allston Street, originally named St. Phillips, then renamed St. Luke’s Church, was purchased by the African Orthodox Church and rechristened St. Augustine’s. It became nothing less than the “basilica” of the African Orthodox Church organization, which eventually encompassed 30 other churches and counted more than 30,000 members across the Americas and Africa.
Anchored by the leadership of African diasporic families in Cambridgeport, St. Augustine’s has ecumenically served a diverse and multi-ethnic community for decades. Reverend Miriam Eccles became the first woman ordained in the AOC, serving as an inspirational community leader for many decades.
Today, St. Augustine’s is undergoing a renaissance. In 2019, the Church acquired a new, insulated and structurally fortified roof. Black History in Action for Cambridgeport 501c3 (BHAC) and the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, BHAC’s fiscal sponsor, is now working with the Church to match a $65k grant from the Cambridge Historical Commission and a $110k grant from the Mass Cultural Council to raise, replace, and insulate the siding (now in progress); repair the windows; and provide an ADA-accessible entrance. The Church is now raising funds to complete the restoration of its exterior.
Simultaneously, BHAC is working closely with Church leadership to revitalize and sustain the role of the church in the community. St. Augustine’s African Orthodox Church embodies a rich living history: architectural, institutional, social, and cultural. It serves and will continue to serve as a beacon of Cambridgeport’s diverse heritage.