As St. Gregory’s proceeds with the renovation of our new home on Euclid Street I have been asked many questions: What will our new chapel look like? How will it be decorated? Will we have an iconostasis? St. Gregory’s has had four homes up to this time – the chapel of Ss. Peter and Paul on Bradley Boulevard, the parish hall of Eldbrooke Methodist Church, the “upper room” at Eldbrooke, and currently the chapel at Ss. Peter and Paul at their new location on River Road in Potomac. Pictures of each of these homes are found on our web site: stgregoryoc.org. The Euclid Street property will be our first home that is completely ours (along with our friends at Adams Bank). This gives us the opportunity to shape the appearance of the chapel to be as we wish it to be, considering the limitations of the space and our budget, but without the limits imposed by sharing the space with others.
So how should it look? As with all things in the Orthodox Church we should not try to make it up on our own; we have centuries of tradition to guide us. We can look to the great ancient churches of Rome such as San Clemente, and Ravenna such as San Appolinare in Classe, or to Gothic Revival masterpieces such as St. Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate in London. Then we can also look to our sister Western Rite congregations who have churches that are converted houses (Our Lady of Regla in Miami) or commercial buildings (St. Benedict’s, Wichita Falls and Our Lady of Walsingham in Mesquite). Others have bought existing churches and beautified them for Orthodox worship (St. Mark’s and St. Augustine’s in Denver, St. Vincent’s in Omaha, St. Andrew’s in Eustis and St. Nicholas in Spokane). Still others have been able to design and build their own buildings (St. Peter’s in Ft. Worth, St. Michael’s in Whittier and St. Columba’s in Boulder). Each of these congregations has done an excellent job of working with the resources at hand, providing space that is appropriate for our worship. Pictures of some of these churches are on our web site under links to other Western Rite parishes.
Our property is a row house built around 1915 and converted for church use by a Pentecostal church about thirty-five years ago. We have already removed the carpet, dropped ceiling and florescent lighting. The new drywall ceiling has been installed and we are currently working on the lighting and flooring, in addition to many other projects. Most of the work that we are doing at this time is simply to put the building back into good shape and make it useable. We will move our altar and other things into place around the end of the month and hope to be able to have our first liturgy in our new home no later than the Feast of the Transfiguration.
As time and resources permit, we will make enhancements to the chapel. It will be good to worship in the space for a while before making any major plans. The chapel space is small and we may need to try a couple of different arrangements to see what works best. At first nothing will be “fixed” in place and the wooden chairs we have ordered will allow for greater flexibility than pews would.
In both the East and the West it has been customary to separate the altar area, the holy place, from the rest of the church. While the iconostasis is a normal feature of an Eastern Orthodox Church (and in our two homes which included one our acolytes rather like hiding behind the screens), we will not have one at our new home. The Western equivalent to the iconostasis is the Rood Screen. Rood or rode is the Anglo-saxon word for cross and a Rood Screen – at times a simple beam across the chancel surmounted by a cross, at other times an elaborate screen filled with carvings and paintings of the saints – was a common feature in early British and other European churches (see here for examples).
Another common feature of ancient Western churches is a covering suspended over the altar called a baldachino or ciborium. Royal thrones also have canopies overhead as a sign of respect and reverence. Many people are familiar with the bronze baldachino over the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome and Ss. Peter and Paul in Potomac has a fine stone baldachino. This canopy could be made of wood, stone or metal supported by pillars; alternatively it could be made of cloth or wood and attached to or suspended from the ceiling. The earliest examples had curtains suspended between the columns and, when closed during the consecration of the Holy Gifts, emphasized the mystery of the Eucharist. A canopy over the altar of suspended wood is called a tester.
We have been given wonderful examples of Byzantine iconography over the past years. Metropolitan PAUL of Australia, when he served as priest of St. George’s in Washington gave us our large icon of the Crucifixion and Fr. George Rados and the people of Ss. Peter and Paul have given us icons of Christ and the Theotokos. We also have feast day icons that are copies of Greek masterpieces. There is nothing unusual about Byzantine iconography in a western church; the churches of Rome, Ravenna and Venice are all blessed with the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics in existence. While we are so fortunate to have these treasures at St. Gregory’s, in the future we might supplement them with new icons painted in the early Western style, as St. Mark’s in Denver, St. Peter’s in Ft. Worth, and St. Columba’s in Boulder have done.
The answer to the question “What will St. Gregory’s in Washington look like?” is “come and see.” At first we will move in with what we have and then enrich our surroundings as time and resources permit, based on our tradition and shaped by the requirements of our worship. As with all churches, this will evolve over time as we worship, pray and sing in this space. We will strive to make this temple beautiful and wondrous, both by the decorations and by our lives and worship – and all to the glory of God.