By Marjorie Nesin
---- — GLOUCESTER — One wintry February night three years ago, Joe Randazza rode down Church Street and up to the Universalist Unitarian Church in his wheelchair, ready to attend a Gloucester High Docksiders concert and a Haiti relief fund-raiser, but he met with an obstacle.
A group of four men carried Randazza and his chair up nearly two dozen steps that evening, at that time the only way to bring Randazza into the 206-year-old sanctuary.
That’s when members of the historic church decided the time for change had arrived. And after years of raising money, drawing an appropriation of $30,000 in Community Preservation Act funds and some serious but subtle construction, the historic building now features two lifts, an outdoor ramp, and a bathroom that all meet American Disability Act standards.
Randazza, confined to a wheelchair as a result of brain damage at birth, and Larry Brooks, whose illness placed him in a motorized wheelchair six years ago, celebrated a ribbon cutting at the church Wednesday, with Mayor Carolyn Kirk snipping the red tape and about 30 other community members cheering Kirk on.
“To be able to have Joe and Larry participate in the events here is really what it’s all about as community members,” Kirk said after wielding her oversized celebratory scissors to slice the first red ribbon.
Randazza adjusted the tilt on his chair and backed it into the first floor lift that would carry him to the second floor of the historic church.
“Beep, beep,” Randazza joked as he backed past the new metal door and into the square space.
“I’ve got to learn how to drive one of these days,” Randazza added as an expectant crowd watched him reverse then pull forward, perfecting his entry angle. “This is great, though. It’s the way to do it. (The church) just got it done.”
Church members praised the church’s Restoration Committee on their fast reaction, and thanked the city’s Community Preservation Committee for choosing to invest in the project.
Board Chairman Charles Nazarian spoke of the church’s deep-rooted history in Gloucester, of its part in the fight for freedom of religion when founding members were persecuted, and of the current church’s outreach to the community — not just standing as a historic building, but hosting local events. Nazarian said church members have always viewed the building as a resource for all of the city to share, and thanked the city for recognizing that with funding.
“This is an acknowledgement that we are a church and a small group of people, but we have something to share with the community too,” Nazarian said.
Standing on the 206-year-old original wood floor of the church’s sanctuary and Gloucester’s first meeting house, beneath a glass chandelier that burned whale oil when it first lit the church in 1824, Nazarian pointed out a door that had been widened from its original 27 inches wide to a broader entrance that allows wheelchairs to pass more easily. Nazarian said with architectural drawings by Stephen Armington and the help of Buildings and Grounds Manager Newt Fink, the doorway alteration and other changes fit the room’s demeanor.
“You would never know, and that was our intent,” Nazarian said.
Larry Brooks was wed at the church in 1996 and participated as a member for years. When he was first diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he walked into church services with a cane. Then he attended with the help of a walker. But, six years ago, when a wheelchair became the sole way for Brooks to get around, he stopped attending services and events.
“Once I ended up in a wheelchair, I couldn’t come. I couldn’t get upstairs or downstairs,” Brooks said. “This Sunday, I’ll be here.”
The Rev. Wendy Fitting, the church’s minister, said that including all of the community is the church’s goal in these building improvements.
“All of this accessibility is really the framework that holds dear our fundamental principle in Universalist Unitarianism, which is there is no outcast,” Fitting said. “Everyone needs to be able to come in.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.