The Work of this Generation

"The begging question"

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During the past several weeks, I have been thinking as much about the nature of the St. Mary's community and the hopes of the founder Sarah Gibbs as the begging question, “When will the oak flooring actually arrive?” 

Perhaps this line of thought has resulted from simultaneous reading of C. S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity  and researching the land evidence records which provide no clear evidence of land dimensional holdings back to the first transfer to George and Walter Channing, as tenants in common, from John Faxon on December 14, 1796.  If your name was Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), you, too, might use “C. S. Lewis” in all your published writings. Of course, as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar and a one-time atheist, his writings became some of the most influential in the twentieth century and the most popular is the Chronicles of Narnia. Maybe his unique intellect allowed him to see clearer the ideals of Christianity. 

Sarah got her land holdings of the so-called Potter Farm where the church allegedly sits, on April 9, 1844, after paying $5,250.00 for approximately 88 acres.  She was sixty plus when she began this spiritually inspired project. And then she spent the next twenty plus years, till her death at age 84, working to have her vision of not only a church but a seminary realized.  The church was realized but not the seminary.    And in the early years of the church the first rector, the Rev. Hobart Williams, came and left at least three times during her life to be replaced by other rectors before his return.  Sarah had to feel some degree of disappointment and frustration, but she endured and remains an inspiration for us as we await the church restoration completion and endure a recent factory communication of a new delivery date of the wood flooring, discussed below.

So please allow me to digress from my thoughts on the St. Mary's community until the end of this note, for an update on the progress of our historic church restoration, the principal reason for writing these bi-weekly notes.  

As shared in my last note, the macro-progress was completed last week with the completion of the interior painting after months of repair and the plastering of the walls and ceiling.  And it looks great, overcoming my initial fears of the wrong color palette. Also thanks to our interior decorator and the visiting artists who assessed and reinforced the exactness of the scored lines for the faux stones and the color matrix, it is indeed impressive. This week we have been touching up a few areas that needed correction after the new lighting was installed and finishing the narthex entrance interior on the south side of the church. 

 We also have finished the external knee walls, with the craftsmen of Yardworks, Inc., that allow safe entrance and exit from the northern basement doors.  Prior to this aspect of the project, the soil from the banks encroached, so that the doors could not open properly.  After the West Warwick Station Fire, egress is a principal concern for building code safety and certificates of occupancy.  This is a picture of the area before the walls. 

And this is a picture of the finished walls. 

These walls can only be seen from the cemetery to the north of the church or on the road around the church which is now closed for construction. 

 In another small project continuation, Fish, our expert mason, will restore the brown stones around the south narthex doors and the bridal door next week with a very close brown stone mortar match.  

If you get off the ramp from the Newport Bridge, you may observe Aardvark Antiques with their many outdoor ornaments and sculptured animals.  Arthur Glover, who founded Aardvark many years ago has remained in business over the years providing not only beautiful antiques but extraordinary craftmanship of railings and antique fences. 

The solid plywood railing that was in place has now been removed and replaced by master craftsman with a new metal railing.

Aardvark has provided service to not only individuals, schools and churches but the Preservation Society as well over the years.  Ray Gray, the white-haired individual on the right, in the picture, is a master craftsman and his assistant Mike Billings is to his left.  The railing will be primed and painted before returning after the flooring has been installed. They brought the railing to the site for a measurement of the gate at the end before the steps that is required, again for safety.  

The altar railing at the front of the church has been installed in its new position and will make the communion service much easier for both the congregation and the rector, as there will be no steps to climb.

This area and the whole area around the altar in the chancel will be covered with the selected blue carpet, and kneelers will be in place as well for future communion services.

 The church has thirteen beautiful stained-glass windows.  The painting of the window sills and the interior frames in the historic antique white color rather than the dark brown has allowed them to  “pop” and reflect their colors brilliantly.  On the north side there are four windows as shown in the picture, each in memory to a member or members  of the Gibbs family or the family of Laura Wolcott Tuckerman, who married a son of George III. 

On the south side of the church there are four biblical stained glass windows, equally as beautiful, in memory of familiar names like Lawton.  

