First Lutheran Church of West Barnstable – 52 Churches

There has been a small Finnish community on Cape Cod since the 19th century and I am too lazy to do the research to plausibly explain why in this entry in the 52Church series, but they apparently, according to one local history, had a penchant for drinking and so a temperance society was formed at the turn of the century to quell their dipsomania. That society eventually became a place of worship and since Finns — and many people of the Nordic and Teutonic countries — tend to be Lutheran, so West Barnstable became home to the first Lutheran church on Cape Cod, the Suomi, or Finnish Lutheran synod to be precise. According to Marion Rawson Vuilleumier’s Churches on Cape Cod, services were conducted only in Finnish until 1943, when a second English service was added and the church congregation grew.

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Seventh Day Adventists – 52 Churches

Over the Christmas holidays while visiting in-laws in San Francisco, I was invited to a party at a wine marker’s cave in the mountaintop town of Angwin, California. As we wound up the steep road my friend said, “This is a Seventh Day Adventist town and university.” We flashed past a big church, the campus of the Pacific Union College, and then on into the back roads to our destination.

Intrigued, I did some research on the religion. Here are the basics: an American denomination formed in the middle of the 19th century from the s0-called “Millerite” movement, and was formally organized in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan (remember Battle Creek), largely around the writings and vision of its prophet, Ellen G. White, a native of Gorham, Maine who wrote prolifically of her visions which began after she was hit in the face by a thrown rock while fleeing a 13 year old girl in Portland, Maine.

The Millerites were a group formed around 1850 in upstate New York who, based on a close reading of the Bible, predicted the Second Coming would occur in 1844. It didn’t. Again, I will spare you my borrowed pedantic knowledge and point you at the Wikipedia entry, which, as I assume with all Wiki entries, shares the input of the church, its members and officials and is as balanced a definition and history as you can find anywhere. The church is unique in several respects, notably the observance of a Saturday sabbath, a high proportion of vegetarians and abstemious practices, and a strong tradition of extroverted charity and public works from hospitals to higher education. Tithing is encouraged — more on that later — and church members do not join unions or other organizations aside from the church.

I believe there is only one Seventh Day Adventist congregation on Cape Cod. I live about five miles from the church on Route 28 in Osterville. It is a modest, contemporary structure set slightly back from the road in a stand of pine trees.

The Service

The parking lot was full — most churches seem to be enjoying strong attendance these days — and I entered the narthex along with a herd of young people dressed in their Sunday best. I was warmly greeted at the door, handed a program, and made my way into the main church hall where I took the customary back-pew-right-hand-side seat. As I settled in I put on my glasses to read the program but the temple piece fell off, victim of a lost screw. As I flustered around trying to fix the specs, a jovial man introduced himself, a local attorney who it turned out was also the church pianist. We talked for a few minutes, me explaining the purpose of my visit, he telling me about his beginnings as a Catholic. Before I could ask him about his conversion the pastor, Rev. Mark Gagnon introduced himself. The welcome was warm and effusive and I was made to feel right at home.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses – 52 Churches

The plan last Sunday morning was to hit a “regular” church but on the way I saw a few people enter the Assembly Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in North Falmouth on Route 151 near the Massachusetts Military Reservation. I turned around and casually slipped in for what may be one of the more novel religious experiences since I started lurking in strange churches last autumn.

I try to find a new denomination everyweek so I don’t fall into the lazy trap of repeating the tried and true. With three Episcopalian visits on the board and two more scheduled I could easily be accused of sticking to what I know when the point of this exercise is to check out the mystery religions I may never have cause to visit again.  With this entry I officially cross the one-third mark in my 52 churches and need to start seeking out the significant Protestant holes in my experience as well as the religions that are going to be tough to track down (Buddhism, Hindu, and Sikhism are the big ones on the list now).

