Southborough Town Meeting to vote on $300,000 grant for St. Mark’s Clock Tower

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Southborough Town Meeting to vote on $300,000 grant for St. Mark’s Clock Tower
Photo by/Stuart Foster
The St. Mark’s Clock Tower as seen from the side.

By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer

SOUTHBOROUGH – Southborough residents will vote on whether to award a $300,000 grant for the renovation of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Clock Tower at the annual town meeting on Saturday, May 22.

The total cost of the renovation is estimated at $750,000, of which the church’s parishioners have pledged more than $350,000. The church is applying for a grant from the town through the Community Preservation Act (CPA), a law that applies a one percent surcharge to real estate taxes in Southborough to preserve historic resources. While some residents are concerned such funding would challenge the separation between church and state, supporters of the renovation describe the clock tower as an important landmark for Southborough in general. 

“The tower is in rough shape; it needs to get done sooner rather than later,” Brad Blanchette, the grant application lead for the renovation, said in a recent interview with the Community Advocate. “Otherwise, there may be a safety issue at some point.”

The stone clock tower, built in 1891 as a donation from Old Colony Railroad Corporation President Charles Choate, requires repairs because of a number of problems. These include cracking mortar joints, fracturing stones and cracking on stones both inside and outside the tower, according to a 2017 evaluation by Spencer, Sullivan, & Vogt, Preservation Architects.

Southborough Town Meeting to vote on $300,000 grant for St. Mark’s Clock Tower
Photo by/Stuart Foster
Visible cracking damage on the interior of the clock tower.

Senior Warden Mark Weiler said the renovation of the tower, an important and historic part of Southborough, is an example of why the CPA was established.

“We are the benefactors of somebody who, 130 years ago, paid for the entire construction of a brand new tower,” Weiler said. “There aren’t that many people within the parish that have a large amount of money and deep resources that are able to step forward in very philanthropic ways to save the day.” 

Blanchette said that the one percent tax surcharge has been applied every year since Southborough adopted the CPA in 2003. Voting to approve the grant for the renovation will not result in any tax increase for residents, he added.

There are limits on how a town can allocate this kind of tax funding to churches like St Mark’s.

Most notably, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case, Caplan v. Town of Acton, established in 2018 three conditions that a renovation plan for a religious building has to meet to receive CPA funding. According to the ruling, CPA funding cannot help renovate anything with religious symbolism, aid the operation of the religious institution in any way, or infringe upon freedom of religion.

In a legal opinion written later that year at the request of the Southborough Community Preservation Community (CPC), Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano wrote that St. Mark’s application for CPA funding appears to meet the criteria established in Caplan v. Acton. 

Cipriano wrote that “the application is replete with sound historical reasons for the grant with no reference to significant religious purposes.” 

Weiler said that the proposal meets the criteria because the scope of work has been clearly defined, and the renovation will be subject to oversight from the CPC.

“We can’t take the money and put it into pews, or get a new organ, or buy new bibles,” Blanchette added. “There are plans in place to make sure the money that we’re getting is specifically for that tower.”

In February 2020 the CPC voted to advance the clock tower CPA funding proposal to a town meeting. Ben Smith, the acting chair of the CPC, said that he voted to advance the proposal so that the town meeting itself could decide whether to fund the renovation.

Smith said he understands both sides of the argument, as he does not want to provide public funding to a religious institution but also considers the Clock Tower an important part of downtown Southborough. Ultimately, he said he will most likely vote against providing CPA funding for the renovation at the town meeting. 

“It is part of the church grounds and it is owned by a church, and I think that differentiates it from other projects, ” Smith said. “I am just very leery of spending tax money to support a church.”

Weiler, meanwhile, said that since the Caplan ruling, Massachusetts towns and cities had awarded CPA funding to more than 60 active congregations.  

The town meeting will be held on Saturday, May 22, starting at 10:00 a.m. on the Neary Elementary School Field.

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