Human Buttresses at St. John’s

Review by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

This attractive new book by Francis Sypher is the most recent in his series of insightful histories of parishes and institutions of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Following his 2010 bicentennial history of St. James’s Church, Madison Avenue, and the surprisingly wonderful St. Agnes Chapel of the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York (2002), this year’s Strangers and Pilgrims sets a new standard for dedicated historical work on an organization within a larger parochial framework.

A major component of Sypher’s earlier work has been the careful situation of Episcopal Church life within the history of neighborhoods and urban social change. In this case, he charts the activities of the Laymen’s Club of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine through its first century (19082008) with a sensitive attention to the contributions of the world-famous cathedral to life in the Diocese of New York and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

From its foundation 16 years after the laying of the cathedral’s cornerstone, the primary activities of the Laymen’s Club have been in publishing and fundraising for the needs of the cathedral. The club’s Guide to the Cathedral Church, first published in 1920, went through 17 editions by 1965, and provided a major source of income for building projects throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The club’s other activities have been varied and influential, including donations to begin the cathedral’s homeless shelter and soup kitchen; commissioning musical compositions for cathedral celebrations; donations for sculpture, construction, roof repair, and architectural studies; and sponsoring exhibitions about the history of the cathedral. One of the most enduring and recognizable projects adopted by the Laymen’s Club is the Pilgrims’ Pavement of bronze medallions embedded in the central nave, each representing major destinations of Christian pilgrimage.

Throughout the book, Sypher shares a wealth of archival material with readers, including historical photographs and designs. One of the treasures of the book is Appendix B, with its reproduction of the full text of a 51-stanza poem by Laymen’s Club president Edward Hagaman Hall (1858-1936). The poem is a joy to read from start to finish, but a few lines give a good taste of its tone:

Thus, from Manhattan Isle the waves He rolled;
Poured out the Palisades in Gothic mould;
Brought down from Adirondacks’ cloud-wrapped sides
The stately Northern stream to greet the tides;
Made high the great Cathedral’s future seat;
Spread out the eastward plain before its feet;
Bedecked the scene with grass, and flower, and wood;
And, pausing in His work, beheld it good.

In addition to gems like this, Strangers and Pilgrims includes a constellation of names prominent in the life of the cathedral and the Episcopal Church during the century in review: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, James Pike, William Thomas Manning, Horace W.B. Donegan, Ralph Adams Cram, Edward Nason West, Paul Moore, James Parks Morton, and Madeleine L’Engle among them. Its great strength, however, is in attention to the ardent Laymen’s Club supporters whose names did not make headlines but whose steadfast Christian commitments to the cathedral’s fabric have done so much to ensure institutional and architectural continuity for more than a century.

That they have done so for a cathedral which has been no stranger to controversy is not a major part of this historical account. The focus is instead on a determination to provide a great place in a great city for “those seeking refuge in despair or confusion; those who come to celebrate private and public joys and to worship; those who are witnesses to great state occasions; and, as always, those people who love good music so much that they would even go to church to hear it.”

Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is founder and director of Project Canterbury.

Photo of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine by Louis Waweru (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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