Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Faithful expressions

St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Fort Madison.

There are days like this, a muddle of meetings and obligations capped by Shrove Tuesday's pancake supper, when I fantasize about throwing off all the bonds and making an effort to become Iowa's Simon Knott.

Knott is English and obsessed with churches. During the last 12 years or so, he has visited, photographed and written about all the Anglican and Roman Catholic (plus other) church buildings in of Suffolk and Norfolk, two adjacent counties in the east of England that protrude into the North Sea.The results have been posted to his "The Churches of East Anglia" Web site, where I've spent many hours obsessively looking.

Granted, East Anglia has more to work with when it comes to historical and architectural interest, but Iowa's churches are nothing to sneeze at. And we probably have more church buildings. The denominational menu always has been limited in Britain, and still is, but here we've had a smorgasbord of faith expressions from the start and nearly all have erected buildings for worship at one time or another. Many of these have fallen --- country churches are an endangered species here --- and others have changed hands but many still are standing and worth considering from both architectural and cultural perspectives.

This is one of my favorites, St. Luke's Episcopal in Fort Madison, photographed hurriedly four years ago this month when I decided it was a good idea to tour three of my favorite Mississippi River towns --- Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk --- in one afternoon (not a good idea; there's far too much to see in each).

The oldest part of the building dates from 1857, according to a sign in front, which means Muscatine's Trinity Church (the first Episcopal congregation in Iowa, dating from 1839-40), built in 1851, is older. But Iowa Episcopalians have always had a severe case of olde-Englishness, so the plain classicism of this building is a rare survival. It's amazing that it wasn't torn down at some point and rebuilt. And obviously the stained glass, roof dormers, extension and parish hall are later. I really like it.

I like most churches --- other than perhaps much of what's being built today, ranging from practical although hard-to-love modified Morton Buildings to vast megachurches that manage to look like municipal auditoriums or shopping centers.

All churches speak  about those who built them. Many of our denominations, especially those without sacramental focus, have emphasized the gathered faithful more than the voice of the structure and looked upon church buildings as basic housing with perhaps a flourish or two rather than than as expressions of faith. That has produced some wonderfully pure and simple structures. But given a little money, even Baptists have gone into competition with their Methodist and Roman Catholic brethren to produce some remarkable examples of triumphalism.

There are a lot of quirky old church buildings around --- and you have to ask yourself when looking at them, what in the world were they thinking?

It's also fun to ask yourself when considering a church --- now is this building dedicated to the greater glory of God, or to the greater glory of the congregation that commissioned it?

Maybe I'll make this the year of the Iowa church building. We'll see.


I see by this morning's death notices that Floyd Coulson, one of the last residents of William McDermott's old Ireland neighborhood in Cedar Township, has died at age 83. At the wheel of a tanker truck, Floyd delivered fuel for years to the farm south of Russell where I grew up --- and we talked briefly about that a few months ago.

He and his wife, Helen, were among the rocks upon which Bethel United Methodist Church, near their home, was built and since its fairly recent closing have been dispersing its contents and considering the fate of another of Lucas County's endangered country church buildings.

Their son Steven, four years younger than I am, was killed in a car accident in 1968 and buried near home in Bethel Cemetery. For a long, long time small notices in the Chariton newspapers in his memory, commissioned by his parents, have marked the passing of the years. Oh my ....

1 comment:

Ed said...

Our church was a old but beautiful brick building much like the ones you have photographed with lots of charm and character. Last year they opened up a huge spread out building with no charm what so ever and paid over $6 million for the privilege. I was under the opinion that we could build something for $1 million that would suffice and put the emphasis where it needed to be with the added benefit of not having a huge mortgage payment to go with it but I was in the very small minority. The last six months we have taken in less in offerings than our expenses. Perhaps when we file for bankruptcy we could move back to the old church but alas they tore it down already. I think a big old Morton building may be in our future.