St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Closing after almost Seven Score Years

“The days of our age are threescore years and ten.” — Psalm 90:10 (BCP)

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on 34th Street in downtown Newport News, Virginia, is closing. (See announcement’s on the church’s Facebook page, and articles in the Daily Press on April 21, and May 12, and on WAVY on May 14. The final free meal offered through its Community Action Network was this morning May 19. The final regular service will be next Sunday, May 26 at 10:30. The deconsecration service is set for Saturday, July 20, at 11 a.m. Episcopalians first began ministry in Newport News when it was chosen as the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1881. By this reckoning the church is 139 years old as has been stated in several headlines. The parish was formally organized slightly later, on Easter Monday, March 26, 1883. Its current building was opened on Easter Day, April 5, 1900.

From whichever beginning St. Paul’s age is counted, it has lasted nearly twice the biblical human lifespan of seventy years (“threescore years and ten”). That is impressive for any congregation, especially one in a difficult place such as Downtown Newport News became decades ago.

My Family’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s is one of two churches in which I was raised. The other is Trinity United Methodist Church located five blocks down river on 29th Street. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and were married in December 1929. I assume they began attending St. Paul’s in 1930. They raised their sons there, witnessed grandchildren baptized there, and were buried from St. Paul’s in 1970, the year before I was born. My parents and I attended St. Paul’s and Trinity (my mother’s church) on alternate Sundays for roughly the first decade of my life. Then for a variety of reasons we stopped going to St. Paul’s. This made my life easier with only one children’s choir and one Sunday school class to keep up with. It was at Trinity that I was baptized and confirmed. My mother is still an active leader there. While education and career has caused me to live far away from Virginia for the past twenty-six years, I visit often and know Downtown Newport News well from Trinity’s perspective.

Mom told me St. Paul’s was closing before it was announced publicly, over a month ago, but it has taken me a while to blog about it. There is a lot to process. Our connection to St. Paul’s continued through League of Downtown Churches events, family baptisms, and weddings. Though eventually some of those family members joined other Episcopal churches closer to where they had moved. Others simply stopped attending St. Paul’s. In college I renewed my involvement in the Episcopal Church, while maintaining involvement in the United Methodist Church. It’s a pattern I’ve continued my whole life. My experiences of worship and architecture at Trinity and St. Paul’s set much of the course for the initial phase of my scholarly career in the history of religion, worship, and architecture in the U.S. So St. Paul’s is an essential part of my story. But I am only barely a part of its. The many chapters of its history are best told by its dedicated, long serving members. Especially those who have helped it offer a seven-days a week ministry for decades. What I can offer are some notes from my perspective as a historian of the American religious landscape.

Downtown Newport News

Downtown Newport News is a small rather isolated neighborhood that was once the commercial center of the Virginia Peninsula. The community was created in the 1880s when Colis P. Huntington selected it as the Atlantic port for his Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He also founded Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company there. In time it became the premier builder of ships for the U.S. Navy, a position it retains. Bounded by the three-mile-wide James River on the west, a multiple-track railroad right-a-way on the east, downtown is at most five blocks wide. While there is a continuous area of residential development to the north, on the south is a huge railroad terminal precludes other development.

Multiple overpasses connected downtown to the much larger residential areas to the east. For this reason, some people spoke of going, “overtown” rather than “downtown.” But despite the bridges, downtown is located on the corner of a peninsula. It was never in the middle of anything. Development spread to the north and east and other centers of commerce, residence, and recreation emerged.

Stores began moving out of downtown to suburban shopping centers in the 1950s. Many grand redevelopment plans were floated. None were realized. The historic Newport News High School was first converted to an intermediate school and then closed entirely in 1980. Peninsula Catholic High School stayed downtown for an additional fifteen years until it too moved away. By the 1990s, downtown was basically just the city government, Newport News Shipbuilding, and its accompanying Navy facilities.

Houses of worship began closing in the late 1950s According to Downtown Newport News by William A. Fox, Trinity Lutheran Church relocated in 1958, Rodef Sholom synagogue in 1959, and First Christian Church in 1962. The Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church remained downtown until 1982.

