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.

Numbers – An Expression of Baptist Power

Few things seem to me more expressive of twentieth-century Southern Baptist spirit than the focus on large numbers on the 1984 monument erected on the site where the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845.

Memorial tablet in front of 1902 building of First Baptist Church, Augusta, Georgia.
April, 27, 2019

In 1983 the denomination reported
36,531 churches
14,185,454 members
394,606 baptisms
7,815,443 Sunday school students
$3,165,237,965 in gifts of which $529,283,289 were for missions
20 national agencies.

Most large U.S. denominations in the twentieth-century reveled in corporate-type reports of their power and operations. But perhaps none more than Southern Baptists.

The original building in which the convention was organized was razed in 1899 was razed in 1899 to make way for the monumental Beaux-Arts building designed by Willis Franklin Denny. It served for about 80 years until it moved to the suburbs.

D.C.’s New Archbishop and One of Its Historic African American Churches

On Thursday, the Vatican announced the appointment of the first African American as archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory. For the past fourteen years he has been archbishop of Atlanta. In its report on Gregory’s appointment, the Washington Post noted that while nationally African Americans only make up 3% of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Washington archdiocese they comprise 13%.

As in other denominations in Washington, initially African Americans worshiped as miniorities within white-controlled parishes. The first Catholic church in the capital specifically for African Americans was established by free African American Catholics in 1858. Initially it was named for Blessed Martin de Porres, but it was renamed for St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African doctor of the church in 1873-74.

In downtown Washington, the church’s first location is marked by a handsome metal plaque. This is the only such marker for a vanished church that I can think of in downtown D.C. Pictures of several other destroyed churches buildings appear on the interpretive signs along the many walking trails developed by Cultural Tourism DC. They do not, however, suggest the permanency of this marker.

Marker commemorating former site of St. Augustine Catholic Church near 1152 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005 Photo: David R. Bains, November 2018

The Victorian Gothic building north of L Street on 15th St NW was completed in 1876 to designs by Francis Baldwin, a Baltimore architect who divided his career between Catholic churches and buildings for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Perhaps his most prominent church is in Savannah, Georgia, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist designed in a French Gothic style.

St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washignton, D.C. 1899? From collection of photographs assembled for Paris Exposition of 1900, Library of Congress

When St. Augustine’s downtown building was razed in 1947 to make way for a new building for the Washington Post, the parish was merged with St. Paul’s Church, about one mile north on 15th St. at the base of Meridian Hill. The name St. Augustine’s was dropped from use at that time, but revived in 1961 when the parish was renamed St. Paul and St. Augustine. In 1982 the parish name revised again to be St. Augustine in recognition of its rule as a vibrant center of African American Catholic life. It remains so today.

Around the corner from the marker, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church still stands on M Street. With stubborn heroism, its congregation has held on its building and remained downtown to exercise its role as the “National Cathedral of African Methodism.” (The building was once named to the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Buildings in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation). A longtime member of that congregation once told me that they missed their neighbors at St. Augustine’s. At the head of a glass-lined ally, the St. Augustine’s marker is a good reminder of the vanished landscape of nineteenth century Washington.

Marker commemorating former site of St. Augustine Catholic Church near 1152 M St NW, Washington, DC 20005 Photo: David R. Bains, November 2018

St. Augustine Catholic Church, 2009, Wikimedia Commons, AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, David R. Bains, 2018.

St. Rose Church, Hastings, MI — Church of the Week

Samford University Library posts an historic photo of an Alabama Baptist Church every Sunday as a “church spotlight.” I’m going to start to do the same from churches far and wide in my collection. This week is St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Hastings, Michigan. I wondered in there one Saturday in June 2006. It is a modest-sized church on a residential street near the town center. It has interesting art and a good-sized apse. It is an appropriate place off the beaten path for this first post.

I know almost nothing about the church but later I used an photo of the representation of the Trinity above its altar as an illustration in the chapter on Christianity that I wrote for Understanding the Religions of the World. So now a lot of students who have never even been to the church have seen a piece of it.

National Prayer Breakfast Site was Almost a Church

For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.

In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.

Aerial view of "Oak Lawn," Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton Hotel.

Aerial view of “Oak Lawn,” Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton hotel. Photographed between 1909 and 1932. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress,

Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.

National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.

Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.

Proposal for National Presbyterian Church c. 1955, Adams & Woodbridge, Mills, Petticord, & Mills, Architects. Collection of National Presbyterian Church.

The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.

The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.

Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.

With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.

Spaces that Shape: Architecture for Worship

In the summer of 2017, the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University produced a nine-minute video on understanding church architecture. It was used in Animate, their week-long summer program for teenagers and others. I provided the narration. I’ll be referring to it in a talk at a All Saints’ Episcopal Church this week, so I’m sharing it here for easy access. I hope you find it helpful.

They produced a teaching activity handout based on my notes. If you are interested, let me know, and I’ll see if we can track down a copy.

