“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God.”
These words, or others like them, close every service in the Episcopal Church, every Sunday. But for the parishioners of the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John on North Main Street, they held special finality on April 22: the church was closing its doors, and when the congregation dispersed it might have been for the last time.
Acting Dean of the Cathedral, Right Reverend David B. Joslin, says of the final service, “We tried to make it upbeat, with the music and so forth. And it was during the Easter season.”
Rt. Rev. Joslin says in his sermon that Sunday that he encouraged the congregation to “embody the spirit of the cathedral in their daily lives.” And plenty were there to hear his message. Many who grew up attending service at the cathedral returned to say farewell at its final service – some from across the border in Massachusetts or as far away as New Jersey.
Bishop of Rhode Island Geralyn Wolf says emotions that day were mixed. “Of course there were some tears, sadness,” she explains. “And of course there was some relief that a decision had been made and a burden had been lifted.”
The decision to close the cathedral indeed marked some resolution of a long period of financial hardship in the diocese. For nearly 15 years, the question of how to fund the cathedral’s operating budget has been of central importance. A decade ago, closure became “a serious topic,” according to Bishop Wolf. But then a parishioner left the cathedral $1 million, which paid to repair a roof truss and funded a few other key projects. “That allowed some more time,” Bishop Wolf explains.
But that funding was only ever a stop-gap, and repairs to keep the building safe ate up a “significant percentage” of it. In 2005, cathedral leadership again began to consider what the building would need and whether the parish could afford it.
Estimates for some basic repairs and updates came to $8 million. Fully bringing the 1793 cathedral into the 21st century, with an elevator and other changes to make it handicapped-accessible, would bring the cost closer to $14 million.
Could the congregation cover those expenses? A fundraising study conducted at the same time found the most the parish could raise fell short of $2 million, which “really wasn’t sufficient,” according to Bishop Wolf. And that estimate, she notes, came before the 2008 economic crash.
More recently the cathedral’s finances worsened, and the parish increasingly had to draw on its dwindling endowment to pay the $400,000 it costs annually to maintain the building and staff. Finally, early this year, the cathedral’s governing board resolved to shut down its services and pastoral care. The cathedral’s ministries have moved to other churches in the city. Its weekly City Meal Site still runs on Tuesday afternoons from 4:30-6pm, now out of All Saints Memorial Church on Westminster Street.
The congregation of St. John’s moved elsewhere as well, though many have yet to settle on a new parish. “They’re tire-kicking right now,” Bishop Joslin explains.
The Rectors of Providence’s other Episcopal churches confirm they’ve seen St. John’s parishioners at their services in recent weeks. Reverend Canon Jonathan Huyck of Grace Church downtown says a number of former members have worshipped at his parish in the last month. Some have come every week and others just once or twice – in short, Rev. Huyck says, they are “shopping” for a new church. The East Side’s other Episcopal churches, St. Stephen’s on George Street under Rev. John Alexander, Church of the Redeemer on Hope Street under Rev. Jo-Ann Drake, and All Saints Memorial on Westminster Street under Rev. David Ames, have seen former St. John’s members visit to test the waters as well.
Downtown's Grace Church has inherited some of the cathedral's congregation. (Photo: Will Hart)
Reverend Clare Fischer-Davies, Rector of St. Martin’s Church, agrees. She says many St. John’s members are visiting her parish as they “deal with the grief of losing their congregation.” Both Rectors say their own parishes are in good health: church attendance remains high, and leaders are acting to keep financial worries at bay. Rev. Huyck says his parish is reducing the draw it takes on its endowment, a move to prevent the kind of struggle that forced the cathedral to close.
At St. Martin’s, Rev. Fischer-Davies says the plan is much the same. “We’re doing some very intentional work,” she explains, “and trying to get out ahead of some of this.” And while managing finances is a constant concern, she says the closure of St. John’s Cathedral added some urgency. “I think all of us were kind of sobered by seeing a congregation just disappear,” she says. “It could happen to any of us.”
That sense of uncertainty is strong, according to Rev. Fischer-Davies, even as her own congregation thrives. She says she watched longtime Episcopalians experience “a lot of sadness and bewilderment over how the whole closure happened.” Many at St. Martin’s, she explains, saw the cathedral’s closing as a symptom of larger problems in the diocese.
Rev. Huyck says his congregation does not seem worried about the diocese as a whole, but it was still sad to watch the cathedral close. “It was, in a sense, sort of the heart of the diocese,” he explains. “And it no longer is now.”
A major concern in both parishes is the fate of the building itself. Unlike many closed churches, the cathedral remains consecrated for religious use so that it can potentially reopen in the future. As Bishop Joslin explains, the governing board opted to preserve the building in order to “see what might emerge as a new vision for the cathedral.”
Until there is a plan for the cathedral, however, many are worried about it as a historic building. Rev. Huyck says it is an important concern in historic preservation, “even if you’re not Episcopalian or Christian. It’s a sad thing because we don’t know what’s going to happen to that building.” Rev. Fischer-Davies agrees that for many in her congregation, the historic nature of the building represents “another level of concern” on top of worries about the diocese itself.
Much, the Rectors agree, hinges on the new bishop. Bishop Wolf is leaving the diocese, and in early June church representatives elected the Very Reverend Nicholas Knisely to follow her. He will be consecrated to his new post November 17.
Rev. Huyck, who served on the search committee that chose the candidates for Bishop, says he hopes the new leader will “sit down and listen to all the voices in the diocese.” The diocese needs “someone who will not shrink from making some important decisions that need to be made,” Rev. Huyck says. “Front and center with that is what’s going to happen to this cathedral.”
Though he did not directly address the cathedral in his letter of introduction to the diocese, Rev. Knisely did allude to the challenges he will face, including the financial woes. “We’re not exactly sure what we’re to do as we move into a new era that many of us were not expecting,” he wrote. “The basic models we’ve used to create church communities are financially strained... We seem to be living in a moment when a new paradigm for ministry and diocesan life is emerging.”
Walking through St. John’s Cathedral about a month after its last service, Bishop Joslin reflects on the building’s history and future. His eyes grow glassy as he considers what the next step might be. “A lot will depend on what kind of ideas the new Bishop has,” he says slowly, “and when the recession ends, and all those kinds of questions.”