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The art and architecture of St. John's Church Portsmouth

A bit over three hours south of Washington, DC, is the quaint little town of Portsmouth, VA, and it is well worth the drive. Visiting Portsmouth would be a lovely weekend trip for those wishing to escape the craziness inside the Washington Beltway. In an area filled with beautiful, old churches, there is one that stands out among the rest, St. John’s Church. The parishioners of St. John’s are blessed with being able to worship in a beautiful place rich in art and architecture, including a stunning Tiffany stained glass window.

St. John’s Church is located at 424 Washington Street, Portsmouth, VA.
Photo Kim Allegrezza

Located in historic Olde Towne Portsmouth on Washington Street, St. John’s has a long and interesting history. The welcoming parishioners are friendly and love to share information about their charming church. The building is always open to anyone.

In July 1845 members of Trinity Church began a movement that would lead to the formation of the original St. John’s Church. These members disagreed with ideas from Oxford which were taught by Trinity's rector. They differed over whether a person’s baptism was invalid unless it was performed by a priest who had been ordained by a bishop and they took issue with the fact that the decisions of the priest were considered absolute and were not allowed to be questioned by the members of the congregation. In 1848 at the Diocesan Annual Council meeting, Bishop William Meade and the Diocesan Council approved the petition to form this new church and declared it to be called St. John's. The first building was completed in 1850 and located at the corner of Court and London Streets.

During the aggressive Yellow Fever epidemic which ravaged Portsmouth in 1855, many residents fled, including physicians and the clergy. This left many citizens of Portsmouth without medical care, food and water. The Reverend James Chisholm, first rector of St. John's, remained in Portsmouth to care for the poor and the sick. Fatigued by his efforts, Chisholm contracted Yellow Fever and died at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. A monument dedicated to Reverend James Chisholm is located in the church and Chisholm's selfless example remembered by the congregation on the calendar of saints they celebrate each year.

During the Civil War, Portsmouth was occupied by the Union army and General Barnes took control of St. John's as a place of worship for United States soldiers. After the war parishioners of St. John's were able to return to their church. Originally parishioners were required to purchase their pews, as was the custom of the time. Church pews were like tiny rooms, each with a door and a bolt. In 1868 Rev John Powell proposed the idea of free pews.

Rather than support the mission of St. John's by renting pews, members contributed to the using pledge envelopes. In post-Civil War Reconstruction, Powell agreed to accept the offerings after all the expenses of the church had been met and refused Diocesan assistance, since this would change the status of the church to a mission. This man served the church until 1895 and a wall monument remembering his ministry hangs across the nave from Rev Chisholm's. The sign proclaims to all everyone who enters St. John's, “All Seats Free”.

Built in 1898 the Gothic worship space is rich with images and symbols and was constructed of rose granite from Salisbury, North Carolina. In the classic tradition of western church architecture, this worship space is shaped like a cross. The upright of the cruciform, where the congregation gathers, is the nave. The high wooden ceiling is shaped like the keel of a ship. The crossbeam, or transept, of the space houses the musicians on one side of the nave and the Founders' Chapel on the other.

One of the most magnificent parts of St. John’s Church is the rose stained glass window above the Washington Street entrance. At the heart of this flower is the Lamb, representing Christ within. Surrounding him are eight circles, each contain a Christian symbol. The four evangelists are represented by the four creatures, with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega intertwined. These are the Greek monogram for Jesus. The dove represents the Holy Spirit and the grapevine symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ. The rose window, a circle, which has no beginning and no end, represents God.

Across the church in the chancel you will discover the splendid Tiffany altar window. The altar window depicts Jesus with his arms outstretched in invitation to all and was designed by Mary Brown Channel, the first female licensed architect in Virginia, and the daughter of Bishop William A. Brown, who served as Rector of St. John’s Church from 1904-1938. Made from Tiffany’s favrile glass, this beacon above the altar was installed in 1907. Frederick Wilson, a foremost designer at Tiffany who was known for his refined painting, painted the facial features. The simplicity of the powerful design is a commanding presence in this church full of beautiful windows.

The Constitution baptismal font was created from a live oak pillar which was removed from the celebrated War of 1812 frigate, USS Constitution, while it was under repair at the US Navy Yard in Portsmouth, now called Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It is located in the Founders’ Chapel. Lt Commodore Lewis Warrington, a member of the congregation, presented the font to St. John’s Church. Parishioners entering or leaving the worship space use holy water to remind them of their life in Christ through the gift of Baptism.

St. John’s Church has a beautiful Gothic bell tower. Inside the bell tower is a black rope and a white rope. The black rope is used during funerals. It gives the bell a somber, deeper base tone to the bell. The white rope is used for weddings when a lighter, treble bell sound is desired.

Today, groups continue to use this space for community meetings, such as a twelve-step recovery group, and bible studies. Each winter, the parish house transforms into a warm, safe place for homeless people in Portsmouth. Observing the commands of Jesus to feed the hungry, to house the traveler, and to love all persons as Christ loves us, parishioners offer hot meals and a place to sleep to those in need.

If you enjoy Kim Allegrezza’s writing be sure to follow her National Christianity and DC Christian Perspectives columns. You will need to subscribe to each one individually on Examiner.com to ensure you never miss an article.