Gods & Mobsters
Eight years ago, a former Whitey Bulger henchman joined a well-to-do Beacon Hill church, where he quickly ingratiated himself with a group of influential congregants. But as allegations about the ex-con piled up, some members began to wonder: Just how reformed was Eddie MacKenzie?
THE CHURCH MEMBERS DIDN’T QUITE know what to make of the stranger who walked through their doors one chilly autumn day in 2002. Dressed in a black silk shirt and black pants, he looked like he was straight from the street, with stark blue eyes, jet-black hair, and a nose flattened by too many fights.
But there was something about Eddie MacKenzie that drew people in, a certain sort of charm. “He was as nice as could be,” remembers one church member. He complimented older female congregants on how beautiful they looked. He often snapped to attention when a veteran passed in the hallways, delivering a quick salute. He volunteered to help with the weekly Sunday luncheons. Soon the convert was winning converts of his own.
It helped that MacKenzie was seen as someone who could bring new life to an aging place. At the time, only about 100 worshipers, most of them elderly, filled the pews of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem, more commonly called the Church on the Hill because of its location across from the Massachusetts State House.
Built in the shadow of the Golden Dome, the red-brick building sits largely unnoticed among the tangle of government buildings and sandwich joints that line the crest of Beacon Hill. The church was founded in 1818 by followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, theologian, and mystic who believed that he had witnessed holy apparitions. Among other things, Swedenborg believed that the path to salvation lay in adhering to Jesus’s teachings and doing good deeds, and his writings influenced everyone from Balzac to Whitman.
Starting in the latter half of the 19th century, the Boston church would attract some of city’s most prominent citizens: writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; financier Clarence Barron; Harvard Law School dean Theophilus Parsons; and Boston Mayor Malcolm Nichols. Thanks to those notable — and often wealthy — members, the church eventually found itself in an enviable financial position: It had accumulated a cache of rare books and collectibles, and its building sat on prime real estate. In 2004 its real estate holdings alone — a blockwide complex that includes apartments and the church — would attract a bid worth $30 million.
In the months following his 2002 arrival at the church, MacKenzie eagerly attended Bible study classes, a precursor to membership. “He presented himself as a Christian looking for redemption,” Reverend Steve Ellis recalled in a 2008 interview with Boston. By mid-summer of 2003, MacKenzie had officially become a member.
But a belief in Swedenborgianism may not have been MacKenzie’s only motivation for joining the Church on the Hill. According to one former member, he only became interested after hearing that the church paid college tuition for congregants’ children. “His eyes just lit up,” says Thomas Kennedy. “He said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
It would not be the last time someone would have cause to question the convert’s intentions. As fellow congregants would come to find out, Eddie MacKenzie knew an opportunity when he saw one.