Ghosts in pews of a great old Brooklyn church

Like many other Baby Boomer believers who grew up in the era of ugly-as-sin church architecture, I am a total sucker for stately, soaring old churches.

Several years ago, I walked around during my first ever visit to Rome and found myself asking one question over and over: With all of these secular Italians declining to have children, who is going to fill or maintain all these gorgeous churches? I’m not talking about St. Peter’s and the famous sanctuaries, of course. I am talking about the churches you find gracing every other block of that increasingly post-Christian metropolis.

This story has an American connection, of course, one that is linked to demographics and the rise and fall of the mainstream American churches in the age of suburban megachurches (which are beginning to show signs of age, as well). How does one tell the story of the rise of the new Religious Right in recent decades without paying close attention to the factors that fueled the fall of the old religious mainstream, the demographic implosion of what is now the Religious Left?

And who is going to fill and maintain all of those gorgeous old mainline churches in the hearts of America’s great old cities?

This is what I kept thinking as I read this Wall Street Journal report about the efforts to rescue the Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn. The roof, you see, is literally falling. A large chunk of plaster fell into the pews last year during a service being held by a liberal Jewish congregation that was using the sanctuary.

This sets up the new facts of life:

Now, Rev. Meeter and other church leaders are scrambling to raise approximately $700,000 to replace the ceiling. The church in the center of Park Slope has received small grants from conservation groups and will likely have to take out a sizable loan to fund the renovation.

The predicament faced by Old First, as members call it, and the church’s strategy for dealing with the problem, mirrors that faced by hundreds of houses of worship in New York and elsewhere, as donors pull back amid a tough economy, membership rolls shrink and churches and temples turn to other uses of their space to keep them vibrant and help pay the bills.

Some historically important and even breathtaking works of religious architecture are in danger of being forgotten, and are turning to unconventional means to mobilize the support they need to make capital investments.

That covers all the bases. The problem with the story is that it is, literally, haunted by all of those empty pews and the people who once worshiped in them, week after week. What happened to them? The driving force in this story is not gravity, it’s those shrinking membership rolls.

This is, alas, never addressed in any meaningful way in this story. The plight of the physical sanctuary is the heart of the story and I get that. But why is all of this happening? Why is the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine having to sell land to real-estate directors? New York City is in the midst of a religious revival, in some quarters. Which churches are trying to fill empty pews, while other are seeking additional pews (and school buildings, even) they can fill?

The closest readers come to knowing anything about the church, by which I mean the people, as opposed to the church building is one crucial fact in this following summary:

Built in 1891 out of limestone and granite, Old First was the only church known to have been designed by architect George L. Morse, who built several important turn-of-the-century office buildings, including the Temple Bar building, in downtown Brooklyn. The church’s fixtures are done in ornately carved woods painted in warm browns and salmon colors, and its high roof creates a solemn, eerie spaces for the light that filters through its Tiffany windows. The church is truly an urban cathedral — stately and formal, but at the same time warm and womb-like.

The church follows a square-shaped Basilica plan, rather than the long, rectilinear form of most cathedrals, and has a 200-foot steeple, a soaring, arched ceiling, a grand neo-Gothic stone entranceway, and a collection of nationally known stained-glass windows depicting biblical parables.

The congregation, which was established in 1654 by New York’s last Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, is one of the city’s oldest. But in the last few years, the church’s membership has dwindled to just 150 — the church itself has seating for 1,200 people.

What are the trends in the congregation? Maybe we could have one paragraph on that essential information, since the building simply cannot survive without people? What is the Reformed Church in America? How is the denomination doing these days?

Again, I know that the building is THE STORY. I get that.

But the doctrinal and demographic forces pulling at the church are linked to the life and future of this congregation and, thus, the fate of the sanctuary itself. Might the religion element of the story — the ghosts in those empty pews — deserve a few sentences? Maybe even a paragraph or two?

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  • dalea

    A couple of quibbles with the WSJ piece. Why have the metal rods ‘rusted’ over time? I think they mean ‘oxidized’, which should not present problems like they experience. Oxidation occurs with contact with air; rust requires moisture. And that means: leaky roof, a major problem.

