The Courtier’s parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital embarked on a plan to beautify the entrance to the church several years ago. Because it is located in a busy area of town a few blocks from the White House, the idea of improving the access to the church has always been, at least in part, to invite people to linger and perhaps cross the threshold to see what is going on inside. Due to the rather unattractive nature of said threshold, this has proven to be something of a problem, and hence the desire to turn a better face to the passing world.
Although founded in the mid-19th century, the present St. Stephen’s church was built in the early 1960’s. While the interior is – to this writer’s eye – a wonderful mixture of mid-century Scandinavian modernism and Cistercian-Mediterranean vernacular, it is admittedly not liked by everyone. Many people known to The Courtier have never stopped in to take a look. The church’s daytime exterior of pale salmon brick punctuated by black and gray expanses of glass causes people to either not notice the building at all, or think it rather harsh. It encourages walking on by, not stopping in; this is one of those situations where the beauties of the interior are not well-reflected on the exterior.
St. Stephen’s is not the only building in the world, old or modern, with a veiled quality, not unlike the famous Moorish architecture of Spain at the Alhambra in Granada or the Mezquita (Grand Mosque) of Cordoba. These buildings are decidedly unattractive and seemingly harsh on the outside. Yet if all one examines is what one sees on the outside at first glance, rather than what is happening on the inside, then the biggest part of the story is lost.
At night the front facade of St. Stephen’s comes vibrantly and colorfully to life. It is largely made up of a single, gigantic stained glass window from Chartres, done in a Fauvist style reminiscent of the work of Georges Roualt or Marc Chagall, showing a Resurrected Christ surrounded by smaller scenes from His life, along with various iconographic elements At night, when it is illuminated from within, it gently glows like a precious jewel box. It reminds us of the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, but also seems to give us a sense of God’s blessing descending on those who come under Christ’s wounded, outstretched hands, despite the darkness of night and of the ignorance of sin that surrounds them.
Below this vast window however, the entrance area of the church has always been an incongruous and unattractive brick box, slapped onto the facade almost like an afterthought. Several years ago, our then-pastor Monsignor Filardi undertook a project to have new doors designed for the church by artist Anthony Visco of the Atelier for the Sacred Arts. The Courtier was one among a number of people whom Monsignor consulted privately as the design process proceeded, and so got to see some of the development involved from the patron side, rather than the artist side. The beautiful bronze doors will feature the stoning of St. Stephen as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, with Christ appearing in a heavenly vision to the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:56); a model of part of the Christ figure is now on display at the church and appears below.
With new doors however, we need to be able to see them, and so thanks to the efforts of our current pastor Monsignor Langsfeld, demolition is beginning today on the old brick vestibule. This will be replaced by one largely constructed of clear glass walls and doors, so as to allow better access to the church and also to protect the new bronze doors by Mr. Visco when they arrive. Because they will be at eye level, a piece of sculpture which the passerby will not be able to fail to notice, these doors will serve to draw the attention of the man on the street, and perhaps even draw him inside as well.
The doors may prompt someone to come inside and ask what it is that is being depicted, which will give him an opportunity to learn a little about Christ through the example of the life of one of the saints. It is a kind of evangelization through the patronage of fine art that the Church used to be very good at, though this has declined overall along with taste in recent years. And as there really aren’t a lot of sculptural bronze doors being made for public buildings anymore, the presence of these for people to see at all hours of the day and night will provide an even more immediate witness to what we in the parish believe, as well as an opportunity for us to engage with our neighbors and visitors.
For those of us who are Christians, the witness of St. Stephen to his faith is a powerful one, and a first among many to follow in the history of the Church. For those who are not theists at all, but who remain intellectually honest and open to the possibility of there being a God, what will the powerful image of his martyrdom provoke? A few months from now when the demolition/installation work is completed, the dedication ceremonials are passed, and the local press has its say, the real work of these doors begins.