Saturday, August 27, 2016

Photo of the Day: Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Providence RI

Last October, on a short vacation in Providence, I was struck, from across Main Street, by the sight of this building, and decided to take a picture and identify the structure. As I drew closer, I was stunned to find the following notice on the door: “The Cathedral parish has suspended services and the Cathedral building is not currently open.”

In researching this blog post, I discovered that the building needed major repairs and that the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island did not believe the parish’s dwindling congregation could sustain the expense. Still, I suspect that so much more was involved with the decision to close.

I’m not Episcopalian, but as a Catholic, I know that the decision to shutter this kind of institution can be traumatic. People are correct that at the heart of a church are people, not buildings. 

But by the same token, a house of worship is not simply a building, even one of architectural or historic influence (as this one, with a cornerstone laid in 1810, surely is). For its parishioners, it’s a symbol of their history—where they or members of their families were baptized, took communion, absorbed the lessons of their faith, wed, or were buried. Something in the heart dies when this kind of institution is no longer used.

A couple of months before I visited Providence, the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island announced that the cathedral would undergo a new use, becoming purportedly the first museum to explore Northern involvement in the African slave trade. It is a deeply and painfully personal matter for the diocese, which acknowledged its own complicity in perhaps the central tragedy of American history.

I hope this reuse will move the spirit of those who will behold this stunning building when it reopens under new auspices. But, in contrast to what was here before, the spirits of visitors will be moved to lament rather than to experience joy.

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