    Why are they replacing with plaster when there are other easier and lighter (and less expensive )ways of doing this. I have seen wonderful ceiling ornaments made out of fiberglass and papermache’. And, on removal, some old ceiling work turns out to be made from sheets of copper or pewter. The article needs someone up on current trends in restoration supplies to weigh in.

    Also, calling something a ‘Tiffany’ window is not helpful. There are two types of Tiffany stained glass windows. One is from the jewelry store’s Church Goods department. The other was made by Tiffany Studio and designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The design quality and value differ enormously. Stained glass windows have a life of about 100 to 125 years; then they must be reset in either lead came or copper foil. Otherwise they fall apart. I once was involved in removing stained glass windows, it is very difficult. Then they must be taken apart, put back together exactly as before and reinstalled. Unbelievably difficult undertaking.

  • FWKen

    I’ve been in my parish for ten years and we’ve been working on restoring our 1928 art deco church that whole time. Our average Sunday attendance had grown from 900 to about 2000 over that time, but it’s still a middle-class center-city parish and a struggle to do what needs to be done, from electrical to paint.

    So in addition to wondering how this congregation could ever do what’s necessary, but also how a church built in 1891 could be “one of the oldest churches in the city”?

  • JWB

    It’s really pretty simple. Denominational affiliation correlates (albeit not perfectly) with ethnicity, and the Dutch-ancestry percentage of the population of Brooklyn has been sharply declining for the last few centuries. The generic-vaguely-Protestant-ancestry-white percentage has likewise been declining, so the older neighborhoods of Brooklyn (formerly the “City of Churches”) are overbuilt with too many such churches even w/o getting into the effect of secularization. When the Jews or Greeks leave an old urban neighborhood en masse, as happened in a number of places in the US in the second half of the 20th century, their religious buildings get sold and turned into mosques or Baptist churches or whatever fits the neighborhood’s new population. Mainline Protestant congregations sometimes have large enough endowments to delay the inevitable longer — plus lacking a central hierarchy like the RC church has, there’s no one to ruthlessly force mergers or closures.

  • I’ve attended services at this church–a rich, warm interior with Scripture adorning the walls, the perfect example of how an imageless church can still be beautiful–and I remember Reverend Meeter. The “spirit” of the phenomenon that was Redeemer Presbyterian, on the other side of the river, was already haunting that place, even in 2002. A story of the two “Reformed” churches — and the growth enjoyed by one (PCA) and the decline suffered by another (RCA), if decline is really what is responsible here and not merely enormous expenses beyond what the Old First congregation can handle — would have transformed a rather pedestrian “church roof” story into something more telling about two Protestantisms. The Old Line churches have problems keeping their massive structures from collapsing around their ears, and the new church plants have trouble finding a place to call home, often having to rent out college and high school auditoriums (or Seventh Day Adventist sanctuaries), which they often outgrow. There’s a great story there. Hint. Hint.

  • Karen Vaughan

    As a former congregant and former Vice President of Consistory at Old First I can comment on the congregation and history of Old First Reformed Church left out of the WSJ article.

    The congregation was the oldest in Brooklyn, then split into two churches, the Flatbush Reformed Church and Old First Reformed, each in different buildings and neighborhoods, so the buildings are less old than the initial congregation.

    Flash forward: The congregation is not Dutch-American and hasn’t been for at least 4 decades, although the pastor happens to be. The Park Slope neighborhood is more liberal and less Protestant than it used to be, with substantial “spiritual but not religious” residents. The Dutch Reformed denomination (Now RCA) tends to be identified with South Africa, although the Brooklyn churches actively campaigned against apartheid, but only insiders know that. The denomination is more conservative than the neighborhood and the neighborhood is unlikely to be aware that the church is less conservative than others in the denomination. In the 19 years I was affiliated with Old First we engaged in seekers services, evangelization outreach, small groups, church analysis, more or less liberal theology, arts and music outreach, and every church growing fad the denomination had to offer. Old First has good preaching, good Sunday school cirriciulums, a soft Calvinist theology and new people are able to jump in and participate as soon as they desire. And it has real Louis Comfort Tiffany and Heins and LaFarge windows in need of repair.

