HAVERHILL — A church that opened its doors in downtown Haverhill about a year ago is leaving the city, but has not abandoned its flock.
Phoenix Rising United Church of Christ recently moved out of the 192 Merrimack St. building it shared with Ocasio's True Martial Arts. Local developer Sal Lupoli is demolishing the 192 Merrimack St. building to create public parking as part of a new 10-story development he has planned for downtown Haverhill. In support of the project, Lupoli plans to create two levels of public parking (57 spaces) at 192 Merrimack St., which he owns. Green space will be created for the public to enjoy, too.
Phoenix Rising Pastor Donna Spencer Collins says Lupoli provided her with an even larger space, at no additional cost, above his Salvatore's Restaurant at the Riverwalk complex in Lawrence. The church now occupies third-floor space that had once housed Lupoli's corporate offices, she said.
"Very generously, Sal also helped with our moving costs," Collins said. "He really went above and beyond."
Ocasio's is in the process of relocating to the Landmark Building on Merrimack Street in Haverhill.
Collins said that when her church moved in last year, she knew it was only a matter of time before she'd have to leave. Last month, she got a call from Lupoli.
"Sal invited me and my administrator Shawna Kelley, to his office at the Riverwalk to talk about moving us to another location," she said. "I told Sal I really didn't want to leave Haverhill, but he assured us he would take care of us. So we agreed to move and at that point, Shawna and I both had a strong sense of peace."
She said she was very relieved that they did not have to search for another space.
"Then when he told us what he had for us, we realized it was a step up with a beautiful view and location," she said. " A week later we received an email welcoming us to the Lupoli family."
She said her church held its first service there Sunday, Oct. 1.
History of the church
Phoenix Rising can trace its roots back to where the Worshiping Oak stood in front of the Buttonwoods Museum before it was toppled by a storm earlier this year.
It was the first place John Ward, founder and first minister of Haverhill’s new community, gathered in 1642. The First Congregational Church of Haverhill operated in Monument Square since 1852. By 2008, the congregation had dwindled and the church building was sold.
Collins was hired in 2014 by the search committee of the First Congregational Church to begin a new church. They put their history into her hands.
"The very first service I had was on Easter Sunday, 2015, at the Worshipping Oak," she said. "We met at the Buttonwoods once a month while I continued to build our church community."
Then in September of 2016 she presided over her first services at the new Phoenix Rising in the 192 Merrimack St. building.
"We are open and affirming to all people, as we are progressive Christians," she said.
Her congregation is currently comprised of about 55 members, including children. About 85 percent are from Haverhill.
"What's interesting about our congregation is that everyone has a voice," she said. "They don't really see the boundaries of Haverhill and Lawrence. It's in their neighborhood still, so it's not like they've left Haverhill."
Collins said her church will still have a presence in Haverhill by holding mid-week gatherings Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Artist Cafe, 22 Washington St., courtesy of owner Donald Herook.
"We will be doing several different things, such as a book discussion group we are starting and we'll also have crafting done around conversation, and other activities in short, six-week blocks so that no one gets bored," she said
"Our congregation is very excited as we are all about building a community of people," she added. "I've met with every member and not one has had any misgivings about moving to Lawrence."