My prior experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been a few random door-bell-ringing-points-of-contact where well-dressed young men, travelling in pairs, come bearing pamphlets and prayers. The second was when I worked as an orderly in suburban Boston hospital and witnessed a drastic surgical procedure on a child who’s spleen had ruptured in a school bus accident and had to have surgery without the benefit of a blood transfusion which Witnesses prohibit due to a specific Biblical admonition against third-party blood. I believe, but can’t confirm, that one of my great-great-grandfather’s four daughters was a Witness, but that is based on faint hearsay and some found copies of the faith’s signature publication, The Watchtower.

Of course the Witnesses’  headquarters in Brooklyn is a familiar sight across New York City’s East River, and according to my brother-in-law Jim,  the Witnesses dominate the dry wall trade in NYC in the 1980s.  I have no reason to doubt his word on this, but at the same time I have no evidence that this is still the case today.

The Assembly Hall is a neat, trim single story building with no rooftop steeple or other overt religious contrivance. I parked and walked back around to the front of the building, up a few steps and into one of two doors. Two gentlemen dressed in suits immediately made me feel under dressed in my Merrill snow clogs, green corduroys, and blue blazer sans necktie. I scanned the tables for some sign of collateral (pamphlets, programs, etc.), saw none, but heard a man’s voice amplified through the sound system.  I said hello to the two deacons and entered the main room in the Hall.

It had three banks of chairs, about ten rows of 15 each, and was more than 75% filled when I entered. A man in a suit stood on the dais behind a lectern and was preaching on the topic of the Sabbath. As I walked to my seat in the last row of the farthest bank of chairs he told the congregation to turn to a specific place in their Bibles. Immediately I was at a disadvantage as I don’t own a Bible and none were furnished. I took off my coat, sat down, and started to take notes, not sure what I had missed as I obviously was entering late.

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Cape Cod Synagogue – 50 Churches, One Mosque, One Temple

I would make a terrible Jew.

On Saturday I visited my first synagogue and attended my first Jewish services since Hiram Samel’s bar mitzvah in 1972, thus this is the first Jewish visit of the series.  It was a reform congregation in Hyannis, one founded in 1933, located on Winter Street in a contemporary building that is at most thirty or forty years old. I give my participation a C minus at best, but throughly enjoyed the service, particularly the warmth of the congregation and the high degree of communal participation by all in attendance.

This was the most confusing service for me to participate in, with some serious revelations into the depths of my complete ignorance of the Jewish tradition. Example: I did not know the Jewish name for God (Adonai) I certainly do not know how to read Hebrew, let alone pronounce it. I am not used to reading from right to left. I could go on, but let me forge on first. I approach this entry gingerly as good mensch friends like Uncle Fester are sure to howl at my Judaic Ineptitude.

There are not a lot of synagogue options on the Cape.  The other synagogues I’m aware of are in Falmouth, a “Chabad” in Hyannis, and of course the oldest in the country, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. When my eldest son was in third grade he  participated in a “Local Heroes” project which paired him and his classmates with local leaders — his “hero” was the former Rabbi of the Cape Cod Synagogue — and so he shadowed the man for a term, visiting the synagogue on several occasions.   Of the religions I hope to learn the most about in this project, Judaism leads the list due to its venerable age and traditions, and  its commonalities and differences with Christianity (shared geographical locus, Old Testament history, etc.).

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Christ the King – 52 Churches

As I am back on Cape Cod sand after a weekend of exotic services in Istanbul, today I went to Christ the King, a large Catholic church in the neighboring town of Mashpee.  This is the second Catholic church visited in this project, the first being a Latin mass in San Francisco over the holidays, but one I had highlighted as a key visit in my local peregrinations. I have visited the large, white and relatively new parish twice before: once for my eldest son’s soccer banquet and the second for the funeral of a friend’s father. It is the largest Catholic congregation in the immediate area, perhaps on the entire Cape, and the church itself is the largest local church visited so far on the Cape.

