Fr. Rice is dwarfed by the new triptych

By Kirk Petersen

Imagine the scene: You’re the Rev. Steven Rice, rector of St. Timothy’s Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In the midst of the pandemic, you’re overseeing a long-scheduled, $2.5 million renovation and expansion of the church, while holding fast to the faith that parishioners will return someday.

You’re terrified of heights, yet there you are in a cherry picker, 45 feet above the ground, shooting video while a construction guy you just met named Chuck installs the cross atop the new wing.

It’s a beautiful, custom-made cross, taller than you are, and clad entirely in gold leaf that will shimmer in the afternoon sun. As the cherry picker sways gently (in your mind, as gently as a roller coaster), Chuck prepares to lower the cross into place. He pauses, and asks which way the cross should face.

“Gosh, that’s a good question!” you say, the words captured in the video that’s now posted for the world to see. After considering sight lines, you ask him to rotate the cross 90 degrees, so that it faces east and west.

[Scene ends]

“It’s actually facing the wrong way according to the blueprints, but I like the way it is,” Rice said a few days later. “You can see it from the parking lot, so it’s one of those serendipitous things that I think worked out better.”

Despite the outdoor drama, the most dramatic transformation will take place indoors.

Fr. Stephen Rice

St. Timothy’s is a large and active church, with average Sunday attendance (pre-pandemic) of more than 300. But the renovation project has less to do with size than with creating a sacred space to complement and reinforce the decidedly high-church character of the congregation. (The homepage of the website features a brief video clip of Rice abundantly censing the altar, pausing to genuflect three times in unison with two acolytes.)

In addition to the new wing, which will be a chapel off the main worship space, “the whole interior’s going to be redone, really to elevate the font and the altar, and to unify the space architecturally,” Rice said. The congregation dates to 1950, but the current structure was built on a tight budget in 2000.

“Our liturgy is unique in this area, it’s very Anglo-Catholic with our devotions and piety,” Rice said. “Beauty is something we’ve embraced as one of the transcendentals, as a theological statement. We wanted that physical space to reflect what we’ve been living and teaching and proclaiming… to be a refuge of beauty in a world that’s increasingly so ugly.”

St. Timothy’s provides shelter for about 20 homeless women every winter in its parish hall, from December through March. “Some of the guests came to a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and were confused by ‘the birdbath’ in the back,” Rice said, referring to the modest baptismal font. “If baptism is this initiation into Jesus Christ, and it’s a transformation, how does our space reflect that?”

The new baptistery will bear no resemblance to a birdbath. A visitor walking through the narthex to the main entrance of the church will encounter an 11-foot wide, octagonal marble floor, supporting a large font. That will be paired with a stenciled octagonal dome descending from under the expanded choir loft, which is doubling in size as part of the project.

The structure will be directly between the narthex and the main aisle, impossible to miss. After walking around the baptistry and emerging into the nave, the visitor will get a full view of the hand-carved wooden altar and reredos, or vertical altarpiece, soaring more than 30 feet high at the east end of the church.

The reredos features a triptych, where each of the three panels is seven feet tall. The center panel, representing the crucifixion, is inspired by The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, a 15th-century Dutch painter. The flanking panels are painted in similar style by a Maria Miteva, a contemporary Bulgarian artist, and depict the presentation of Christ in the temple and his ascension into heaven. The triptych contains several references to the parish, including a figure of St. Timothy holding a model of the original 1952 church.

Other details of the triptych reflect the values of the congregation. A depiction of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of the homeless and mentally ill, honors the church’s homeless ministry. Also featured is St. Joseph of Arimathea, who placed the body of Jesus in the tomb. The church’s Society of St. Joseph of Arimathea pays to cremate and inter the remains of infants and unborn children who are not claimed by their families.

The pews will not change, although they’ve been disassembled and stored during construction. New arches down the side aisles will help tie the space together. Other features of the project will include a new sacristy, a columbarium and sanctuary furniture.

The project is funded by a capital campaign, and Rice expects it will be completed by December. In a modest silver lining to the pandemic lockdown, the construction has not disrupted the parish’s worship or activities.