Behind a church opens a sanctuary

About $25,000 was donated for the B-SAFE playground in Uphams Corner. “I think, honestly, it’s a sanctuary,’’ said Liz Meffen, 23. About $25,000 was donated for the B-SAFE playground in Uphams Corner. “I think, honestly, it’s a sanctuary,’’ said Liz Meffen, 23. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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The sun beat down on Uphams Corner yesterday; by midmorning it was more than 90 degrees. But a few blocks away, in cool shade beneath tall trees, children frolicked on a brand-new playground. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, which sits in the heart of a neighborhood often torn by shootings and stabbings, offered its backyard yesterday as a safe space for children to play.

“I think, honestly, it’s a sanctuary,’’ said Liz Meffen, 23, who serves as teen staff coordinator for the B-SAFE summer program, run by St. Stephen’s in the South End, a mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

For years the church’s backyard was littered with dirt, broken glass, and matted patches of grass. The playground equipment was so old and broken that the children in the preschool housed in the church basement could not use it, said the Rev. Cathy H. George, the priest in charge of St. Mary’s.

George, who two years ago left her affluent suburban parish in Lincoln, St. Anne’s in the Fields Episcopal Church, to spend three years in Dorchester, resolved to fix it.

“I said, ‘When I leave, no matter what else I fail at or accomplish, we’re going to have a playground in this backyard,’ ’’ she said yesterday.

But St. Mary’s, with just 40 to 60 congregants on an average Sunday, could not do it alone. So a few months ago George enlisted help from individual donors as well as St. Anne’s, Grace Episcopal Church in Newton, and the Parish of All Saints in Dorchester’s Ashmont neighborhood. Together they raised about $25,000.

It was just enough — but only, George said, because playground equipment and fencing companies agreed to low prices; an architect and arborist donated their expertise; and volunteers from local colleges, youth groups, and Episcopal congregations spent weekend after weekend building the playground.

B-SAFE offers a full-day summer program for 450 children at five Episcopal churches and one Episcopal school in the South End, Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Chelsea. In addition to reading and writing, math, technology, art, and other enrichment activities, the children visit parks and museums, play outside, and spend every Friday on a field trip outside the city. The program employs about 100 teens as counselors-in-training, and 54 suburban Episcopal parishes take turns donating volunteer time and money to sustain the program.

St. Mary’s, which hosts one of the B-SAFE programs this summer, began the day yesterday with a morning ceremony of song and prayer and a blessing of the new playground, attended by Maureen Feeney and Chuck Turner, city councilors who represent Dorchester, and Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo. In the afternoon, the children broke in their new stomping grounds with water games.

“Even when the summer is over, and I think the hope is that neighbors will see church overall as a resource for them,’’ said the Rev. Liz Steinhauser, priest associate and director of youth programs at St. Stephen’s.

Meffen said it is a much-needed addition, because with few other safe playgrounds nearby, local children “don’t necessarily have the ability to just be kids.’’

“This is their summer and they should be allowed to have fun and do what they want to do without having to worry about what’s going on around them,’’ she said. “Because that’s something adults should be worrying about.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at

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