Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Divine, Restored

"...and, lo, I am with you alway, even until the end of the world."

The Lord's last earthly words might form the baptistery frieze at New York's Episcopal cathedral, but St John the Divine began a new life earlier today as the mammoth Gothic sanctuary -- the world's largest -- was rededicated following a $41 million restoration undertaken after a 2001 fire gutted a transept and severely damaged much of the rest.

As the Great Organ played again and the Barberini tapestries returned to their original places in the 600-foot nave, the city's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Edward Egan, led the ecumenical delegation for the morning service, as the state's two senators helmed the civic contingent in attendance.
[A]mong the several thousand people who packed the cathedral on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Sunday, few could be more thankful than regular congregation members who endured the seven-year cleanup with a mix of patience and exasperation. Year after year, their worship services had been shoehorned behind partitions in different sections and corners of the church to accommodate the work in progress.

“In the beginning, the prayer books smelled of smoke and you’d sometimes sit there and a piece of soot would just float down from the ceiling,” said Sandra Schubert, a longtime member of the congregation of about 400 people.

Some with asthma stayed away.

But most attended services in whichever part of the cathedral the folding chairs had been set up. “If you belong to a church, that is your church,” said Marsha Ra, a retired librarian who was an usher at Sunday’s service. “It’s a community.”

Sunday’s service marked the first time since the fire that most had seen the entire 200-yard-long interior of the cathedral unobstructed by scaffolding or partition walls.

More than that, it was the first time many had ever seen details of the original workmanship of the church. Erected piecemeal between the turn of the century and 1941, the building interior, even before the fire, had acquired a sooty coating of urban plaque.
In that sense, the restoration was like a revelation.

“There is so much light!” said Sylvia Bellusci, a retired social worker who, until the fire, used to give guided tours of the cathedral. “The angels in the columns up there, you couldn’t see that before,” she said, pointing toward the bas-relief on the column capitals about 200 feet up. “The proportions of everything, it just seems so much more clear.”

Longtime churchgoers said the scrubbing of the stone walls lightened them by so many shades that the light now entering the cathedral through its stained-glass windows seemed to be multiplied many times. The stone of the main pulpit, for instance, once a murky gray, now appeared as white as the robes of the children in the choir.

Carved details in the statuary, engravings in the stone corners of chapels — shades of meaning everywhere one looked, they said — had come to life as if for the first time.

Bishop Mark S. Sisk seemed to refer to the phenomenon when he said during his invocation, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”...
The Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski, dean of the cathedral, made the lengthy and painstaking restoration of that house the theme of his sermon, urging his listeners to bring faith and stamina to the many challenges facing the city, the nation and the world.

“Engagement,” he said — in the struggle for peace and social justice — “is the only expression of faith that honors God.”
Having seen the reopened nave some months ago, shortly after the tunnel that closed it off during the reconstruction was broken down, just know it's way more spectacular than it looks in the pictures... especially on a sunny day.

PHOTOS: David Dunlap (1,3); Nicole Benivento(2)/The New York Times