St. John’s first building was actually an old gymnasium, converted, as best they could by the founding members, into a sanctuary in 1903. After expanding it once, the parish voted in 1915 to build a new church. The congregation raised $27,000 and mortgaged another $18,000 for the effort, a mortgage the church would carry until 1948. Like everyone in the country, the members of St. John’s faced real financial hardship during the Depression years. At one point, the rector, Father E. Croft Gear, took a voluntary reduction in salary, but even that wasn’t enough to make ends meet. The women of the parish raised over $1000 one summer just to keep the doors open—a similar feat would require raising $30,000 today. That same group of people, when times were better, would build the parish hall and renovate the basement for classrooms, even as the congregation was paying off its original mortgage. When, at last, the mortgage was paid in 1948 Father Gear reminded the congregation: “Let us be mindful of our debt of gratitude for the heritage into which we have entered through the labors of the pioneers in this enterprise; and let us determine that this building be but an outward and visible sign of a renewed dedication of our lives to carry on the work so nobly begun…”
The 1960s were tumultuous times in the country and the church—Reverend Bill Goddard and St. John’s took courageous stands in support of the Civil Rights Movement, against the Vietnam War, in favor of women’s ordination, and the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The church continued in that forward-thinking mode under the tenure of Robert Harvey, who was determined to renew worship to include children, move the altar from against the back wall, support women’s ministry, and promote involvement in 12-step spirituality. Many of the things we take for granted in this place were hard-fought struggles for our forebears, and by their courage they paved the way, taking the hard blows so we wouldn’t have to.
Yet there was a cost. For a variety of reasons, St. John’s membership began to decline dramatically in the late 1960s and 70s. Many of the pews were empty. There were few children and finances were tight. Slowly and surely, though, new people came. By 1982, the second year of the Reverend Todd Smelsers’ tenure, membership increased 25%.
In the early 1990s, as the congregation continued on a course of steady growth and vitality, several tensions emerged. Could we be a congregation that welcomed and celebrated the ministries of gay and lesbian persons and build our youth ministries at the same time? Many told us that they were mutually exclusive goals, but we believed that God was asking us to do both. Could we expand our Sunday morning liturgies to offer three distinctive forms of worship? We worried that doing so would divide our community, but we sensed that diversity would strengthen us.
Then in 1997, just as construction began on a new pipe organ and an expansion, a fire destroyed the kitchen and parish hall. But The Reverend Mariann Budde, who had become the rector in 1993, and others, helped the parish push forward, inviting people to join us in the chaos. “Chaos often breeds life,” Henry James once wrote, and that was certainly true for us.
And people did come. And St. John’s grew. In fact, within a decade, the parish was again at the crossroads of growth. Plans for a new and even more extensive expansion of the building were developed. And debated. Though the added space would provide much need accessibility and greatly enhance meeting areas for both St. John’s and the outside communities, the expansion would not be without cost. Beyond the dollars, a 150 year-old oak tree would need to be cut down. Today, the tree lives on within St. John’s, the wood helping to create the conference table in the library and the trim throughout the new building.
Yes, ours is a history filled with hard work, sweat, sacrifice, setbacks and celebrations.
Fitting, perhaps, for a faith born in a gym.