The Downtown Churches

The remaining five churches: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal, had formed the League of Downtown Churches in 1969. In various ways they embraced the downtown identity and stayed longer. Yet two of them closed before the end of the century. First Baptist started a suburban chapel in 1977 and closed its downtown location in 1989. An adult Sunday school class from the Baptist church stayed downtown, holding their meetings in First Presbyterian Church until it too closed in 2000. St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, and St. Paul’s stayed open.

The building of I-664 through the old railroad right-away and the opening of the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel in 1992 provided easy access to downtown Newport News from the rest of the region. New congregations moved into the Baptist and Presbyterian buildings. Today the Full Gospel Kingdom Church meets in Presbyterian building and the Dominion Outreach Worship Center in the Baptist building. The Greek Orthodox building still stands empty.

All of the six surviving downtown church building are architecturally impressive and representative of their denomination’s turn-of-the-century worship spaces. Two, First Baptist and St. Vincent de Paul, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. First Baptist (NRHP 0000774), listed in 2000, was designed by the prolific church architect R. H. Hunt of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It follows a design for a Richardsonian Romanesque auditorium church that Hunt adapted for many churches throughout the South including First Baptist Church on East Bute St. in Norfolk and Court Street Baptist Church in Portsmouth. St. Vincent’s (NRHP 05000525), listed in 2005, was designed in a classical revival style by Carl Ruehmund of Richmond. While St. Paul’s is not (yet) on the National Register. However, several later works by its architect, P. Thornton Mayre are included.

P. Thornton Mayre and the Architecture of St. Paul’s

Mayre was a native of Alexandria, Virginia. He attended Randoph-Macon College and the University of Virginia before serving as a volunteer in Cuba in the Spanish American War. After briefly working with Glen Brown in Washington, D.C., Mayre began his architectural practice in Newport News. For St. Paul’s he designed a strongly symmetrical Gothic revival building that evoked the English perpendicular Gothic period that was rising in popularity at the close of the nineteenth century. He placed a wide and high nave between structural side aisle that were wide enough for seating.

Interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Daily Press, 2019.

Mayre would later employ many of the same features on a larger scale in his design for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, however, he conformed to the new practice of reducing the structural aisles to passageways so that no seat would have its view blocked by a column.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo AGO Atlanta

Like St. Luke’s, St. Paul’s is a light and airy incarnation of the Gothic. This characteristic is amplified by the fact that its walls are now painted white, rather than the gray as they were for much the building’s history.

Mayre moved from Newport News to Atlanta in 1903 after winning the commission for the Atlanta Terminal Station. From Atlanta he designed buildings for many cities in the Deep South, including two celebrated ones in Birmingham, Alabama, (where I have lived since 1999).

Highlands United Methodist Church still defines the landscape of the Five Points South neighborhood. The Birmingham Terminal Station is Birmingham’s most lamented lost building. It was razed in 1969, but just this weekend a special exhibit celebrating it as “Birmingham’s Temple of Travel” opened at the Vulcan Museum, the museum of Birmingham history.

During the process of planning St. Paul’s, a parish leader wrote Ralph Adams Cram, the Boston architect who was at the time publishing an influential series of articles on church architecture in the Churchman. (They were later published as Church Building.) The parish leader asked Cram to volunteer a preliminary design for the new church. Cram responded by explaining that that was not how professional architects worked. The Newport News parishioner admonished Cram, explaining that he was trying to elevate taste in a place that needed it. Couldn’t he at least send a sketch?

I haven’t seen a record of Cram’s reply. Mayre’s St. Paul’s with its tall clerestory, central battlement tower, and chancel window certainly reflects Cram’s influence. His 1892-93 building for All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Ashmont, Massachusetts was widely celebrated.

Most of the windows in St. Paul’s are of simple colored glass in a diamond design. This was common in many Gothic churches of the period. Often these would be replaced by more elaborate designs as the congregation decided to invest money in glass. At St. Paul’s only two windows are pictorial. One features a medallion of St. Paul and the letters alpha and omega. This was from the chancel of the parish’s first building on 25th Street. The second is the great chancel window that was installed in the 1930s.

The window is designed and signed by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is not, however, in the opalescent glass that Tiffany made famous in the late 1890s. Rather it is in the more academically correct Gothic revival style championed in America by Cram and Tiffany’s rival in stained glass, Charles Connick of Boston. Connick took his cue from the windows of Chartres and other French cathedrals, reveling in vibrant blues and in windows designed as mosaics of small pieces of glass. The St, Paul’s window shows that the Tiffany studio could do this style too, even though it would be one of their last.

