Since being back in Raleigh, I’ve developed a casual interest in “researching” local history. Most of the work has already been done by people much more devoted than I, so it’s really just a matter of picking up interesting little tidbits that I can file away in the “useless facts” corner of my brain. Raleigh is surprisingly full of fascinating characters and strange mythology; for a town it’s size it really does have a pretty vibrant history. I’m always excited by opportunities to gather a few new stories. So, when I heard there was an annual “Historic Church Walk” one Saturday in October, I eagerly scribbled it into my planner and printed off my tour map. Churches are kind of like a city’s time capsules…their history and artifacts very much reflect the evolution of the community around them. Charting the life of a church is a great way to get a picture of the city’s ups and downs, its prosperity, it’s diversity, and it’s values. Raleigh is lucky to have such a wealth of wonderful congregations that have stood the test of time, preserving for us the story of the past and provoking hope for today and in the future.
My first stop was Edenton Street Methodist Church, founded in 1811. This building has been burned to the ground and rebuilt twice in it’s 200 year history—not an uncommon fate for old buildings. The current sanctuary dates only to 1958…I love that they put so much effort into retaining it’s traditional style and grandeur–with the wooden beams, pipe organ and rose window.
Just out front is this historical marker, which I drive by about once a week and I always mean to take a picture of (am I the only one who takes pictures of historical markers??). Melville B. Cox was commissioned to go to Liberia, which was being founded as a colony for freed American slaves. Once there, he set the foundations for Methodism in that new country–beginning Sunday schools and creating strategies for missions and outreach. Unfortunately he suffered from ill health even long before his departure, and died not long after his arrival in Africa. His legacy remains a testament to the fact that God can use you no matter your excuse or how much time you have to give. Across the road is Sacred Heart Cathedral. Holding only 350 people, it is the smallest cathedral in the continental US….much too small, actually; the Catholics will soon be breaking ground on their new, much larger cathedral to fit their growing parish congregation of 6,000. After the new cathedral is finished, this building will be relegated to the status of a normal church, although it will still retain a special place in the hearts of North Carolina Catholics. This little church was completed in 1924 by the same Irish stonemasons who built the capitol building a few blocks away. The blue ceiling gives the sanctuary a light, airy, and open feeling…much brighter than some of the darker wood-paneled churches. There are also 1,999 gold-painted stars—there were originally 2,000 but some mischievous congregant painted over one. The walls are outlined with beautiful stenciling. Inset into the walls around the sanctuary are blue reliefs that tell the story of the Passion of Christ. Church of the Good Shepherd is an Episcopalian congregation. The marble cornerstone was quarried near Jerusalem in 1899, and the church itself was completed in 1914–although the stained glass windows took an additional 60 years to install. Amazingly, the original wood-framed church that stood on this site was not destroyed…simply moved to another location. It has been fully restored to it’s original 1800’s condition and is available for special events. I’m a little bit of a stained glass nerd (going back to those college days, when I wrote a 20 page paper on church windows) so this church was probably one of my favorites. I think that the dim, color-filtered light shining through just gives an atmosphere of reverence that isn’t really replicated in modern churches. From the ceiling beams to the marble columns, the display of artistry in this church is really fantastic. No details are spared. If you look closely, the Italian marble altar has a beautiful depiction of the Last Supper.
First Baptist Church, Salisbury Street has an interesting story but a not-so-interesting building. This congregation began in 1812 with 9 free persons and 14 slaves, worshiping together. The first service was held in this building in 1859. Soon after the civil war, the African American members requested dismissal from the church to start their own congregation. The split was amicable, and the black congregation moved back into the old Baptist church building a few blocks away on Wilmington Street, which dates to 1840. This solves the mystery of how Raleigh ended up with two First Baptist Churches. After the stunning decoration of some of the other churches, both of the baptist churches seem pretty underwhelming. I didn’t like that the balcony actually curves around and blocks the stained glass windows, and the organ–usually a dramatic centerpiece–is tucked away quietly in a corner. I did appreciate the cast iron grille, though…weird but interesting.
Christ Church is a church I’ve wanted to go in for years. I’ve snapped so many pictures of this quiet little courtyard, but always from the outside. One day I’m going to grab a book and jump that fence…it looks like a perfect place to hide away and read. This church was built in 1853, although the congregation has been organized since 1821, and was actually designed by Richard Upjohn, one of the most eminent church architects of the 19th century.If I learned anything on this tour, its that Episcopalians really know how to build a church.
This church also had some fantastic stained glass, and a really beautifully carved altarpiece. I’ve been really impressed by the wooden ceilings in most of these churches. They’re beautiful but not distractingly so—Christ Church in particular is a really well-balanced space. I’m so glad I went up in the balcony to get a better look at the windows.
Not pictured are the First Baptist Church Wilmington, First Presbyterian Church, and St Paul AME Church. The Presbyterian Church shares a lot of similar attributes to these other churches, from the wood paneling to the stained glass, but features heavy rounded arches through the sanctuary. It’s still a lovely building and worth a look. Highlight–they let me ring their bell. I wish I went to St. Paul, but unfortunately that was the one church I missed on the tour. This congregation descends from the slave members of Edenton Street Methodist church, who eventually broke away to found the first independent black congregation and oldest black church in wake county. The building was build entirely by talented black craftsmen, who desired a building that was comparable to any white church in the area. Judging from the exterior, they clearly succeeded.
Anyway, having never been inside many of these churches before, I was honestly quite surprised at the quality and craftsmanship displayed. It’s amazing to think that even in a little city like Raleigh, people managed to pull together enough to fund beautiful buildings that rival those in much bigger cities! I hope y’all enjoyed getting a little peek inside.
Next week we’re off for a vacation in Maine, so next time I check back in here, look forward to some great photos of the northeast coastline!