St. John the Evangelist, Philip Schaff, and Christian Unity

Today, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. While internal evidence in the Bible suggests otherwise, tradition identifies him as the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of all five books in the New Testament ascribed to a John. As such his role in the New Testament is rivaled only by Peter and Paul. He is recognized in Christian art by usually being beardless or symbolized by an eagle or a chalice with a snake.

St. John the Evangelist represented as on the base of pulpit in Cordoba Cathedal, Spain, and in a rose window at St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Co-editing the works of the pioneering church historian Philip Schaff with my colleague Ted Trost, I learned much about the adulation John has received through the centuries. Schaff was born almost 200 years ago on January 1, 1819. Next week the bicentennial of his birth will be celebrated at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, which he founded.

In his first book, The Principle of Protestantism (1845), Schaff wrote

John, the apostle of love, has not without reason been styled by the church the “Theologian” per eminentiam. For by the eagle flight of his believing speculation into the depths of God and his Word as existing before the world and then made flesh for our salvation, he may be said to have led the way to Christian theology in its bold and glorious course. His love is only the strong will-force of knowledge, his knowledge but the keen vision of love.

The whole history of the Church furnishes proof that the men who have exerted the greatest and most happy influence, the wakers of a new life, the pillars of the temple of God, have always been distinguished also above there contemporaries by a thorough scientific cultivation.

Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John W. Nevin, in The Development of the Church, edited by David R. Bains and Theodore Louis Trost (Wipf and Stock, 2017), 175-6.

Schaff cites a medieval Latin hymn in praise of John. In his St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology, Jeffery Hamburger translates it:

He flies like a bird without limit,
in that neither seer nor prophet
ever flew higher.
As much what would be fulfilled as what has been,
never were so many secrets seen
so purely by a pure man.

Cited in Development of the Church, 175

Schaff was an ecumenist, passionately concerned with the reunion of what he, following his German teachers, called the church of Peter (Roman Catholicism) with the church of Paul (Protestantism) in the coming church of John. He closes the Principle of Protestantism stating

The revivification of the spirit of John the evangelist, in the Church, will open the way directly for his second coming, to establish the Church absolute and triumphant, in which law and freedom shall both be perfect in one, and the results of all previous development appear conserved as the constituent elements of a higher and more
glorious state. To this refers the mystical sense of Christ’s word, John 21:22, where he speaks enigmatically of John’s tarrying till his second coming.

Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, in The Development of the Church, 190.

With such an emphasis on John–the beloved disciple, the theologian, the evangelist, the author of Revelation–as the embodiment of the coming church of the future, it is unsurprising that Americans would name him patron of their largest and most ambitious church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Its name was fixed in a 1873 charter when Schaff was in his prime at age 54. Its cornerstone was laid on this day in 1892 a year before Schaff’s death. Its structure, like the reunion of Christ’s visible church is still unfinished.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, New York. Crossing and choir (interior, 2009), Exterior from the south.

While for Schaff, the key attributes of John were knowledge and love, the traditional Anglican collect for this feast highlights the theme of the light of truth appropriate for this dark time of year in the northern hemisphere. The phrasing in the Church of England’s Common Worship captures it best.

Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church:
that, being enlightened by the teaching of your most blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

International Church of Cannabis

Next week at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, I will once again have the privilege and pleasure of co-leading a tour of intriguing religious sites. One interesting place that we haven’t been able to include on this year’s tour is the International Church of Cannabis. That’s right, it is a church formed around the “lifestance” that “an individual’s spiritual journey, and search for meaning, is one of self-discovery that can be accelerated with ritual cannabis use.” Members of the church refer to themselves as Elevationists.

The Gothic-revival building the church occupies in the Washington Park neighborhood was built by in 1904 for the congregation of Trinity Lutheran.

Barnitz Memorial Lutheran Church – So. Logan & E. Dakota [1910-1930?], Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library
The congregation soon renamed itself Barnitz Memorial Lutheran in honor of Lutheran pastor and missionary, Samuel Bacon Barnitz (1838–1901). Later it served for over twenty years as the home of Mount Calvary Apostolic Church.

After Mount Calvary left in 2015, the Elevationists purchased it and transformed it with the help of two artists. Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Scharf covered the doors and filed the front windows with a cosmic design. Spanish muralist Okuda San Miguel transformed the sanctuary interior with brightly colored geometric murals in his distinctive style.

International Church of Cannabis, January 2018, Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

International Church of Cannabis
Ceiling and rear wall, Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

A full gallery of photographs is available in a April 2017 HuffPost article.

On their website, the Elevationists advertise hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons when the church is open to the public. Because Colorado law does not allow the public consumption of marijuana, cannabis may not be used during these times. That is reserved for member-only events.

Telling the History of Religion in Toronto through Congregations

Roberto Perin’s Many Rooms of this House: Religious Diversity in Toronto since 1840 tells the history of religion life in Toronto’s West End over a 160-year period. It offers a kind of composite biography of the many Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist congregations that have been centers of community life.  The book is stunning in its detail and scope. You can read my full review at Reading Religion.