Massachusetts is a very Catholic state due to the high influx of Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century.  I estimate half of my childhood friends were Catholic, and over time I felt I was in the minority as a non-church going, non-affiliated quasi-Christian. Those friends would talk about going to  “CCD” (catechism class) and when visiting me on overnight stays, would need to make arrangements to attend Mass at a local church. Catholicism is an integral part of eastern Massachusetts culture, and I’ve always felt excluded when in the company of friends for whom the church was a fact of life.  As a WASP I was part of a different tradition that was more English and austere than Latin and emotional. As the local political columnist Howie Carr once observed, Bay State WASPs worship in wooden churches, Catholics in brick. WASPs tend to have roman numerals after their names, Catholics’ end with a vowel.

In the 1960s and 70s the Catholic parish that went on to become Christ the King was in temporary quarters on Route 28 in the Portugese section of Cotuit near the intersection of Newtown Road. I remember attending Mass there with a visiting friend one summer, the services were held in a tent evidently because the congregation swelled in the summer months and needed additional seating. My memories of that first Mass were of being confused by the Sign of the Cross, the genuflection before entering the pew, and the large amount of memorized rote evidently taught in the catechism classes. I was lost and felt very left out of the internal workings of the church.

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Sultanahmet Camii – The Blue Mosque: 51 Churches and One Mosque

Today the 52 Churches project left Christianity after 12 churches and finally experienced Islam with a visit to the impressive Blue Mosque of Istanbul. This one was not easy, took some courage and persistence, but was well worth the extra effort and I am particularly proud that my introduction to Islamic worship was in such a venerable and magnificent mosque.

Formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in English (the Sultanahmet in Turkish), the Mosque was built between 1606-1616 by Ahmed I, whose tomb is located there. There is a detailed history on Wikipedia of course, so I will spare you the borrowed pedantry and let you click the previous link to educate yourself. It’s blue because of the extensive use of blue tiles throughout the interior, particularly in the immense dome, which in many ways mirrors the grandeur of Hagia Sofia, The Church of Wisdom, built 1100 years earlier across the grand plaza to the east. The mosque is notable for having six minarets, the most of any mosque except for Mecca, which was given a seventh minaret to retain its preeminence in the minaret department.

I tried to enter and observe prayers three times over the past seven days and polled several people about the etiquette and protocol of an infidel such as myself entering a mosque during prayers. In some cases and countries nonbelievers are firmly banned from entering mosques, but allegedly, because of the secular reforms of Kamal Ataturk, Turkey does not hold such a hard line and the Blue Mosque in particular is organized as a “tourist” mosque and permits visitors in between prayers.

Each time I tried to enter I was too close to the beginning of the next prayers and the guest entrance on the west side was closed. The carpet touts and would-be tour guides can be brutal and by my final attempt today, with only hours before I left Turkey for China, I resolved to make one last effort despite the warnings of many that I was a fool to expect to watch prayers. It simply isn’t easy and it isn’t like a typical temple or church where a non-believer can just stroll in and have a seat. Indeed, even in the Eastern Orthodox church they have a name for people like me — catechumen – who are supposed to observe the services out in the narthex outside of the nave. That apparently is NOT the case in a mosque, some of which prohibit a non-believer from entering at all. I was growing a bit pessimistic I would ever gain entry or worse, would have to disguise myself and enter in mufti like Richard Francis Burton did when he snuck into Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Pashtun (he also spoke nearly every Indian and Arabic language).  I am a huge Richard Burton fan by the way. He was one of the more amazing adventurers who ever lived.

Richard Francis Burton in Arab Dress

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Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches

(Brace yourself church fans; this is going to be a long one I think)

First the context. Then the church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (after Roman Catholicism) and is the prevalent Christian denomination in Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is Greek in origin and traces its history directly back to Christ’s Apostles, emphasizing in its beliefs its unchanged connection directly  back to the foundation of Christianity.

