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My Adventure Through the Cathedral of St. John

271 N. Main St.

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Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

It’s May 10th and I imagine that the Cathedral of St. John is currently enveloped in spring greenery. But when I visited the Cathedral the trees were heavy with snow. It was my very first week embarking on the MEP20 challenge, and I’ve been waiting for just the right time to share my experience touring this building with you. Because out of all of the buildings I’ve explored, my tour of the Cathedral was probably the most memorable.

The Cathedral of St. John is the successor to the King’s Church (not surprisingly, an Anglican church), built in the same spot back in 1722. The current building, designed by John Holden Green, was built in 1810 under the name St. John’s Church. Clad in Smithfield stone, its form is Federal and decorative details Gothic. It became the Cathedral of St. John in 1929 when it was chosen to be the seat of the Episcopal diocese of Rhode Island. With its wooden tower deteriorating and sanctuary ceiling leaking, the Cathedral has been on the MEP list for seven years. Unable to keep up with the high cost of maintenance, the Diocese finally closed its doors in April 2012.

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Cathedral of St. John Foyer (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

I was lucky that Chris DeCelles, who is in charge of maintenance for the Diocese, was willing to open the doors for me. But he didn’t stop there. Chris took me deep inside the Cathedral to secret places I imagine few have traveled before. Of course the tour began in the sanctuary where we admired the stain glass windows and the “saucer-domed” ceiling. I was told that the only dome in Rhode Island larger than the Cathedral’s is the dome in the State House (perhaps not such a remarkable claim considering the size of Rhode Island, but it’s still impressive).

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Cathedral of St. John Sanctuary (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

After poking my head inside the Cathedral’s organ where I saw a complicated sea of pipes of varying widths and heights, we went up another flight of stairs. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were headed but suddenly found myself standing over the Cathedral’s domed ceiling. A complex system of beams supporting the dome below and roof above crossed every which way over our heads. I was warned not to test the weight of the 205-year-old planks forming a walkway over the dome. I didn’t.

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Standing above the Cathedral of St. Johnís Dome (Caroline Stevens, 2015)

We continued on. At this point in our journey we had a series of very old and very steep ladders ahead of us. I swallowed my fear and continued on with sweaty palms and a pounding heart until we found ourselves looking at a series of gears and the backside of the steeple’s clock. Right next to the gears was a small wooden door just big enough for one hand to fit through. Chris opened the door, and in front of us, perfectly framed, was the Rhode Island State House dusted with snow. Now that was something special.

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The back side of the clock, Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens, 2015)
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View of the State House from Cathedral of St. John (Caroline Stevens)
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THE FUTURE: I could have written an entirely different blog post featuring my excitement around the Diocese’s future plans for the building. Under the leadership of Bishop Nicholas Knisely, the Episcopal Church of Rhode Island has been examining their past relationship to Rhode Island’s history as one corner of the “triangle trade” of slavery. The church further plans to transform the Cathedral of St. John into the nation’s first museum to the transatlantic slave trade and open a Center for Reconciliation. The Diocese is at the beginning of a long process of planning and fundraising towards this ambitious goal. For more information read this article.

FURTHER READING: URI Library has some good background on the history of the Cathedral, and I enjoyed reading I [Heart] Rhody’s experience touring the Cathedral. She took some nice photos of the sanctuary while it was still in use back in 2010. Read her post here.

KUDOS to Matt Appenfeller @mwa4 for correctly guessing this week’s challenge!

SHARE: What do you know about the building? We’re interested in any bits of knowledge, thoughts, memories or photos you may have. Comment below, or on twitter @pvdpreservation #mep20.

Originally posted on May 10, 2015