There are three windows,  one on each side of the bridal door and one above in the back of the church facing west, in memory of the Tuckerman family members.  Just as Wolcott is a familiar street in Middletown, so is Tuckerman. It is interesting to note here that after the death of George and Mary Gibbs, who died after George in 1824, the Gibbs family owned all the land from Rhode Island Ave. to Easton Pond and from First Beach to Second Beach.  Gibbs Avenue in Newport is the most- known street named after the family.  

The final two stained-glass windows are in the chancel, the largest window in the church above and behind the altar.

A smaller window  is in the chancel area on the south wall as well. 

With the new lighting our hope is that the large stained-glass window behind the altar will be lighted from the inside of the church and seen from East Main Rd. as well as much more brilliantly internally with the new wash of light.  It is also hoped that the refinished crown at the peak of the interior arch of the chancel will provide simplistic beauty and spiritual elegance as in the original historic design of the church.  

 So now the important question of when will the oak flooring arrive? 

This is now the essential next step for this restoration, so that we can install the carpet, re-install the refinished pews, install the new organ, and celebrate the reopening of the historic St. Mary's Church.  The wood manufacturer's communication months ago was that the wood would arrive onsite either the last week in August or the first week in September.  Well, the last week in August has come and gone with no wood onsite.  Now in response to our constant inquiries of the wood company, we have been told this week that the oak flooring goes into the kiln in Texas the first week in September and now will ship the second week from Texas probably arriving at our church the week of September 12.  I have found arguing with a Texan is usually a futile exercise.  

So, our flooring schedule will slip several weeks at least. But that does not mean we will not have the project finished in October, our six-month goal of completion, which is still very likely.  It does mean that we will need to compress the future work after the floor is completed.  It also means we will not know the exact date of completion and restoration celebration until we actually have the wood onsite.  

So, during the next several weeks, while we await the delivery of the wood flooring, we will do small “punch-list items” but nothing significant or dynamic.  The floor installing subcontractor is ready when the wood arrives.  As everyone knows today, these supply chain delays, despite earlier promises, are all too common in construction and require patience. Patience may be a Christian virtue but one that does not come easily for me.

There are several other supply chain delays or long lead issues that we must accept and that we knew from the start.  But they should not stop us from celebrating the completion and reopening of the church.  The first is the new mixer for the newly installed sound /acoustic system which will be delayed as will be the new microphones and a connection for the installed camera which all require unavailable microchips.  We have two companies trying to resource alternatives but it looks doubtful till the microchips are freely flowing.  We intend, if the items are not on hand when restoration work is finished in October, to utilize our existing sound components for a functioning sound system until the new parts are available. We do plan to install both the new speakers for the organ and the acoustic/sound speakers which are now here the second week in September as the wiring was completed before the walls were repaired and painted.

 In addition to the sound components, we have been told that the new choir chairs are on a long lead delivery time and the new pew cushions will arrive sometime later than the expected completion of the restoration. Both of these items can be handled, though, and not interfere with an opening service though sitting on a hard pew may not be as luxuriously comfortable as when the new tufted pew cushions are installed. But then again, we might appreciate the cushions more after experiencing what was obviously a historic condition of “hard seat” endurance in the historic church. 

So, allow me to conclude with my thoughts on the nature of this St. Mary's community begun by Sarah Gibbs.  As a long-time resident of Portsmouth and long-time friend of many parishioners and the former rector Gordon Stenning, I have observed and admired from a distance a sense of the special religious community that has existed at St. Mary's.  As we have now become part of your community, it has become much clearer and even more profound.  You have a very unique and special community that I am sure Sarah Gibbs once dreamed might become a reality and which drove her vision.  As someone who has experienced many communities in business, politics and other non -profit worlds, don’t ever underestimate how significant and special this community of Christian spirit is at St. Mary's. 

From your rector to the individuals who donate food or grow gardens, knit a prayer shawl or prepare meals for special events or just say “hello” to new worshippers, there is the presence of true Christian spirit that C. S. Lewis articulates in his book. I was not certain of this spirit, when asked as a very new member to take on this restoration oversight. And when the scope of the project and the cost were discussed, it was not clear to me that it was even possible within the budget or that there existed an ability within the congregation to raise the necessary funds to avoid an unacceptable burden on the annual operational church budget.  But the vestry and the rector shared their faith that it was possible and indeed it has come to pass.  

