New York's St. John the Divine cathedral shines at rededication

December 1, 2008

The world's largest Gothic cathedral -- St. John the Divine -- staged a coming-out celebration November 30 after a $41 million restoration revealed a gigantic space full of light and color.


The mother church of the Diocese of New York had been partially closed and its 8,500-pipe organ silenced after a fire on Dec. 18, 2001 destroyed the gift shop in the north transept and spread smoke damage throughout the cathedral's interior.

The two-and-a-half-hour service of Holy Eucharist included greetings from both of New York's U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, who the next day was nominated to be Secretary of State by President-elect Barack Obama.

"This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it," said Clinton, quoting from Psalm 118.

"In this season of Thanksgiving, it is good to be reminded of that which is lasting and permanent," she said.

Dean James Kowalski, in introducing Clinton, noted that cathedral staff members were greatly encouraged when the senator and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea, attended Christmas Eve services at St. John's shortly after the fire.

The current Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and her predecessor, Frank Griswold, attended the rededication. Jefferts Schori said she brought greetings from the 15 other countries that make up the Episcopal Church and called St. John "this most international of cathedrals in the most international of cities."

The service began with a procession down the 601-foot-long nave, which had been blocked by partitions since 2001 as various portions were cleaned. The procession included bishops from the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches, bishops and clergy of the Diocese of New York, about 20 representatives of the New York Fire Department, drummers and liturgical dancers robed in white and blue.

The church's huge rose window, 40 feet in diameter and located above the main entrance in the west façade, sparkled and light was reflected off the stone walls and columns, now several shades paler after the cleaning. Under the window, the horizontal pipes of the organ's "state trumpet" stops rang out a fanfare as organist Bruce Neswick filled the space with sound. The hymns included a new work, titled The New Jerusalem, by cathedral Canon Victoria Sirota and her husband, Robert Sirota, president of the Manhattan School of Music.

Speaking to reporters before the service, Kowalski, who had been named dean just before the fire, recalled that it happened "right after (the) 9/11 (terrorist attacks). People were terrified that they might be related. We thought we might lose the cathedral. But we used it as an opportunity."

The cost of the restoration was covered by insurance and donations, he said. "Now it looks as if it was just built," he added. The organ, he said, had to be disassembled, shipped to a company in Missouri for repairs, then returned and reinstalled. Four tractor-trailer trucks were needed to transport it.

Jefferts Schori and New York Bishop Mark Sisk noted that the earliest visions for the cathedral considered it an international house of prayer. At the east end are seven chapels where services were to be said in various languages in order to be hospitable to New York's immigrant population, Sisk said. Plans were discussed as early as 1828 and the cornerstone was laid in 1892.

"From many parts come one body," Jefferts Schori commented.

In his sermon, Kowalski said that "cathedrals are planted to stay and to span history." Referring to St. John's strong tradition of involvement with the surrounding community and with artists, he said that it "has been courageous, at times controversial." Reflecting the cathedral's stance for social justice, he quoted civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying that "we must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed by the grace of God, lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love."