Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City
Diana, SuSu, Runt, MaceVindaloo

This is the diocesan seat of the Episcopal/Anglican church in New York state, so you expect it to be big and grand and rather imposing. It's also dark, cold-looking, stuffy ... everything you expect a church to be, you know?

Okay, that's not completely fair ... there was a large fire which destroyed the store not long ago, the whole church in the US was on the verge of extinction only a few short decades ago, and the building has never been completed. Designed by the famous architectural and decorative firm of Heins and LaFarge in a Romanesque-Byzantine style, their contract was released when Heins died in 1907, and taken over by Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram, who changed the structure and style of the building. He had to use what was already completed, but he added and revised, lending a certain ad hoc air to the place. The work started in 1888, and to this day is still not more than two-thirds done.

Another point — the 115+ years include a lot of global and social turbulence. The cathedral was conceived as a house of worship for all nations and groups, as a reflection of the huge numbers of immigrants passing through New York harbor; it was revolutionary for its day, and thus required a lot of planning, discussion, politics. The Great Depression, two world wars, many "police actions," terrorist actions, and massive changes in economics, finance, politics, and society have halted or delayed work.

In the 1980s, the Dean of the Cathedral announced that construction would start again, but as a job training mission. Stonecutting and stonemasonry were dead skills in the US — traditionally, men specializing in these professions had emigrated from Europe. English craftsmen were hired to train the un- and under-employed in stonework, and it would be these men and women who would complete work on the Cathedral. It's an ambitious and noble project, and still in effect. When you visit the Cathedral, you will see pieces of stonecarving lying here and there, outside and inside, some for sale in the shop. At first, we thought they were being recovered or renovated, but in fact, they were created by apprentices!

Why is the building here? It's not a great location. It was originally the location of an orphanage and asylum, but the church fathers thought the rising heights around this 13-acre spread looked like a "New World Acropolis." At the time, the streets were planned, but this was still very much a wilderness. They are located near the former Kings College (so-called in colonial days, nowadays called Columbia University), just under Harlem.

We decided to schlep uptown on this warm, rainy day because people we knew were being ordained into the Episcopal priesthood! None of us had ever gone to such an event, so we tagged along with the friend of the priest-to-be. It was a good excuse to wander around Harlem and Morningside Heights, too. How often does one do such things, after all? Good plan for a rainy Saturday!

The service here is described as "very catholic" which means old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II. In fact, not many Catholic churches have this style of service anymore in common practice. There were "smells and bells" meaning the use of a smouldering incense-ball swung in the processions, and the ringing of bells. (We thought about Ed Norton setting himself on fire in Keeping the Faith with one ... hey, some of us need help surviving these formal services sometimes!) Today's ceremony was long, but then again, this was a special occasion. In general, once a person becomes a priest, they are always a priest; they cannot deny it or hide it or be absolved from any action. It's quite literally stepping into a new life, and a huge step, too!

Like we said, the church is VERY dark. It's illuminated by field flood lights mounted on the columns, with heavy wires running down the backs to power sources. And though its so large that it was described as "two football fields with room left for the football" when it first opened to the public in full, it feels much, much smaller. Come to think of it, it does have a certain "gymnasium" quality to it, and we figured out that it was the lack of pews and furniture ... everything in removable — not only the pews, but the lecturn, podium, altar, the power, the sound, the walls. Such things as risers are covered in heavy clothes which do give a more refined air, but they don't conceal the temporary nature of it all. The space is rentable for everything from wedding receptions to corporate parties and fashion shows. It was rather weird how "temporary" everything felt, even if it was beautifully crafted and the furniture suited its dual purposes.

At St. Patrick's Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic church in New York, there is a lot of artwork, a lot of statuary, and a feeling of permanence. People are buried here, and you get the feeling that it's really a solid center for the many souls who love the place or at least respect and are in awe of it. There are more modernist works in and around St. John the Divine, and the basic structure of the church is the same, but there lacks the permanent feeling that is really important to seekers. Everything does feel very temporary, as if "we are moving soon, so don't mind the boxes, the wiring, the stuff under construction, the art scattered about in some haphazard manner, the shop tucked into some extra space by the doorway, the temporary info booths and walls, or the toilets in the Port-o-potty trailer outside the building ... or maybe we aren't and we're just really batty." It's a shame that it won't feel like "home" within our lifetimes, most likely. It's like the death of Heins hinted strongly at the unfinished nature of the church and its peculiar history.

