This is the beginning of Chapter Two in my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street in New York City was home to a theater and poetry program as well as an active congregation. ∞
Up the wine-red carpeted stairs to St. Clement’s sanctuary, pilgrims found swinging leather doors stamped with brass studs. Opening on a vast space, the eye followed rows of tall arched windows resembling trees where stained-glass mosaics formed branches, flowers, and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.
Treading a red carpet on the stairs and in the offices, worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics, not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue, I came to another path inside/outside space, sensing, questing.
In the upstairs space theater and sanctuary vied within winged walls held aloft, spectacle and service fused, refused, in faith with the fallen, to recombine message and activism.
I praised the windows to Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers.
“Oh, they’re actually not stained glass,” he said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings as in the Chinese language. “They’re leaded glass.”
“There’s beauty under the grime.”
“We’d like to restore them, but it’s too expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”
A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval, home to armored knights more than chanting monks.
“Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.” In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. “Later she referred to it as ‘that funky little peace church on the West Side.’” Watty’s sigh had a reality bite. “She couldn’t remember our name.”
In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the hermetic basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.
The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.
So, the Upstairs Space had several names, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.
Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.