St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Power of Buildings

Intellectually it’s hard for me to digest some aspects of Christianity. This Sunday night, however, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the sheer magnetism of cathedral architecture and beautiful choral music at Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.

We lay on the floor staring up at the hewn wooden beams of the cathedral ceiling some hundred feet above. Hundreds of parishioners spread out across the cathedral; some reclining on the floor like us and others sitting in pews or in chairs set up in far corners of the cathedral. The service is an invitation to more intimately enjoy the cathedral space than in a typical sit-in-pews eyes-forward service.

The St. Mark's nave draws in light by Titanic armfuls thanks to its huge windows. Photo by Rick Wilson.

The St. Mark’s nave draws in light by Titanic armfuls thanks to its huge windows. Photo by Rick Wilson.

The choir enters nonchalantly and starts singing the service, moving from standard Episcopal liturgy to some select hymns. The choir’s harmonies fill the ‘holy box’ of St. Mark’s and warm the lofty space, echoing angelically from the rafters.

I lay there absorbing the music and counting the layers of brick into the hundreds to reach the ceiling and thinking about the herculean effort it took to build the cathedral. The result is impressive, not only as a place of worship but as a high quality public space enriching the secular city its own right. Massive windows draw in light into the cube-like church. Westward light filters through a sixty-foot-tall glass screen with an iconic sculptural rose in the center. Four mammoth pillars keep the heavens from crashing down on the congregation.

The glass sculptural rose is the centerpiece of the cathedral's unique glass screen or reredos, which was added to filter light streaming in from the westward rose window. Photo by Ed Carpenter.

The glass sculptural rose is the centerpiece of the cathedral’s unique glass screen or reredos, which was added to filter light streaming in from the westward rose window. Photo by Ed Carpenter.

Cathedral History As A Microcosm

The cathedral’s history is in itself a microcosm for ups and tragic downturns of the human experience. The congregation was riding high at the cathedral’s groundbreaking in 1928 but the stock market collapse just one year later brought their lofty ambitions down to earth. Financing dried up and cathedral was never fully completed. They dedicated the incomplete cathedral anyway in 1931 despite being in default on the mortgage.

The Great Depression continued to take its toll. They couldn’t scrounge up the money to pay the mortgage throughout the 1930’s, and in 1941 the St. Louis bankers that lent them the money foreclosed on the parish. For two years the cathedral was shuttered and empty. Nobody could afford the rent. In 1943 and 1944, the United States Army used the cathedral for anti-aircraft training. Following its run as defense installation, the parish was able to get their hands back on the cathedral and after a three-year fundraising campaign was finally was able to pay off the mortgage and reclaim ownership of the cathedral in 1947.

Over time the parish has dressed up their humbly adorned depression-era box. Almost medieval lamps with a trinity of 3 light bulbs set in a circle of 12 light bulbs alluding to the disciples the were hung from the high ceilings. In 1965, St. Mark’s added an epic 3,744-piped Flentrop organ in the rear of the nave. In 1997, the equally epic glass sculpture and screen went up above the altar. The structure still feels like an industrial warehouse with its brick and concrete walls punctuated by big many-paned windows. But the lamps, organ and glass sculpture raise the industrial foundation to an ethereal plane. It really is a beautiful church; and, perhaps, its tumultuous past and piecemeal construction forged it into a better church than conceived in its original plans.

The Frentrop organ was imported from the Netherlands. Photo by Joe Mabel.

The Frentrop organ was imported from the Netherlands. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Seattle is built on an industrial foundation too, but increasingly is turning to the cloud and to the ether for its economic development. (Sorry can’t resist a pun.) Seattle has seen ambitious projects blow past their budget. St. Mark’s Cathedral is a reminder that when the project has merit, the debt might be worth it. Eighty-five years later, the cathedral stands proudly and serenely as a testament to a tenacity of a congregation to weather the storms of the Depression and hold on to their church.

The Reverberating Sorrow of the Charleston Church Massacre

I was lost in my own contemplations as the choir transitioned into “Amazing Grace” and the song hit me unawares like a ton of bricks. The last time I had heard this song was President Obama’s eulogy (cue minute 36) for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight murdered parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Hearing this song at a church couldn’t help but evoke the president’s moving eulogy and the heinous act of racial terrorism. It’s hard not to feel for such a devastated community—their overwhelming humanity and quality of character exposed by a hateful man committing a supremely inhumane act.

The original Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was burned down by white supremacists in 1822. From the Nat Turner rebellion in 1834 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, the congregation met in secret to avoid persecution. The current building was built in 1891. Photo by cb_aus_re.

The original Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was burned down by white supremacists in 1822. From the Nat Turner rebellion in 1834 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, the congregation met in secret to avoid persecution. The current building was built in 1891. Photo by cb_aus_re.

I can’t fathom how the family members of the victims forgave Dylan Roof. I don’t know that I could forgive such a sorry excuse for a human being. But they had the grace to do that, and that’s no small inspiration.

I couldn’t help but fear the same thing happening to St. Mark’s and picture it occurring like a waking nightmare. It’s unlikely so far from Confederate stomping grounds and with a mostly white congregation. But I felt myself looking over my shoulder nonetheless.

The Power of Structures

Buildings have power—I felt it as I sat in the cathedral—and Emanuel AME was a target for being a proud and historic black church. The six black churches that have burned down across the South in week following the massacre, likely from arson, were likewise targets for being sanctuaries and beacons of pride for the black community. White supremacists seek to deny blacks their communal space in the form of churches, just as redlining sought to deny blacks private space in the form of housing.

Authorities indicated arson as the cause of the fire at the God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Photo by Claire Davis.

Authorities indicated arson as the cause of the fire at the God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Photo by Claire Davis.

It surely seems a higher power that gives us the strength to weather tragedy on the magnitude of the Charleston shooting. But it is in the hands of our government to fight the institutional racism that serves as the hidden accomplice of Dylan Roof’s act of racial terrorism. Racism is still baked into many of our power structures. Black neighborhoods are often the neighborhoods most neglected by their city governments, school districts, and regional transportation authorities. Banks still try to redline black neighborhoods when they think no one is looking. Associated Bank being the latest culprit, when HUD demonstrated that the bank redlined in cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago from 2008-2010 and the bank settled for $200 million.

We have to bring racism and injustice to light, whether it’s blatantly obvious like a white supremacist gunning down a black bible study group or more insidious like discriminatory lending practices, unaddressed poverty, and an unequally prosecuted war on drugs. A church’s noble premise is all people are welcome within its sanctuary. If only our government built our public realm to be as equitable.

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