Reportedly, no current construction is planned, and only one of the flanking steeples has it's base completed (but no steeple), and coffeemugs, bags, etc. which bear a linedrawing of the front of the Cathedral show the finished Romanesque-Gothic vision. Hopefully, it will someday be done. Ed Koch pointed out that many of the great cathedrals of Europe took five centuries or more to complete, and St. John the Divine is just starting its second century. Yeah, but those churches didn't have machinery and the likes of J.P. Morgan throwing money at it to "get the building out of the hole." Then again, the wars Europe suffered in its time of church-building were devastating, but more localized ... St. John the Divine considers itself a representation of the city and the nation and wraps itself in symbolism, if not stability.

The grounds are shabby in the English manner, and beautiful and symbolic. The adjacent park has a large fountain showing Michael slaying Satan in rather a graphic manner. We're not kidding, there are entrails dripping off the lip of the fountain ... but it's also the site of some great children's art. Competitions are waged among schools and winners get their clay sculptures cast in bronze, then mounted on the border of the fountain, or in stands which look like mini-lecterns.

The fountain itself is Edwardian looking, as if Queen Victoria's style had crashed headlong into the Land of Oz. The archangel is standing atop the sun and the moon, with giraffes — apparently the "most peacable of animals" — nuzzling him. I have to admit, this is the first time I've ever seen giraffes depicted as public art, and they do look goofy. The pediment is grooved so that when water is running, it streams down to the base, signifying the turmoil of creation. It's a very spiritual representation of the birth of the universe, in a sense (if you are an astronomy type ... by the way, many high-level astronomers are very religious, albeit normally quiet about it since their spirituality may be more personal than one normally associates with such beliefs).

For the viewers of Seinfeld, the cathedral is located one block west from Tom's Restaurant, where Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer would hang out for a meal on nearly every show. It's in this area they purportedly lived, and traffic is pretty jammed up even on weekends, even without the tourist bus which do "movie and television locations" tours.

We got stuck behind a sanitation truck doing it's pick-up rounds, and we had no choice but to sit behind it in the car because the parking building closest to the cathedral was just 200 feet down the block on this one-way, one-lane street! It's an old neighborhood, and the streets were designed before alternate side-of-the-street parking rules.

Will we return to St. John the Divine? Well, another friend is scheduled to be ordained later this year as a Deacon ... but as a tourist destination, it's a bit dark and sad. It's too far out of the heart of Manhattan to really even qualify as "the city" as residents of NYC call mid- and down-town parts of the island, so it doesn't have the cluttered feel of lower parts of the island. That's why poor comedians and actors can afford to live here — it's not high on the "desirable neighborhoods" list, yet it's still Manhattan.

However, with the rise of real estate values in this part of the world, formerly dangerous and undesirable neighborhoods are being gentrified as even lawyers and CPAs are looking for apartments in this area. Maybe the Gothic-looking cathedral can sport a revival, too, and maybe get some warmth into its bones.

Still, if you're heading up to Harlem and you're interested in stonework and more modern religious statuary, this is a good place to go. There is no admission charge, so you can think of it as a free museum with far fewer people clogging up the space. Of course, if you do make an offering, you'll know that this place needs it a heck of a ways more than other church buildings. And if you miss the old-style masses like they did before 1966, you could hardly find a more ritualistic liturgy, albeit in English instead of Latin, complete with smells and bells! And bishops with pointy hats! And some interesting souvenirs, too.

And, unlike many churches throughout the USA, it's not in danger of being knocked down and a new one built, even though it's a bit of a failure in terms of a completion schedule. At least, we hope it isn't. For all the problems, it's a historic building with many beautiful features, and in its way is completely representative of not only the Episcopal church in the US, but of NYC and the USA, itself: still under construction, changing, and evolving.



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