It has been far too long since we have gathered in our church building on Chestnut and Pine. We say: the church is not a building. The building is closed, the church is open. Yes. But. Our congregation, or its members then, made a decision to center its congregational life in a building, our building, and their decision has been reinforced over the years as we decided to decorate, build on, renovate, improve, and stay put. Some churches have sold their buildings and moved into less church-y quarters. We have not, so that building is ours, and being separated from it is a loss to us of something we have valued, something we have loved in common with those who came before us. As we live apart from it now, we can imagine what it would mean to live apart from it forever. What, we may ask ourselves, do we want our sanctuary for? What does it mean to us? What did it mean to those who created it?
Separation from our church building is separation from church life as we have known it and as many, we hope, will come to know it again. Loss upon loss. And yet: even your grumpy Borrower Bee must admit to having Zoom-encountered new church friends she would probably never have met, and experienced the joy of outreach beyond what was usual in our ordinary church life. Events that one can be glad of in the moment and return to in grateful memory, and that would not have happened had things been normal. And that, kind reader, is an example of what R.W. Emerson meant in his essay “Compensation”, tucked into the dark southwest corner of our church, in the window dedicated to him.
Emerson’s window being placed in that darkest corner, and the naming there of that particular essay, has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. The windows on the western side of the church are mostly secular figures, but Emerson was an ordained minister and not especially gloomy. The essay is not one of his most read today, and there are aspects of it that are deeply of their time and not of ours. The philosophy it offers, however, may help explain its physical place in the sanctuary. In it, Emerson offers what he calls a “natural history of calamity”:
The changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men are advertisements of a nature whose law is growth … The voice of the Almighty saith: ‘Up and onward for evermore!’ We cannot stay amid the ruins. Neither will we rely on the new and so we walk ever with reverted eyes, like those monsters who look backwards.
And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time…
Words of hope “amid the ruins” are well suited to our present congregational situation, and they were probably felt equally strongly by the congregation of a century ago, when the church interior took its present form. The decorating plan of the 1920s included, most obviously, our distinctive stained glass, but the culmination of the work was the dedication of an ornate decorative wooden frame around the altarpiece, which was, and is, a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Since the dedication of the frame in 1927 gained a great deal of attention, and usually the frame, a triptych, is kept closed, we have tended to forget about the painting. However, in the 1920s in America, copies of famous paintings were often bought for display in a church, and copies could be highly valued in their own right. Our Last Supper was a work of this sort, and, far from having been acquired together with the triptych, it occupied its place of honor long before the triptych was made. Adding to the confusion, the woodwork bears a plaque, made much later, which focuses on a later re-dedication of the ensemble. Contemporary newspapers, however, report on the original dedication of the painting in 1921, on 25 March, which was Good Friday.
The painting was given to the church by Mrs M.T. Garvin to honor the memory of her daughter Mrs Lillian G. Ross; she had died on April 5, 1918. The death of this apparently healthy and still fairly young woman shocked everyone who had known her, because the death was not only sudden and untimely but also seemed to have had a trivial origin: a very minor scratch apparently ended within hours in her dying from “acute meningitis” (the cause of death stated on her death certificate).
The Last Supper in the chancel faces our copy of the Frieze of the Prophets at the north end of the sanctuary. The original of the Frieze of the Prophets was painted by John Singer Sargent for the Boston Public Library as part of his controversial and never-completed sequence The Triumph of Religion, which was projected to include ancient polytheistic as well as Jewish and Christian traditions. It was installed in Boston in 1895, and the Lancaster copy was dedicated in October 1920. The Lancaster dedication was accompanied by the singing of a hymn created for the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, itself, as its name suggests, a celebration of shared human spirituality. The Lancaster paintings were thus installed in a larger program contextualizing Christianity as a new stage in the historical progress of human religions.
The paintings, windows, and other decorations in the Lancaster church collectively expand on ideas epitomized in Emerson’s “Compensation”: the church walls testify to the “natural history of calamity” while also evoking Emersonian confidence in spiritual progress, a “triumph of religion” albeit not exactly in the form that Sargent and probably the Garvins had in mind. In Emerson’s words: “Things refuse to be mismanaged long… Though no checks to a new evil appear, the checks exist, and will appear.” From this Emersonian perspective, for example, the men honored in the Presidents’ Window are memorialized not because of their singular virtues, but because they lent their strength to great causes in that constant process of destruction and renewal that Emerson characterizes as the “changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men”. All three of the American presidents honored were leaders in such times: Jefferson and the American Revolution, Lincoln and the Civil War, Wilson and the Great War. Of the three, only Jefferson saw the fruitful aftermath of the revolutionary calamity he had helped his society to endure and shape.
If the stained glass represents Emerson’s “natural history” on the level of institutions and societies, the other decorations in the church often hold more personal associations. The woodwork in the southwest and southeast corners, for example, reminds us of Mr Garvin’s Quaker heritage and his and his wife’s personal histories of loss and renewal in the wake of the Civil War. The memory of Mrs Garvin’s daughter was honored in the chancel not only with the painting there but also with a small cross that is no longer regularly displayed.
It may strike us in retrospect, but only in retrospect, that Mrs Ross died just as the first of the three waves of “Spanish flu” was spreading across America.
The geographical source and the chronology of this first wave are disputed, because, since no one had seen anything like it before, the earliest cases were nearly always attributed to some different cause. “Ordinary” influenza occurred then as regularly as it does now, and then as now was only rarely lethal. The novel influenza did not present exactly the same way, but to the extent that no one knew of its existence, it naturally remained unnoticed. There are those who believe that in its first, mild, form, the “Spanish flu” may have been circulating as early as 1916, and several sources have suggested it started in North America. It certainly did not start in Spain; it got heavy journalistic coverage there, because thanks to the war, the Spanish press was the only uncensored press in Europe and so the only one for which an epidemic was not an unpublishable state secret. In the United States, the first diagnosis of the novel influenza virus was in January 1918; the doctor who diagnosed it published a warning to the US Public Health Service, but the warning was ignored. Most cases of the flu in the “spring wave” of 1918 were mild, and more serious and fatal cases were noticed mainly because the people who died had often been healthy individuals who succumbed very quickly. The first American influenza death recognized as such occurred in March on a Kansas military base; its being recorded there may simply mean that the military offered more systematic health monitoring than did civilian life. Within a week, the same influenza killed several people in Queens, in New York; although other cases became known elsewhere, and some health authorities began to issue warnings, the disease was still not widely understood as epidemic, let alone as a first wave. Although it seems to have been in abeyance in the summer, however, that was only the end of the beginning. Wartime conditions, notably massive movements of military personnel, complicated the geographic course of the epidemic’s transmission and made it harder to track; the war also probably increased transmission generally. In turn, the increased number of contacts may partly account for an increased number of mutations, which, in their turn, probably account in part for the increased lethality of the disease in its second and third waves of late summer and fall of 1918 and again in 1919.
The renovation and ornamentation of our church in Lancaster thus belongs not only to a post-war, or early interwar, period, but also to a time of recovery from a rampant disease that at first was hardly noticed and afterward, until recently, hardly even recollected – a post-epidemic period, as it were, or perhaps, given our present condition, an inter-epidemic one. In this new time of epidemic and loss, and of physical alienation from our church building, it may be helpful to contemplate and renew not only our spiritual interconnectedness among those of us who are more or less physically here right now, but also our gratitude to those who turned their personal griefs, in experiences not completely different from our own, into memorials that could become a place of worship, beauty, and sanctuary for later generations.