Now as we approach the end phase of this project, there has been no fighting or complaining but quite the opposite and the members of this special community have quietly and generously shared their money to accomplish this project in an exceptionally caring way, withholding much fanfare or organizational stressful efforts.  Sarah Gibbs would be very proud of St. Mary's Church today as it exhibits all that she hoped to achieve with her church in southern Portsmouth.  

All of which is to say, we have now observed first hand that this St. Mary's community exhibits extraordinary and special Christian qualities in what C. S. Lewis shares as the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. We do this not just in the abstract on Sunday morning but in the everyday operations and interactions with members and others within the community. Perhaps this is a reason so many others have recently joined when other churches are in fact losing membership. So, onward to the finish line of this restoration project, whatever the exact date, with a renewed appreciation of the Christian spirit begun by Sarah Gibbs and continued today by the St. Mary's community and leadership! Anon 

Posted by Ron Machtley with

"There are many workmen"

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Moreover, there are many workmen with you, stonecutters and masons of stone and carpenters, and all men who are skillful in every kind of work.

1st Chronicles 22:15

The past two weeks have been perhaps the hottest weather stretch we have ever experienced in Rhode Island.  However, if you were on a scaffolding painting high on the interior of the historic church during the past two weeks you would agree it was almost unbearable.  During this time, “men who are skillful in every kind of work” have continued to offer their talent and artistry in the restoration of the Historic Church. 

Yet everyday Stephen, Marco and Manuel, employees of Milan Restoration which specializes in church restoration work, climbed the scaffoldings after weeks of repairing the broken plaster and painting, so that we could one day return to our historic church to worship.  They were resolute in their work ethic, staying sometimes till after 7 pm, so that this project could be finished on-time and in a professional and beautiful manner.  Their dedication to the job and commitment to our church was truly unique, inspiring and certainly a blessing.  These three talented and dedicated workers from Ecuador and Mexico are part of the Milan Restoration team that Marko and his brother Milan have put together.  Marko and Milan are following in their father’s footsteps who founded Milan Restorations.   

The results of their labors are extraordinary. 

These men came to St. Mary's Church weekly from New York to live and work during this very hot weather  and turned the crumbling interior of a historic church into their masterpiece.  And to accomplish this, it was necessary for them to endure draining heat while maintaining their professional artistic focus as they executed the color palette that Taste Design, Inc., helped us select.  They also had to endure constant oversight and review to ensure that the four colors used on the individual faux stones were done just right artistically to create the desired faux stone visual mosaic.

   The detail of painting these faux stones in such a way to avoid the mortar color between the stones on the scored lines to become painted over was a constant challenge. They did not just paint the walls with one color and a roller, as we might do in our own homes, but carefully selected one of four colors and painted each faux stone individually to achieve the desired historic design context.

There were many hours of repair in this regard, but they did their work without the slightest complaint, as they knew this was to be their masterpiece.  It was also to be their gift not only to our congregation but to God, quite a burden I suppose.  Because of their efforts, their work will endure and our church will be returned to its historic beauty without water stains, crumbling walls, and a falling ceiling. For another 175 years families will come to worship and the hope is that Stephen, Marco, and Manuel’s  work will always be remembered for the effort and the skill they provided for this beautiful restoration of our historic church

 At the request of Milan Restoration,  Zurab Chertkoev (Zee)  completed the beautiful stars and design inserts on the blue ceiling above the altar.

Zee, a very talented artist who is  originally from Russia, put the finishing touches on this remarkable aspect of the project.

Below pictures of the final results of his work, which in its simplicity returned the ceiling to its original historic beautiful design to inspire and to be appreciated as we worship on Sunday mornings. 

It is worth considering, as the world is torn apart because of the issues of immigration and the conflict with Russia in Ukraine, that our church has been restored in part and beautified by ordinary and talented individuals from these regions. Maybe there is a lesson in this project beyond the results of their work.  Somewhere in the Bible, I am sure there is a text on this very issue, but we will leave to our rector the task of sharing that biblical insight as we focus our energies on the task at hand of completing this project on time and on budget.

