Monday, December 21, 2015

St. John's Church

The Rep-Am newspaper recently reported that St. John's Episcopal Church, on the Green, is giving serious thought to selling their building ("St. John's Considers Move," 9 December 2015). According to the article, the church is no longer able to afford the upkeep of the building. More telling, their endowment has dwindled down from millions to only $800,000.

Side note: an endowment is the investment fund that helps pay the bills for churches and other nonprofits. Standard recommended practice is to spend no more than 4% of your annual interest, rolling the rest back into the principle, helping it keep up with inflation. It's a lot like a retirement fund, except that it has to last for centuries. Dipping into the endowment principle should be done only under special circumstances--like a much-needed building expansion or emergency repairs--and the money should be replaced through fundraising as quickly as possible.

If St. John's does decide to sell their building, it will be a significant milestone in Waterbury's history. The Episcopal Church was the second church in Waterbury, dating back to 1740. They've been on the Green since 1795.

When Waterbury was founded, everyone belonged to the Congregational Church (which was the official church of Connecticut until 1818). The Great Awakening, a widespread religious revival of the 1720s and 1730s, led to many people leaving the Congregational Church and joining the Anglican Church (Church of England). After the Revolutionary War, Anglicans in the U.S. ditched their allegiance to the King and reformed as Episcopalians.

In 1740, about two dozen Waterbury families made the decision to leave the Congregational Church and found the town's first Anglican (Episcopal) church. Their first parish was named St. James, and their first church building was located on the corner of West Main and Willow Streets (where 7-11 is today).

In 1795, St. James was replaced by St. John's Episcopal Church in a new location--on the Green, directly opposite the Congregational Church (which was located approximately where the horse fountain is today). This was a major statement, and it established a symbolism that would last into the 1900s--if a community's church was located on the Green, in the heart of Waterbury, it symbolized the power and dominance that community had in the city. Throughout the 1800s, the wealthiest and most powerful people in Waterbury were almost always members of either the Congregational or Episcopal churches on the Green. In the 1920s, when Immaculate Conception was built in the center of the Green, Waterbury's Catholics took pride in having a church in such a symbolic and prominent location.

For more than 200 years, Waterbury's first Episcopal church has stood on the Green. What happens next is a mystery, but I'm sure there are a lot of people working hard to find a good resolution.

St. John's Church Architectural History

St. John's first church on the Green, consecrated in 1797. The architect was David Hoadley, a Waterbury architect who designed churches and homes throughout Connecticut. (Illustrated in Anderson's History of Waterbury.)

St. John's Church on the Green during the 1840s, showing alterations made in 1839. This building was moved to East Main Street in 1847 to become St. Peter's Catholic Church--so if the current St. John's Church is sold to a different religious group, it won't be the first time that's happened.
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

The wood clapboard church was replaced with a granite Gothic Revival style building, which was consecrated in 1848. This building was ill-fated: the steeple was knocked down during a storm in 1857, and on Christmas Eve in 1868, the building caught fire and was destroyed.

St. John's Church after the fire, 1868. (Courtesy of St. John's on the Green)

The current St. John's Church, completed in 1873. The architect was Henry Dudley of New York, and the building uses the same foundation as the previous structure. As with its predecessor, severe damage was caused to the building when the 1989 tornado knocked parts of the spire through the roof, destroying part of the gallery organ. Repairs were completed in 1991.

St. John's Parish House was built in 1922. The architect was Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who also designed the Y.M.C.A building on the Green, several buildings at St. Margaret's School (now Chase Collegiate), and the housing project on Lounsbury, Laval, and Madison Streets.

Interior view of the Parish House, published in an architectural magazine during the 1920s.

The interior of St. John's is one of the most beautiful in Waterbury. The rich colors and dim lighting create a powerful, humbling space. One of the goals of a Gothic style church (and many other church styles) is to create a space that is profoundly different from what you experience in daily life, to help people set aside their mundane thoughts and embrace the spiritual.

The vestibule. The dark wood and dim lights create a hushed atmosphere, forcing you to pause when you come into the building, if only to wait for your eyes to adjust to the dimness.

The rose window, which can be seen from the Green at night when it's lit up, is a form of abstract art dating back nearly a thousand years.

One of the most spectacular features of St. John's church are the five pairs of stained glass windows created by Tiffany. This is the sort of thing you normally get to see only in major museums, and only from a distance.

As with most stained glass windows, the image is created through a mix of stained glass and painted glass--details of faces and hands are painted, while the textures of fabric are suggested by the color of the glass.

The most spectacular thing about Tiffany stained glass windows is the shape of the glass. A normal stained glass window is made from flat, relatively thin pieces of glass. Tiffany glass is folded, shaped, three-dimensional. A single piece of glass contains numerous colors, instead of just one color. This is where the true artistry and skill is displayed, and this is what makes Tiffany glass so remarkable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Episcopal Church has seen its membership numbers plummet nationwide. Some former members have joined fundamentalist churches while more have simply become secular.