    I converted to Judaism now belong to Congregation Beth Elohim, the Jewish congregation that was at Old First when the roof fell in (and which is Old First’s largest donor after giving $15,000 from its own building fund after a windfall, as tezadaka. We were using Old First’s space for the High Holy Days because our own 150 year old roof had fallen in. Now Old First celebrates Christmas and Easter at Beth Elohim.) The two congregations have large sanctuaries of similar size, two blocks away but very different approaches which may explain much of the difference in empty pews. At any given Saturday Beth Elohim has three to four simultaneous services, compared to Old First’s one, which requires more delegation and less control from our rabbi. Two are lay led (one quite halachic. entirely in Hebrew but egalitarian). One is oriented for families and features a bar or bat mitzvah almost every week. One is for families with tots. Both of the latter are quite musical. Children are taught Hebrew from the earliest ages and most of the services are in Hebrew. There is a program for Israelis in New York City. Torah study is greatly encouraged with adult classes. There are lots of cultural and political programs. Beth Elohim has the advantage of a community house (but Old First has quite a bit of potentially convertible space.) Nonbelieving spouses are welcome, as are nonbelieving Jews who want to learn more but don’t want to be preached to. Beth Elohim is also more up front about fundraising, but has also given generous financial assistance on activities from trips to Israel to Torah classes, which I find causes me to give more when asked. The expectation of annual membership payments also causes a steady cash flow, although at various levels. We had more new members than Old First has congregants last year.

    Old First has fewer offerings and thus liturgical styles, which tends to limit its appeal to those liking the prevalent style. Tithing is encouraged, but less prevalent than in many other Protestant churches. There is a small endowment which had been partially cannibalized until the last decade or so which as JWB mentioned may have delayed substantial changes. There is a scriptually-rooted uneasy attitude towards money that is pretty widespread among mainline Protestants. There was a time when the congregation might have been able to bring in an ethnic or allied congregation to share the space and costs, but I am pessimistic now that the damage is done. The church needs to reach out to the community beyond its congregation for financial donations. It is a shame that the WSJ did not cover some of the factors that will affect the congregation’s ability to fix the building.

    (All observations are personal, not reflective of either congregation.)

  • Karen Vaughan
  • Julia

    Nitpicking: “a square-shaped Basilica plan, rather than the long, rectilinear form of most cathedrals,”

    Actually, the ancient Roman basilica was long and rectilinear – this is the earliest model for churches.

  • Daniel Meeter

    Some comments from the pastor in question might be helpful. Right: the church is not on a basilican plan. The story got that wrong. It’s a cross-in-square with an added bay, and its plan is central / vertical, rather than linear. Also, it has no dome, merely a lofty groin-vault. Wrong: it’s not that the roof has fallen in on either the church or the synagogue, it’s that plaster has fallen. In the case of the synagogue, it was water-damage. In the case of the church, it’s not. The commenter “dalea” finds it hard to imagine the problem without actually having seen it. Right: the congregation was the very first in Brooklyn, founded in 1654, but this is its fifth building, and its third location. Right: the congregation’s predominantly Dutch-ethnic background had ended by the 1890s. Missing: the church almost closed in the 1980’s. That it has 160 congregants today is actually “up” from then, when it was not more than 30. This year we have expanded our Nursery and Children’s Worship program to accommodate new families. We have just added an assistant pastor to work with our high school youth. Wrong: Beth Elohim is not really more lay-led. Already this year Old First has had eleven Sunday morning services completely led by “lay” elders and deacons. Right: We don’t let just any “lay” person lead a service. Maybe: It’s not starkly either / or, that churches on the “right” are growing, and on the “left” are dwindling. We believe our church is neither left or right, because we are open on sexuality, for example, and we pray with Jews, but we are orthodox on the Trinity, the Resurrection, and sin and salvation. Right: There is a larger story about the ghosts in the pews of these great arks of mainline churches. And right: it wasn’t THIS story.