Majesty & Faith

Christ Church, one of the oldest and most historic churches in the United States, embarks on a journey of restorative grandeur



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Christ Church in Greenwich is a triumph of wealth and Trinitarianism in this leafy corner of the United States,” John Cheever wrote in his journal in 1960. “To be buried from this chancel would, it seems, assure one a place in Heaven.”

Well, yes. This grand Episcopal church does seem like that sort of place. The crenellated bluestone tower, the imposing Gothic arches, the dazzling stained glass windows made by Gorham and Tiffany—but wait, wait. Have you noticed that odd black fabric swaddling the sanctuary’s upper edifice? It looks like some sort of very gloomy memorial. But it’s actually safety netting, to ensure that no churchgoer gets clocked on the head by a chunk of falling granite and is thus buried from that glorious chancel before he is quite ready.

Then, too, one hears that the massive “Transfiguration” window on the front façade—depicting Jesus on a mountaintop suffused with God’s light—is in danger of, er… “falling out?” the Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler offers helpfully. “Yes. Every hundred years, you need to do some restoration of windows around the leading and that sort of thing. The problem with the big windows here has been the wood and terra-cotta that hold them in have deteriorated so badly that it’s possible that they could begin to collapse.”

“We did lose a window last year—a minor one on the side,” adds Carter Harris, the church’s senior warden. “To lose the Transfiguration window would be a tragedy.”

These historically sensitive structural fixes require gobs of cash. This is to say nothing of the church’s substandard boilers, water-damaged ceilings, drafty,
energy-inefficient spaces, and peeling paint and plaster in the sanctuary—“our most sacred space,” Harris notes. To address all this and more, Christ Church has embarked on a capital campaign—called “Rise Up, Restore, Rejoice!”—that aims to raise a cool $10 million. One is tempted to think, No problem, this is Christ Church, “one of the biggest, oldest, and richest Episcopal churches in the United States,” The New York Times says, and the spiritual home of Rockefellers, Havemeyers, Converses and in more recent times, Bushes.

But the notion that Christ Church is made of money appears to be overstated. “We’ve named that the ‘bullion in the basement’ syndrome,” says Rev. Lemler, a tall, gentle, funny man who has been the church’s rector since 2008. “People just think we go down and shave some off as we need it, and of course that’s not the case.”

Actually, Lemler has steered the church past a bumpy phase marked by scandal (the 2008 conviction of an esteemed music director for possessing child pornography), wilting morale and declining attendance—the latter an issue for churches everywhere. Christ Church is firmly back on track now, but its bigness, both in terms of physical size and mission, can be taxing. The church’s campus ranges across ten acres, and includes not only the great stone structures of 1910—church, parish house and (former) rectory—but also a chapel, a nursery school and the 1861 Tomes-Higgins house, designed by Calvert Vaux. Christ Church bought Tomes-Higgins in 1963, voted narrowly (and thus divisively) to keep it in 1981, when it was falling into disrepair, and restored it at great expense in 1997. “Now the campus is like the village green of Greenwich,” observes Marnie Dawson Carr, who recalls parishioners braving a snowstorm to vote on the fate of Tomes-Higgins.

 

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