IN THE FALL of 2002 in suburban St. Louis, Hank Johnson prayed in St. David’s Chapel. Its simple sanctuary comprised a white altar, 10 white pews, red carpet, clear windows -- all trimmed in cherry wood. “There was such a special peace, a special reverence to that chapel,” Johnson remembered. But in the background, he could almost hear the whoosh-bam! of the wrecking ball that would raze the buildings of Thompson Retreat Center, on whose campus St. David’s had sat since 1962.
Today, through the offices of Johnson and his wife, Jackie, the 20-foot by 44-foot chapel has been redeemed, removed and replicated near their 13-year-old vineyards in Ste. Genevieve County, Mo., about 90 miles south of St. Louis.
“We came up with the harebrained scheme to save St. David’s, and, to our surprise, the bishop said, ‘Yes,’” Johnson recalled. “All along the line, there was nary a naysayer.”
It took five months to do the paperwork. The Johnsons met with Peter Van Horne, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, where they worship over the county line in nearby Farmington, Mo. They met with the governing board of All Saints’, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Missouri and Bishop George Wayne Smith. The bishop’s requirements included keeping the chapel free. Bishop Smith agreed with Van Horne’s suggestion to rename the chapel to honor St. Vincent of Saragossa (d. 304), patron of vintners.
The Johnsons bought the chapel from the diocese and lease it back to the diocese on very long terms.
Erecting a privately owned building on privately owned land and consecrating that building as a place of worship for the Episcopal diocese as an outreach program of All Saints’ required thinking “way outside of the box,” said Van Horne. The Johnsons were undaunted by the work involved because they are rehabbers from St. Louis, a hardy lot. And they are Episcopalians, an equally hardy lot in that neck of the woods: St. Vincent’s now provides the first Episcopal church in Ste. Genevieve County since French Roman Catholic missionaries began converting indigenous Indians around 1722.
Deciding about the best site
The church couldn’t be moved “as-is” because it sat on a slab. The Johnsons consulted with Jerry Lee, the architectural-restoration contractor with whom they’d worked for years. Lee measured every inch of the chapel so they could replicate the design with two additions: extending an outside wall four feet to accommodate worshippers in wheelchairs and building an undercroft with a pastor’s study, a dressing room for wedding parties and restrooms. Then they packed St. David’s in two tractor-trailers – altar, steeple, interior walls, choir loft, Tracker organ and all – and stored it at the Johnsons’ vineyards.
To determine the best site for the church, the Johnsons picnicked around their vineyards. “The view we chose is spectacular,” Johnson said. “You see a wooded hillside out the windows on one side and deep woods of red cedar, white oak, redbud and dogwood visible from the other.”
On March 23, 2003, they broke ground. Following an ancient liturgy, Van Horne set stakes to mark the four corners of the boundaries, ran a cord around them and corded an X diagonally inside. “We broke ground where the cords crossed, where the altar was to be,” said Van Horne. “The hard, dry ground took a fair amount of oomph to turn.”
Construction proceeded through last summer, and proof that Lee’s measurements had been perfect came when the chapel’s red carpet fit exactly.
On October 5, 2003, St. Vincent’s-in-the-Vineyards was consecrated. With his crosier, Bishop Smith made the sign of the cross on the chapel’s threshold and prayed, “Peace be to this house and to all who enter here.” Hank Johnson prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, make this a temple of your presence and a house of prayer.” Peter Van Horne said in his sermon, “May the people of God who come after us look back on what we are doing today and be grateful for the vision of St.Vincent’s-in-the-Vineyard.”
Van Horne’s sermon restated the chapel’s three-fold ministry: as an extension of All Saints’; as a “beautiful setting” for meetings, retreats and services by congregations, committees and other entities of the Diocese of Missouri; and as a continuation as an interfaith place of worship, as it was for 40 years at Thompson Center. For the last reason, the steeple is topped by a starburst, not a cross.
“We will be inviting our Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim friends to hold services here,” said Johnson. “We believe there are many paths to the mountaintop.”
Van Horne and Johnson hope to schedule regular Episcopal services for Sunday afternoons. Blessed by St. Vincent and ever a vintner himself, Johnson joked, “In our weekly ads, we’ll note the vintage of wine to be consecrated.”