Few places in America stand as such readily recognized community anchors and touchstones of neighborhood character as historic houses of worship. Unfortunately, many of these landmarks are clearly at risk.
Historic Houses of Worship in Peril: Conserving Their Place in American Life is Thomas Edward Frank’s 2020 look at the meaning of these buildings and the implications of the rapid change that is reshaping the physical and cultural landscape around them. Tom is a passionate lover of historic houses of worship, but in this short book he doesn’t take the time to wallow in nostalgia. Instead, he focuses on the various ways in which these places imbue our communities with meaning — as places of personal and collective memory, as sites of cultural identity, and, yes, as contested and conflicted places. He challenges the reader to think about what is changed and what is lost when these buildings are abandoned, repurposed for new use, or demolished.
St. Louis, Missouri, and North Adams, Massachusetts serve as both case studies and cautionary tales in his overview. The New England town is referenced throughout, given its high-profile association with houses of worship — the community is known as the “City of Steeples” — and the challenges that resulted from various immigrant groups building impressive places in which to worship and serve their neighborhoods, only to leave those edifices behind as living and working patterns changed.
In his prelude, Tom Frank makes the case for why these places matter.
Historic houses of worship tell stories of human aspirations and values, of cultural persistence and change, of aesthetic expression and elevation of the human spirit. They are focal points of community narrative, landmarks in neighborhood sense of place. What happens to them is not only — or, for the empty ones, even primarily — a matter of faith or religious practice, whatever form that may take. What becomes of them is inseparable from our sense of awe at how the past is always present: who were the people who built them? To what did they aspire? For what kind of society did they hope? How did they shape what this community has become?
In the course of thinking through these issues, Frank asks tough questions about who gets to decide the future of these places. North Adams, again, is useful in part because of the challenges inherent in its processes to bring the community into conversations with church leadership about their town and the future they want for these landmarks.
This is not a “how to” book of preservation. * Frank has written this book with the intention of helping the reader reconsider assumptions, learn more about the meaning for those who experience these places, and perceive more clearly their place in society.
Tom and I connected most recently during the National Trust tour of Asheville, leading me to think about the historic houses of worship that are a part of my life and how they have shaped me.
The church of my childhood is First Baptist, located on East Main Street one block from the square in Murfreesboro. It has a presence that one expects from the oldest (1843) and largest (at one time) Baptist church in a Southern community.
I began to attend First Baptist with my family in 1966, but the personal memory that comes most readily to mind is from January 1998, at mother’s funeral. Dr. Eugene Cotey — the church’s retired pastor and longtime spiritual leader — stepped into the pulpit, let out a sorrowful sigh about hoping this day would never come, and proceeded to tell the overflow crowd of what Helen Brown meant to that community. His empathy, understanding, deep faith, intellectual curiosity, and love of a good laugh were all things I came to recognize and appreciate from my religious upbringing. Mother shared those traits, and the connection lives in new generations. Our family established and continues to fund the Helen Brown Memorial Scholarship at First Baptist, providing financial help to young women seeking to attend college.
The church engages with the world in a variety of ways, housing the homeless in the church building while also hosting a counseling center, a Fine Arts Academy, and a Benevolence ministry. First Baptist partners with churches of other denominations and cultures. Many family members continue to worship there, and it remains a welcoming hub in the heart of Murfreesboro.
Calvary Church in Americus is where I was confirmed as an Episcopalian in 1979. The beautiful 1921 building was designed by prominent architect Ralph Adams Cram, although he never saw the property. The rector was visiting New York and asked Cram to design the church. With construction activity slowed by WWI, the architect was glad for the commission. Much like the SAH description, I always thought of Calvary’s simple Gothic design as an “ideal country chapel” placed in this small Southern community. This is where I first grew to know and love the liturgy of the Episcopal church.
Upon moving to Atlanta, I joined All Saints. While a large, established congregation, this was a church transitioning in a changing urban neighborhood in the early 1980s. As we were nearing the time to leave Atlanta, Candice and I worked overnight at the church’s homeless shelter. It was a time when national political changes were having real on-the-ground impacts in cities across the country. Churches like All Saints, in conjunction with others in the diocese, were stepping up to meet the need.
Trinity Church in Staunton holds so many personal memories that my head and heart can barely contain them. Founded in 1746 with the current building constructed in 1855 (with later additions), it was where our children were born and baptized. I experienced some of my most spiritual musical memories there. It was also the first church I attended with a graveyard. The physical presence of the gravestones coupled with the symbolism of being surrounded by those who had passed was powerful, made more so by the fact that the ashes of several dear friends are now buried there.
Our family has been members at St. Alban’s parish in Washington for more than two decades, living amidst the joys and sorrows that come with life. It is where I have consistently heard outstanding preaching and theological reflection. And it is where my ashes will eventually lie, giving me a great “view” of another historic house of worship with deep personal meaning — the Washington National Cathedral.
These buildings continue serving their original use, but they have each had to change — sometimes in significant ways — with the times. In my preservation career, I’ve worked on historic houses of worship that were adapted with new uses for new generations. In Tom’s scenarios for a future for historic houses of worship, I am especially drawn to his suggestions for shared space with new users that fill needs in community service. That won’t work in every instance, but local congregations, regional and national church bodies, local governments, and preservationists all have to consider new paradigms with broader collaborations toward conservation.
In the end, historic houses of worship are places of grace. They offer gifts of beauty, extraordinary space, and transcendence that people alive today can only receive from people of the past and do their best to pass them on. They are essential contributors to a generative and creative commons where people can gather and collectively make a life together. They are places of presence. And we are their stewards now.
More to come…
*The group Frank chaired for some time — Partners for Sacred Places — is the best resource for those looking for hands-on preservation information, along with groups such as the National Trust.
The Weekly Reader series features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
Image: Old Whaling Church, Martha’s Vineyard, photo by DJB
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