The bottom register of the window depicts five biblical scenes: the Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and he Day of Pentecost. The upper registers are largely geometrical designs. The rest of the window consists of geometrical designs and symbols. The cut of the individual pieces of glass realizes the jewel-like quality of stained glass that was prized in the age of Connick and Cram.

Fixity and Change

Like any parish that lasts beyond a generation, St. Paul’s has had many lives. These have included being a young congregation in an emerging industrial center, thriving as an established downtown church, and ministering to economically disadvantaged individuals in a part of town that most people had avoided. Along with St. Vincent’s, St. Paul’s took a leading role in opening its doors for social ministries. The Daily Press reports that St. Paul’s began offering a lunch five-days a week in 1976. Through the Community Action Network, the various aspects of this ministry became key to St. Paul’s identity seven days a week.

The study of the American religious landscape emphasizes that change is inevitable. Landscapes are fluid, especially given the major changes in transportation and population that the U.S. has experienced in the past century. It takes great determination and commitment for a congregation to last more than a generation. Indeed, some contemporary church growth specialists would advise it is unnatural and should be avoided. Yet church buildings and their congregations are often important places of constancy. The cornerstone of St. Paul’s church has been in the same place since November 1899. Very few things in downtown Newport News have stayed in place that long.

Cornerstone of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A.D. 1899 with the IHS monogram of the name of Jesus.

Deconsecrating a Church Building

In writing an essay for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Religious Place, one of the most memorable articles I read was on the deconsecration of a church building. In the article published in 2015 in Practical Matters, Barry Stephenson, a professor of religion in Newfoundland, examined the service marking the closing of Highgate United Church of Canada in southwestern Ontario. The congregation and its 1898 building began as a Methodist congregation, and like all Canadian Methodists entered the newly created United Church of Canada in 1925. Interviewing parishioners a few weeks before the service closing the church, Stephenson was struck by the importance of the building itself to longtime members. In contrast, the liturgy marking the closing of the building strongly emphasized the Christian teaching that faith and worship are not tied to a particular place, but can take place anywhere. The legitimacy of the grief of closing the building was largely denied. “Do not think of this as an ending,” the congregation was told in the deco section service. Also despite the evident importance of the physicality of the place to members, “nothing was done to or with the building itself in the closing service.” The official ending of the service was simply the reading of the verbal declaration that this was “no longer a place of meeting of the United Church of Canada.”

The service did not actually end there. A longtime member interrupted the proceedings as they were transitioning toward a reception with food. He spoke extemporaneously and said essentially, “We are ashamed that we haven’t been able to carry on.” Stephenson concluded that the rites of closing a church should “not merely be held ‘in’ the closing church; action can be centered ‘on’ the church” and that a service of deconsecration ought not “occlude the sense of an ending, and the complex tangled emotions that endings occasion.”

Certainly nothing that I’ve read about the closing of St. Paul’s or the conversations with friends and family that I have had shows the temptation to occlude a sense of ending. Sorrow and grief are being freely shared. The service for “secularizing a consecrated building” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services is quite brief and acknowledges that “some will suffer a sense of loss.” The service, however, is not more attentive to the building itself than that described by Stevenson. The first rubric that proceeds the service states that “The Altar(s) and all consecrated and dedicated objects that are to be preserved are removed from the building before the service begins.” After that it is simply the reading of the bishop’s written declaration that secularizes the building. Then “praise and thanksgiving” is offered to God for “the blessings, help, and comfort bestowed upon [God’s] people in this place.”

I don’t presume to know what would be best for the faithful people of St. Paul’s as they close their church. I do know that church buildings and their furnishings are important part of Christians’ lives. I’m sure there are many resources beyond the BOS which Bishop John Magness and parish leaders will consult. I can imagine prayers of thanksgiving being offered at the various liturgical stations of the church such as the font, the pulpit, and the table.

Just as congregations that live a long life adapt and change to their changing environments, so do houses of worship that survive their initial congregations. First Baptist and First Presbyterian now serve other congregations. Elsewhere churches have become Islamic mosques, Buddhist temples, residences, and restaurants. Sometimes buildings return to religious use after decades serving a secular purpose. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the buildings of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

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