It was once the biggest church in the city in its time. Built in the 1880’s, the stone structure still features the stained glass, beautiful wooden beams in the soaring ceiling, cushioned pews and an open, airy-feeling sanctuary that must have seemed ahead of its time. It could hold around 1300 people.
The sanctuary felt about 35 (F) degrees today as the heat is kept off unless needed. Sitting in the chill gloom of that room, many thoughts went through my mind.
Of all of the people who passed through those church doors through the past century, did they find help spiritually? Was the Word of God preached there and did the Gospel ring out to the souls sitting in all of those pews? Or was it a high society church where you went largely to see and be seen? Was it a church where well-heeled professionals and businessmen and their well-dressed wives attended each Sunday as a sort of badge, a credential necessary at the time for social respectability?
What kind of pastors entered the pulpit, once called a “sacred desk”? Were they men of God with blameless lives and kindly hearts as Christ’s under-shepherds caring for souls? Or were they erudite, prideful men, overcome with their own eloquence in presenting a respectable social gospel missing the power of God unto salvation?
It’s too late now in any event. The thousands who must have come and gone, sung and listened, worked and taught Sunday school have joined the dust motes that slowly fell from the ceiling in the fading afternoon light.
It is no longer a church. It ceased to be that when the aging congregation disbanded years ago. The sanctuary is now only used for cultural events, and the heat stays off when possible in the big room where so many once worshiped.
I was killing time several years ago while waiting for a son to finish a music lesson there. I found several old hymnals still on a shelf in a basement alcove. I opened one of the musty books to look at the hymns. I looked at the words to one of my favorites.
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime…
Yes, after all of our vaunted buildings and gilded shrines have crumbled to dust, the cross of Christ will still stand.
The church didn’t move in this case, it died. All over America there are churches like this. Some have been torn down, others have changed with the times and morphed into big box circus churches in the burbs where an entirely different (false) gospel of the triumph of man is preached. Others have become gift shops, museums, concert halls, wedding chapels or even retail establishments.
Will sat at the old organ today in that sanctuary, in the cold, with his coat on, playing the 1910 Kimball organ that once rang out with hymns. I wanted to hear the old Kimball organ play a hymn in the empty sanctuary one more time where so many once sang. At my request, Will played Amazing Grace. As the slightly out of tune notes on the tired organ sounded the familiar hymn, I sang along–a congregation of exactly one.
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see…
When we left the room, I stopped in front of the old pulpit that sat in a corner by the platform used by dancers. “How many times do you think the Gospel was preached over this pulpit, Will?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
And we left.