- Strangers & Pilgrims: A Centennial History of the Layman’s Club of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine by Francis J. Sypher Jr.
The writings of St. Paul testify to the early importance of laypersons in building the Christian community. Where would we be today were it not for the myriad souls that Paul thanks and asks to be remembered to? And where, indeed, would the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine be today were it not for the tireless work of the Layman’s Club?
In celebration of its centennial, Francis J. Sypher Jr. has written an interesting volume that recounts the history of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the important work of the members of the Layman’s Club in creating the imposing structure that the cathedral is today.
The initial impetus for an Episcopal cathedral in New York came from Bishop Horatio Potter, who proposed its construction in 1872. It was “brought to realization” [End Page 177] by his successor and nephew, Bishop Henry Codman Potter, who envisioned the cathedral as a “foundation for the outside lay work of members, associations, clubs, guilds, and brotherhoods.” As part of this vision, he encouraged the creation of the Layman’s Club in 1908. Over the years, the club has supported the cathedral through lectures, tours, a gallery exhibition space, ushering at services, generous contributions, and sponsorships of special projects for the cathedral, along with outreach and service to the cathedral neighborhood. The beautiful Pilgrim’s Pavement, the Compass Rose at the Crossing, the funds for the stairs into the North Portal, and countless other adornments to the building are the result of the generosity and fund-raising skills of the club.
There were periods when the Layman’s Club was underutilized, yet its members continued to contribute where and when they could. Even during a hiatus in construction in 1964, they raised the funds necessary to install the 4.5-ton, fourteen-foot-tall Gable Cross, which witnesses to Christian faith from the very apex of the central portal. In recent years, following the lead of Bishop Paul Moore and Dean James Parks Morton, the club has expanded and diversified its membership, as well as continued its philanthropy and stewardship.
The decision to admit women was made in 1975; since then, three women have served as president. One might have liked more information about how this decision came to be made and why the name was never changed to reflect these additional members. As with so many organizations after the 1970s, the gifts and ministries of women are now utilized to the full extent.
A word that echoes throughout the book is communication. From its inception, the Layman’s Club viewed its mission as bridging the communication gap between the Cathedral, other Episcopalians, and the community at large through its programs. As Dean James Kowalski writes in the foreword, “each generation called into the Cathedral is asked to enter the ongoing conversation about the Good Society.” The cathedral was “to be more than a meeting place;” It has always sought to be an important part of the conversations happening in the community at large, a beacon for justice, peace, diversity, and beauty.
Through depressions, wars, urban decay and urban renewal, and a devastating fire, the Layman’s Club has helped to keep this conversation alive, and as this volume so ably recounts, the club has had no small part in the great adventure of this cathedral. We can be grateful to Sypher for the extensive research that has enabled him to tell so well the interesting story of the laymen and women who have come as “strangers and pilgrims and … stayed on to be hosts for a host of strangers who pass through its portals.” [End Page 178]