Looking Back at St. John’s Episcopal Church
You might have wondered why the doors to an otherwise stately and imposing church building might have bright red doors. A bit incongruous, to be sure. Some people believe it sprang from an old custom of churches painting their front doors red when the mortgage was paid off.
However, the generally recognized explanation holds that the red signifies the shedding of Christ’s blood and the path to salvation. Several hundred years ago red doors were symbols of refuge and sanctuary for all who entered. A soldier could not pursue an enemy who had passed through the red doors of a church. Today the red doors symbolize not just physical safety but spiritual refuge as well.
Situated on the southeast corner of the Quarrier Street and Leo Sullivan Way intersection is the red-doored St. John’s Episcopal Church. Not the first structure to house St. John’s, the original was a brick church completed in 1837 on the northwest corner of McFarland and Virginia Streets.
By 1884, the congregation needed a larger building to house the growing membership. Ground was broken in 1883 and was completed and consecrated in 1901. The new church was designed by renowned architect Isaac Pursell of Philadelphia. Pursell was a prolific designer of churches located in the eastern United States, many of which reflected the English Gothic Revival style. In West Virginia, Pursell also designed Tygarts Valley Presbyterian Church in Huttonsville. Both it and St. John’s are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pursell’s Late Gothic Revival design was originally to be constructed of brick, but was changed to West Virginia sandstone, both random-coursed rough and smooth-faced. The prominent corner bell tower is a contrast with the church’s Gothic windows and roofline. St. John’s is the only church in Charleston with a stone belfry.
The corner buttressing, pointed arch windows and doors, and raised entrance under the bell tower all contribute to the Gothic design of St. John’s. The steep slate roof is covered in patterned bands of hexagonal slates.
St. John’s interior has an open-truss roof structure is a lovely example of a wooden rib-vaulted ceiling. The Gothic pointed arch element is used throughout the interior repeating the shape of the church’s stained-glass windows. The windows were originally geometrically painted glass. They were replaced in the 1970’s with stained glass from Blenko in West Virginia, and from other European glass houses.
The Parish House wings began construction in 1928. They represent a very early, and highly successful attempt to reflect and maintain the architectural integrity of an existing structure. Pursell’s original design was left intact and fully visible from three sides.
St. John’s purpose is to seek, love and serve. Through the years, the parish has been on the leading edge of encouraging and supporting a variety of social issues of the day. Interfaith Refugee Ministry efforts have been a key focus in the last two years.
They also house Manna Meal, an outreach ministry that feeds area hungry two meals a day every single day of the year. Additionally, the church provides space for 12-step recovery groups to convene. Weekly Grief Groups assist those in need of support after a personal loss. The Opp Shop/Back Door Thrift Shop is open several times a week with yard sale priced items of gently used clothing and other items for members of the Charleston community.
For children, St. John’s provides Reading Camp. Reading Camp offers intensive instruction to students in grades two through five who are identified by their schools are being at least a grade level behind in reading skills. They are assisted in reading development in a stress-free and failure-free environment.
St. John’s Episcopal Church is a beautiful landmark structure in Charleston. But more than just a building, the church extends years of community caring and involvement to the residents of Charleston.
Next month, Looking Back visits The United Carbon Building, a small, but lovely gem on Charleston’s Kanawha Boulevard.