It was the religion of the Byzantine Empire, which followed the Roman Empire and peaked in its power and extent in the middle of the sixth century but survived until 1453 in its capitol of Constantinople until the city was sacked by the Muslim Turks. The Patriarchate is the spiritual capitol of the faith, yet care must be taken not to assume that the Patriarchate is the “Vatican” of the Orthodox faith, or the Patriarch is tantamount to the Pope. He is, like the Pope, considered “first among equals,” and he is viewed as the leader of the Orthodox faith. Historically the position of Patriarch wielded immense power and in some regards was as powerful as the Byzantine Emperor. The piety of the Byzantine court cannot be underestimated, and the synods or early religious councils that were convened in the early centuries such as the Council of Nicea are fundamental to the history of all Christian denominations.

This is the religion of icons, of priests in black cylindrical hats and flowing robes, of smoking censers filled with frankincense. If you’ve seen Deer Hunter and recall the Orthodox wedding, then you’ve seen some Orthodox liturgy.

After the sack of Constantinople the Byzantine church limped around Istanbul, getting kicked out of one church after another as the Sultan converted Hagia Sofia — The Church of Holy Wisdom — into a mosque and commanded that no Christian church exceed a mosque in size or grandeur. Today the church is the small but elegant Church of St. George on the shores of the Golden Horn in Phanar (Fener), where it has resided since 1600.

From Wikipedia:

“Since the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of modern Turkish nationalism most of the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has emigrated, leaving the Patriarch in the anomalous position of a leader without a flock, at least locally. Today the Church of St George serves mainly as the symbolic centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and as a centre of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The church is financially supported by donations from Orthodox communities in other countries.

On 3 December 1997, a bomb attack seriously injured a deacon and damaged the Patriarchal Cathedral.[4] This was one of the many terrorist attacks against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and cemeteries in Istanbul in recent years.The efforts to bring the terrorists to justice are continuing.”

The Service

Before travelling to Turkey I wrote an email to the secretary of the church seeking some information about services, but I never received a reply, which is not surprising given the incongruity of communicating with an ancient church through a digital pipe. Friday afternoon I used Skype to phone the Patriarchate’s press office where I explained my mission to visit interesting sacred places over the course of a year. I was referred to an American expatriate affiliated with the church, and one minute later had an encouraging discussion with a gentleman named Paul Gigos who told me my timing could not be better as one of the more significant Feasts of the ecumenical calendar was taking place the following morning, Saturday: the Feast of the Three Hierarchs.

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Hagia Sofia – 52 Churches

I realized a long standing personal dream today when I stepped inside of the Hagia Sofia and admired it’s 1500 year old dome.

I looked up at the distant mosaic of the Virgin and Child, admired the Empress Irene and the Pantocrator, saw the sadness of John the Baptist rendered in little mosaic tiles like a pointillist’s painting. I stood in front of the conquered altar and defiantly said the Lord’s Prayer to myself in an attempt to make this an “official” church visit– since no religious services have been conducted inside the great nave since Kamal Ataturk secularized the monument into a museum in 1935.

The last Christian rites were interrupted because of the sack of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.  For many Greeks it was a lifelong dream to see that service completed yet it is unlikely Hagia Sofia will ever see another Christian service. The symbolism and the antipathies are too strong so now it sits neutral, a museum to a strange time when the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine. An American politician has made some noise about turning Hagia Sofia back into a church,  but ….

I walked on marble floors so worn and ancient they felt soft and comfortable like old shoes. I touched the Sweating Column. I stood before the altar, now defunct and confused with Islamic scripture, and wondered at the coronations, the Easters, the Christmases that were celebrated there in the glory days of the Byzantine Empire, the Empress behind, sitting with her retinue in her loge.

It was freaky. To be there was an honor, an exceptional thing made real after years of reading about its splendor and magnificence, the Churbuckian version of a celebrity sighting only …. much more profound and humbling. To put it into perspective. I pay homage to history in my backyard that is four hundred years old — old weathered wooden houses and churches built by Pilgrims and Puritans. This was a wonder of the medieval world; at the time of its construction it was the tallest dome in the world and the largest enclosed space in the world. When one stands under the dome and looks up, blinded by the shafts of light through the windows, you have to ask “How did they get the stuff up there?”

