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Episcopal worship began in Worcester 1835 when a gathering of twelve families and a young minister, Thomas Vail, met in Worcester's Town Hall. All Saints Church grew from that congregation and remained the only Episcopal place of Worcester until after the Civil War. William Huntington (rector from 1862-1883) began raising funds in 1869 to establish St. Matthew's as the first of what would be four "mission" chapels named after the four Evangelists. In 1871 St. Matthew's appeared as a wooden chapel and in 1882 a more substantial church was reconstructed when the mission was recognized as parish. The Whittall Mills acted as a catalyst for all of this activity. Having attended the church since 1874, Matthew Whittall donated the money to assist in buying the current plot and constructing the present church after the previous one had burned in 1883. In May of 1894 building began and the consecration of the church was in May of 1896.
St. Matthew's served an English enclave where fraternal orders, clubs, and churches were also social gathering points for a community that had largely been founded though the British -born workers hired for their skills in weaving carpets. Like other immigrants, this community identified itself to a large part by their ethnicity as seen though language, dress, religion, and community structure. The fraternal orders and other social organizations are clear examples of social structures uniting people living in South Worcester. The two thousand twenty British-born residents of Worcester had organizations such as the English Social Club, Sons of St. George, Daughters of St. George, and the British-American Society. It was organizations such as the English Social Club, originally named the English Naturalization Club, which primarily orientated people with their community. St. Matthew's even had a cricket team. These organizations as well as the church were the center of social life and were taken very seriously. The Sons of St. George structured itself like a military order and described its purpose:
Whittall looked to as a leader in the community as well as his parish. When the need for a new church was clear it was seen as Whittall's place, as a prominent member of the community, and its major employer, to step forward and financially support the church.
St. Matthew's was designed by the prominent local architect Stephen C. Earle (1839-1913) and constructed by the Norcross brothers, also of Worcester. The English Gothic Revival style of the building was already familiar in New England at this time: starting in the middle of the 19th century, many American Episcopalians turned to the Ecclesiology movement and its parish church revival, "a return to liturgical worship and the adoption of the Gothic Revival in church architecture." (Nelson 11) These High Church Episcopalians visually distinguished themselves from other American Protestants by building churches following the English medieval precedent.
The Gothic Revival was pioneered by English and English-born architects of the 1830's and 1840's such as A.W.N. Pugin and Richard Upjohn (Trinity Church, NY, 1846), and by later Americans including Ralph Adams Cram. Stephen C. Earle, active from the 1860's until the first years of the 20th century, although neither an innovator nor a visionary, has been noted for his ability to work well in all types of building, in any of a number of different popular styles (Dahl). This quality would have made him particularly attuned to his clients' needs and the appropriate architectural forms to meet these needs, as we see in St. Matthew's.
Thus, the charming "medieval" English parish church "identif[ied] religious and cultural traditions [and] also served to engender a sense of community"(Nelson 17); the form echoes the 13th and 14th century structures that the mill-workers would have remembered from their native countryside, and marks the neighborhood as their own. The new St. Matthew's could also have been seen as one of Whittall's "contributions to urban beautification and the advancement of taste" (Upton 51), fulfilling the Gilded Age's Gospel of Wealth (note the Carnegie library immediately next door to the church). The English gentry of this time also demonstrated a predilection for all things Gothic (Raguin 29); perhaps St. Matthew's could even be viewed as Whittall's declaration of his successful material and social advancement, by owning and expressing England's upper-class ideals.
St. Matthew's displays many of the typical elements of a medieval parish church. The exterior, in rusticated granite with dark sandstone trim, calls to mind the often-rough exteriors of small rural churches - in England, the lack of suitable stone for building resulted in walls made of rubble and filler. The walls here boast attached buttresses interspersed with small arched windows, another theme of the parish church. The small and seemingly nondescript side-porch entrance to the left of the façade actually quotes an important architectural feature used in the Middle Ages for community ceremonies (such as the "churching" of women after childbirth). The prominent square tower to the right of the facade provides another side entrance to the nave, and rises high above smaller surrounding buildings (although not, of course, above the mills!); such visible towers dominated and defined the rural English landscape, as this one provided a focal point for the industrial (yet pedestrian) neighborhood. (A small gargoyle crouches in the corner between the roof and the tower, possibly a fanciful tribute to the more elaborate Gothic cathedrals that Earle would have seen during his grand tour of Europe in the 1860's.) The entire exterior is perforated with pointed arched windows, perhaps the most easily recognized characteristic of Gothic and Gothic Revival architecture (as opposed to the Romanesque rounded arches avoided by most Catholic and High Church Anglican communities of the time (Nelson,15).
Inside St. Matthew's, after the small narthex or porch (another element often seen in the medieval country parish's lay-entrance on the west end of the structure), the long rectangular nave is split by one central aisle. The visitor's eye is immediately forced to the large two-story pointed arch that sets the recessed chancel (the area containing the altar) apart from the nave. The curve of the arch in the wall is repeated in the large stained glass window above the altar, reemphasizing the Gothic ideas of the building, as does the dark wood-beamed ceiling. The large wooden hanging rood (a life-sized carved crucifix, flanked by John and Mary) obstructs the view of the window's images until the viewer is at least half-way down the aisle. This rood, suspended from and combined with the stone wall and raised floor at the end of the nave, creates a kind of barrier between the nave and the chancel - in fact, this composition of architectural and decorative elements functions in a manner very similar to that of medieval rood-screens or choir-screens. These were partial walls erected between the nave and chancel to separate the realm of the clergy from the realm of the laity, and to emphasize the sacredness of the area near the altar. Within the chancel, rows of benches face each other across the central axis, crowned by ornamental wooden carving attached to the walls. These seats imitate medieval choir-stalls, from which the clergy would chant back and forth in Latin during the mass, as the congregation listened.
