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First Christian Church: Inspired by history
By Kathleen Ostrander

First Christian Church Disciples of Christ, 700 S. Sixth St., has an air of familiarity about it. People drive by and think they've seen it before, somewhere - but they may not be able to quite place it.

It is classic Gothic architecture, inspired by the ill-fated Kirk of Melrose Abbey in Melrose near Edinburgh, Scotland. Ill-fated because it was sacked and burned a number of times by a number of different armies. Although it is in disrepair, it is still a top landmark.

The congregation decided when it was time to build their new church, their fourth house of worship, they would model it after the abbey. The abbey was built in a formation called St. John's cross. When viewed from above, the lines of the building replicate a cross.

Pastor Rick Irwin said the church inspires a sense of awe and majesty. But at the same time, it is not overwhelming.

When the outside was being built, stonemasons moved materials to the top of the church using an elevator in the tower that later was dismantled. Scaffolding then had to be put back up when the cross on top of the church was erected. The ribbed, arched passageway on the parking lot side of the church was added later, Irwin said.

"The front of the church was meant to be where the tower is, but there were so many people coming and going using the parking lot, that became a sort of front. The arched area was added, and it matches the original architecture," he said.

The cross-beamed tongue-in-groove ceiling was put up using an extensive array of scaffolding. Parishioners documented the building of the church in a series of photographs carefully preserved in the church archives.

The first picture of the interior shows a criss-cross of lumber scaffolding needed to move the big beams up and secure them.

The chimneys took a month to move to the roof and construct, and it took a month to just set the trusses because they were so large, when the interior of the roof was being set. The roof is unique in that it is done in tile. Paper was laid down and tacked with wooden strips and then the thousands and thousands of tiles were laid and secured with long copper nails.

During construction, the windows were put in last, which, according to writing on the photographs, caused a little bit of controversy because the church was being used, and it was quite drafty. Cloth was finally put over the windows to help shivering parishioners.

Those same windows give the church a distinctive "fingerprint" that sets it apart from other churches. The stained glass is not the deep, jewel-toned hues of traditional church stained glass but the ethereal pastel colors favored by Tiffany.

Some of the historic accounts call it "Tiffany" glass and some call it art glass, but everyone agrees it's distinctive and beautiful. It is in need of a cleaning, so in some places the luster is a bit dulled, but it in no way detracts from the breathtaking beauty of the windows.

The church was built so the sun would put on a show of glorious pastel light from the back of the church as the pastor stood at the front and preached to the congregation.

The interior light fixtures that hang from the massive beams are in a Tiffany style, which carries through the theme from the windows. It is an expensive proposition to change the bulbs, Irwin said, so they are all changed at regular intervals.

The decorative patinaed pipes for the organ by the altar are just for show. The organ was moved to the back balcony years ago. Irwin said parishioners helped build a ramp, rebuilt the organ in the back balcony and then dismantled the ramp.

First Christian contains bits and pieces of history. At a casual glance, the windows are beautiful, but a closer look shows some smaller pieces of window that don't match. Irwin said they came from a church that was being torn down. "The congregation wanted to save a piece of the church, so they came here," Irwin said.

The stone crosses in the chancel were brought from Jerusalem, and they come from Solomon's quarry near Gethsemane. Some of the floor stones are from Calvary and there is supposedly a tile obtained from Seville, Spain, that was carried by a Crusader.

In the rear wall of the sanctuary is a block of travertine stone from the Coliseum in Rome and there is a stone in the foundation from Brush Run Church in Kentucky - the first Disciples of Christ church.

On the north side of the narthex is a dark stone brought from Ahorey, Ireland, where one of the church's first pastors preached.

All the bits and pieces of history meld together into a church - but it is the congregation that makes it a house of worship that stands as a testament to their strong faith.

Story published Friday, May 1, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 3 )

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