Domes were throughout the  medieval era through the Renaissancs, incredibly difficult architectural challenges. The Pantheon in Rome is one great example of an ancient dome. The tale of Fillipio Brunelleschi’s great feat in giving Florence a dome on its Cathedral is fascinating. Domes were very high tech for their time, and Hagia Sofia’s is all the more remarkable for its early implementation and sheer size. Hagia Sofia has had several domes, the first one collapsed in 558 in an earthquake and had to be rebuilt. It was hit again in 868 and 989, yet the Emperors kept rebuilding.

The Hagia Sofia was the church of the Byzantine emperors, administered by the Patriarch of Constantinople, built by 10,000 laborers in six years and completed in 527 AD. It was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian and is a reflection of Roman culture for Constantinople was Nova Roma, the new Rome established by the Emperor Constantine — the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity — as a way to move the center of power from the tired and corrupt precincts of Rome to the strategically brilliant locale of Byzantium, a Greek village that dominated the Bosporous, arguably one of the most geographically strategic pieces of land in the world.

Hagia Sofia is a place of so many superlatives that it is hard to follow in the words of the historian Procopius or modern writers such as John Julius Norwich and Lord Stephen Runciman and describe it’s majesty.

The Service

There wasn’t any. There were a lot of Turkish and Japanese tourists. Everyone was holding a camera out in front of them, and some workers were erecting scaffoldings to commence some restoration work. I made my way to the altar and felt a little awestruck, but other than that … no music, no liturgy, no prayers. There was a huge feeling of, well, history, agelessness, ghosts, and some pride in being a human.

Random Observations

  • The first church I paid to enter. 20 Turkish lira. The ticket says “Ayasofya” the Turkish name for Hagia Sofia.
  • I will return before I leave on Sunday. It deserves a second visit I think.
  • The eastern porch smelled funny
  • The Sweating Column was very strange and has me convinced I have contracted a weird disease.
  • There are no stairs to the upper balcony, but a series of ramps with incredibly worn down stones.
  • The mosaics that remain, the Comenus, the Pantocrator, the one high above the altar of the Virgin …. simply breathtaking works of art. The Muslims plastered over most of them in the 15th century as Islam prohibits such imagery.
  • The external architecture is evidently the finest example of Byzantine architecture extant. It remind me a little of the Greek Orthodox church in Centerville on Cape Cod.
  • The big discs hung by the Muslims around the interior upset me as they have when I have seen them in photographs, yet I understand that the structure was holy to those Muslims who worshipped there for 500 years.
  • My chances for attending Muslim prayers grow slim. Colleagues are warning me away.

Next: more church in Istanbul!

Osterville Baptist Church — 52 Churches

I resumed the journey to visit 52 places of worship in one year and returned to my home base on Cape Cod this Sunday morning with a visit to my first Baptist church, the Osterville Baptist Church in the center of the village of Osterville. Baptists are among the more mysterious Christian denominations for me, and perhaps the most ridden with cliches and preconceptions to my uninformed mind.

The church dominates the center of the stylish village, nicknamed “Imposterville” by one friend for its glitz and wealth. As a year-round community, Osterville is a quiet village populated by a growing community of middle class working people and merchants. As a summer resort it is home to celebrities and the ultra-wealthy, with some magnificent estates and many waterfront “starter Castles” and McMansions.  It is also a renowned yachting center and home to the Crosby Yacht Yard — birthplace of the totemic Cape Cod Catboat. In January the streets are quiet, in June they are bustling and shining.

Built in 1837, the church is a large white Greek Revival church on the intersection of Main Street and Wianno Avenue in the center of the village. I possess very little historical background on the building and its congregation, and don’t know if it has been a Baptist church over the course of  its entire history.

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