 Our hope is that when the church reopens, and we see the newly refinished doors

and appreciate the renewed spiritual renaissance, that we invite back the individuals and maybe their families, who have been so instrumental in the restoration of our church, to receive our praise and thanks. These pictures show the finished painting of the historic church. 

However, the reality of what it was and what it has become is truly breathtaking when seen in person.  If anyone is disappointed in the finished interior, it will not be because those who worked on this project did not put excessive sweat equity and dedication into their work and effort.  Insert two pictures here.

As impressive as the painting of the church is, the new electrical service and lighting fixtures make the interior radiate beautifully.  Mike Pimentel has been working on the electrical systems of our church, as an employee of Coastal Electric, Inc., for more than twenty years and has been superb.

We told Coastal Electric at the beginning of this project that since they had been our electrical service provider for so many years, we wanted them to be the electrical contractor on this project.  This will ensure if we need them to repair some problem on a cold Saturday night before Sunday morning services, they will willingly come to repair what they installed.  Sometimes finding the cheapest service provider in the long run is costlier.  

From his past work Mike knew what electrical lines had been pulled and where they were connected. He was always quick and efficient and no doubt saved us money from his existing knowledge of the building and its electrical system.  This will probably be his last major job, as he plans to retire shortly.  He is an exceptional professional who has served our church not only so well in this restoration project but for many years.  He too should be thanked in person in the future for his years of dedication to St. Mary's Church and for his work on this project.  He excelled in doing what was needed and knew what needed to be done and in what sequence.  Few craftsmen have these skills or apply them; many are just satisfied being mediocre.  So, the hope, too, is when during future worship services we not only will see the beautiful painted walls but will easily read the printed text for songs and scriptures. For this improvement, we can remember and quietly thank Mike as well.

As you can see from the photos throughout this writing,  the pendant light fixtures have been re-hung and new interior bulbs put in them to provide more lighting.  The new ceiling floods also have a dimmer switch capability, so that the church can be lit as brightly as any majestic cathedral or as solemn as any Christmas Eve service.  The front stained-glass window over the altar will be illuminated from the inside so that passing cars will be able to see this beautiful art piece and the church at night through the trees. 

And no longer will the congregation see the unsightly rows of light switches in the front of the church.  When returned, the refinished altar and the other restored religious furniture will be washed with the new lighting and will show their beauty.  The baptismal font and  the font wall sculpture will be illuminated.  The bridal entrance, as was previously discussed, is perhaps one of the finest architectural features of this restored church, and it will be illuminated as well.

So, we hope Richard Upjohn, the original church architect of 1845, would be happy today with the way we have tried to bring back his original interior design, now enlightened to meet today’s religious service needs.  He was a British-born (1802) architect who learned the trade of cabinet making, which one can see in our high wood pulpit. He  then learned the art of architecture for designing churches and other buildings and is  known for his Greek Revival theme.  

Upjohn’s family moved from New Bedford to Boston after immigrating from England.  Moving to New York in 1839, he was commissioned in 1846 to design the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street.  This would have been the same timeframe that he was designing Kingscote  (1839) and the Edward King House (1845) in Newport; the Bowdoin College Chapel, Brunswick, Maine (1844-1855); Grace Episcopal Church in Providence(1845);  Trinity Church in New York City was preceded by the Church of the Holy Cross in Middletown (1844) which he designed before St. Mary's Church (1847).  He was certainly one busy architect.  It seems most likely that as a result of the Gibbs family connection in society in Newport, that Sarah Gibbs became aware of his architectural skill and engaged him to design St. Mary's Church.

So what is next for the restoration of St. Mary's Church?   We had hoped that the oak flooring would be delivered the second week in August, but we have recently been advised that it should arrive either the last week in August or the first week in September. This is later than we originally hoped, but with effort we still believe that we can be finished in October.  The flooring subcontractor has suggested that he can finish laying the floor in two weeks.  Then we will put down the carpet which is already in Rhode Island, followed by the new organ and the sound system.  So, the next bi-weekly note may be short on accomplishment, but all in good time as the project is nicely coming together.  Anon

Posted by Ron Machtley with