King’s Chapel, the iconic stone church at the heart of Boston’s Freedom Trail, is about to get a dramatic facelift to acknowledge and commemorate the history of slavery cemented into the very foundation of the building and colonial Boston.

The Unitarian congregation that still worships in the chapel has approved the installation of a $2 million memorial project that will transform the old stone building with painting and sculpture, and create a “living” fund to extend the congregation's reach further into underserved communities of Boston.

Established in 1686 as the first Anglican church in New England, King’s Chapel was home to both English-loyalist governors and later some of the founding members of the emerging nation. Among the congregants were Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Massachusetts State House and the U.S. Capitol Building, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a doctor and renowned poet. In the 1780s, the congregation became the first Unitarian church in the nation.

But the church was also home to enslavers and the people they claimed as property. King’s Chapel’s own history project has concluded that at least 71 enslavers were members and ministers in the chapel and two thirds of the money raised in 1747 to build the stone chapel came from people tied to the slave trade.

“This beautiful building, and ways in which we worship every Sunday that is so meaningful to us, would not be here but for the slave trade,” said Joy Fallon, the chapel’s minister.

The building is stuffed with plaques and memorials to church members across the centuries, but Fallon said “as we've told the history of our congregation, which we are very proud of, we didn't know the whole story.” Beginning a half dozen years ago, the church began to excavate the history of its ties to slavery, and began posting signs around the sanctuary to call attention to those who had been connected to the slave trade.

Now, Fallon said, the congregation's "hope is to tell the full story.”

A memorial to symbolize captivity, freedom

King’s Chapel has hired MASS Design Group — the same design team behind the Embrace sculpture on Boston Common — to oversee design and installation of a slavery memorial that basically encircles the chapel. Outside the chapel will be a statue of an enslaved woman opening cages to release birds to freedom; all around the chapel and its grounds will be 219 birds representing the 219 enslaved people who have been identified as being connected to the congregation; and the ceiling inside will be painted with a vast mural of birds being released into an open sky.

David Waters, a King's Chapel Memorial Committee Member, says coming to grips with the ugly parts of the church's past is a journey of learning and faith — which the memorial is designed to encourage.

“There's a reason why the memorial is in three parts,” he said. “It begins with this statue outside in the courtyard. Then your attention shifts to these birds that are located at various different places in the exterior. And then you come inside and you find this extraordinary mural. That itself is a journey.”

The memorial project also includes a “living memorial” — a fund that the congregation will use to partner with local organizations “to do the work of repair and reconciliation in the community.” Waters said this might include working with local groups to stem violence in Black and brown communities or support people who are unhoused. It could also include educational programs and possibly scholarships, he said.

Jha D Amazi, a principal at MASS Design Group who is overseeing the physical memorial project, said this kind of reinterpretation of historic monuments is critical to repairing the harm done to people of color since they were largely erased from centuries of the nation’s history. “We know that our current representation of history is very one-sided. It is painfully one-sided, oppressively one-sided,” she said, adding that memorials often exclude “anyone other than white men.”

Amazi said the critical question confronting the stewards of these historic places is, “How do we create the space to say that we were all actually there and we were all actually affected by and impacted by these moments in history — and we played a role?”

And for Amazi, the quest is increasingly personal. She is the parent of a one-year-old child, and said when her son was born it "completely changed the game."

“Talk about a fire lit underneath me. I was like, ‘Oh no, y'all, this world is going to show him that he belongs, that he is honored, that his experience matters, that his voice will be heard.’ Every space I can touch, I am going to touch and paint for my son.”

Harmonia Rosales, an Afro-Cuban artist who was selected to create the memorial, tells a similar story. In a video of the proposed memorial produced by MASS Design Group, Rosales says she was a classically trained painter who loved museums — until her five-year-old daughter pointed out that she was not depicted in those paintings.

An image of the mural that is to be painted on the ceiling of King's Chapel, depicting dozens of people standing at a railing and releasing birds into an open sky. The grand chandelier at the center of the chapel hangs below the mural.
An artist's rendering of a new planned ceiling mural in King's Chapel, part of a facelift intended to memorialize the 219 enslaved people who were connected to the church in its early days before the American Revolution.
Courtesy of artist Harmonia Rosales

Moving forward, in truth and love

Along Boston’s Freedom trail — a red brick path that winds through the city connecting 17 historic sites that played key roles in the American Revolution — the story of slavery is rarely told. But several sites along the trail are now grappling with how to reflect that history.

Waters says he hopes the King's Chapel memorial can model for other sites the value of declaring that the modern congregation stands "in solidarity with those who are marginalized and oppressed." And also that today's worshippers seek and share the truth about racism in the past and also in the present .

And for the congregation that has worshiped in the building for centuries, this transformation is a matter of faith, Fallon said. “If you're going to love truth, there is no choice for a church, especially to tell the truth,” she said. “And Jesus said, 'The truth will make you free.' And it's so true. So that's what we're trying to do.”

Boston University journalism students Cassandra Dumay and Jessie Sage O'Leary contributed to this report