Village Church Fire of 1916 – A Brief History in Three Parts

Village Church Fire 1916

Part One - “WITNESSES”

For all the changes that have taken place in the center of Wellesley in the past century, it has remained largely the same. Names of shops are mostly different, but old photos show a town center that we would all recognize today. Diagonally across street from Village Church stands a real estate office. Prior to about fifteen years ago it was a funeral home, and before that it was a private residence. The sign in front has not changed the appearance of the building.

Some weeks in the year also seem to stay distinctly the same over time. The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is one. It has a pace and rhythm all its own. Schools are traditionally closed. Gifts are tried on or taken for return or exchange. New games are played for the first time. Even going to work has a peculiar sameness, with a feeling that belongs only to the final week of the calendar year. It has its own priorities. And on the ecumenical calendar, the week includes moving from celebrating the birth of Jesus to acknowledging the epiphany.

Dorothy Katz Taylor, age 7, knew well the rhythm of that last week in the year – for this young child, it was almost a habit. This year, however, on just one day, it would end very differently.  Her bedroom window in the house across Washington Street looked out toward the church. On Saturday night, the 30th of December 1916, Dorothy saw from her bed hundreds of bright red-orange sparks rising above Davis’s department store. Initially curious, she stared out the window and then, after calling for her older sister Gladys, Dorothy, now scared, hid under her bed. What others in the house saw, Dorothy only heard;  the crackle of burning timbers, the commotion of the fire engines rushing to the scene, and still later, the thundering crash as the roof and then the steeple tumbled to the ground with the bell clanging out its own alarm. Dorothy knew that her church was on fire.1

For Dorothy and her family, going to bed was impossible. They were all anxious and fearful and worried. They were members of the church. Her brother and three sisters were always at Sunday school each week. Both parents were very active. Her mother led the music committee and was the Women’s Union president. Dorothy’s father, Charles Norton Taylor was the chairman of the Executive Board. After instructing his family not to leave the house, Charles started walking toward the burning church but the intense heat kept him from even crossing the street. A practical and well-regarded civic leader in Wellesley, he was already thinking about the sudden and complex problems that faced the church, and he knew that somehow he had to meet with his fellow members of the Executive Board.

As with any spectacle, the Taylor family members were among lots of witnesses. There was fear that hot embers would cause the stores on Church Street to catch fire, so people did not have to be told to keep well away. The fire burned brightly into the night sky, so much so that the evening express train from Springfield, not scheduled to stop in Wellesley, nevertheless slowed to a crawl past the railroad station across Wellesley Square.  Passengers must have wondered in amazement.   As people on the streets watched they talked. They guessed about how the fire had started; certainly the coal used in the heating furnace had only made it worse. They asked each other questions: “Could anything be salvaged? What would happen after the fire was out? Would there be worship the next morning, Sunday?” People who attended other churches in town were concerned, and spoke of an open invitation to Village Church. The talk among those who gathered was quiet and in hushed voices. It was as though everybody knew that something important and sacred was being taken from the town.  The loudest noises came from the fire itself; the crackling, and the sound of the water spraying from the firehoses. As the fire continued to burn on into the night, the gathered crowd of witnesses slowly drifted away.

 In Dorothy’s bedroom, the Taylor children sadly worried that there would be no more Sunday school. Their father, as a leader in civic affairs, pondered the loss of a prominent landmark which for years had identified the center of town and stood as a symbol of welcome even to travelers passing through. Having found his fellow Board members, Charles Taylor went back into his house. He knew he had to comfort his wife and children. While they still had a house in which to live, their beloved house of worship was gone. Any sense of “home” was now abruptly different.  He knew he would need some sleep. They all would if that was at all possible, for the next day, Sunday, promised to start on a note of immense loss.

1. From a telephone interview with Don Roeske, 04/07/2015, son of Dorothy Katz Taylor.

Photography: Jim Nelon.

Bradford Harding, Village Church Historian



The Fire of 1916 - A short history in Three Parts - Part Two 

The Fire of 1916 - A short history in Three Parts - Part Three