The High Church identity of St. Matthew's is made clear by setting the pulpit and the Bible-stand to either side of the chancel; in the churches of many less traditionalist denominations, there is no altar, and the pulpit is central. Here, the dark carved wood pulpit almost escapes notice, unless occupied. However, St. Matthew's does not always follow medieval precedent: the baptismal font, placed in the rear of the medieval English parish church (far away from the chancel, in the realm of the laity), is here found directly next to the pulpit, as close to the front as possible, and the altar itself is almost a decorative element. Although it is richly and colorfully decorated with eye-catching tile-work and enamel, it is shallow and attached to the wall, with barely enough surface area for some flower arrangements and candlesticks.
Although St. Matthew's faithfully celebrates almost every characteristic of the medieval English parish church, it also embraces M.J. Whittall's modern world of new technology, new means of production, and new artistic forms, through its one major non-Gothic decorative element: the stained glass. All of the windows come from the Tiffany Studios: the Ascension over the altar and the rose of the Nativity over the main entrance were installed in 1896, while the side walls' Life of Christ series (donated by Whittall managers' families) came 10-20 years later.
Tiffany and La Farge's innovative new "American Glass" does not attempt to copy or even improve upon 15th Century precedents - rather, using new equipment and methods, it sets off in an entirely new and beautiful direction of glass art. By placing Tiffany windows in a Gothic church, Whittall (and/or Earle) successfully communicate the psychological tension of Gilded Age America's urban centers: the nostalgia and conservatism of both the elite industrial titans and their poor workers clinging to traditional cultural values, even as they confronted and dealt with the unprecedented industrialization, mechanization, modernization, and "Americanization" of their world.
St. Matthews Episcopal Church remains a space of worship as it was during the Whittall factory days. Although the culture has changed surrounding the church, it has evolved with the changing times. Back in its beginnings, people attended by foot because the members lived around the church. Today, rather than walk, this community drives to the service. People drive from different areas of Worcester and some from surrounding towns to attend the Sunday service. It has never ceased to have vibrant members and to play an important role in its community. As the members changed from walking to driving, the church has also evolved and reaches out beyond its neighborhood roots and into the city of Worcester.
St. Matthews has built ties with the College of the Holy Cross and has formed relationships with other churches. St. Matthews has welcomed students into their church and has allowed classes to come and study the building and its stained glass. It sees its building not only servicing St Matthew's parishioners but part of the cultural heritage of everyone in Worcester. St. Matthew's has therefore hosted programs with Preservation Worcester and is endeavoring to preserve its stained glass in a board-based campaign. The church has also developed a relationship with Sacred Heart on Cambridge Street and several other churches in the city. In addition, the church continues to reach out to the community through its weekly donations. Each week, a portion of the money goes to different charities in need throughout the city.
After visiting St. Matthews for a class, I decided I needed to experience the service in order to gain a better understand the church as a whole. I wanted to experience the life of St. Matthews's as a spiritual community. This community begins every month with a breakfast for the members before the Sunday service and then after each Sunday's service there is dessert and coffee.
I visited on Sunday and attended the family service. Kids were all around in their Sunday best and very excited to be in the church rather than Sunday school. The Reverend sat all the children down on the floor and then she sat with them and told them the story of Jeremiah. This service was much less formal than the other services. This service began with Rev. Stone speaking about announcements and general statements regarding the church. Normally, the service begins with a song and then the Reverend will say hello and then read a passage from the Bible and then discuss their implications. Then the church body will sing a song prior to communion. While preparing communion, she stands with her back toward us as she prepares the communion. She turns around and the congregation reads aloud the prayers before communion again emphasizing community. To take the communion, one stands and goes to the front of the church and kneels at the altar and the Reverend hands you a wafer. Then, one stands and goes back to their seat. During the sign of the peace, people went all around wishing everyone peace rather than the people in front and behind them. This struck me as particularly special in that it demonstrates the strong sense of community this church embodies. The service lasted a little over an hour and had approximately sixty church members attending.
Today, driving down Southbridge Street, a stranger to the area would have no idea of what sort of community had existed there only a mere seventy or so years before. Many of the houses in which the factory workers lived, no longer exist. The library commissioned by Carnegie himself is now a housing building. Signs of a previous community are disappearing before Worcester's eyes, but a new community has taken over, one that is both vibrant and committed. St. Matthews will continue to evolve with the changing times and will continue to reach out into Worcester and to its members. Its stained glass honoring the armed forces in World War II exemplifies such ideals. St. Matthews will remain strong because of its friendly, open and accepting arms that not only reached out to me and offered me a chance to join in their community but to anyone else who attends their services.
Dahl, Curtis. Stephen
C. Earle, Architect: Shaping Worcester's Image. Worcester Heritage
Preservation Society and Worcester Historical Museum: Worcester, 1987.