In Raymond Carver’s glorious short story, “Cathedral,” a regular guy, stoned and semi-drunk, tries to communicate the actuality of a cathedral to a blind man – a houseguest who is practically a stranger to him. The task is pursued with the seeing man holding a ballpoint pen to paper and the blind man following the movement of the hand and the verticality of the movement.
“You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could,” says the blind man. By story’s end, the seeing man is the one who has been enlightened about the majesty and meaning of cathedral architecture.
My ongoing project of photographing old churches is inspired by an interest in ecclesiastical architecture and architecture in general. I am often drawn to the quaint and forgotten small churches found on remote byways but church architecture of all types is interesting to me.
I am a fan of modern architecture but too many modern church structures are bland, utilitarian, and boring, it seems, with no architectural distinction whatsoever; I have seen charming buildings demolished to make way for eyesores, usually alongside major highways.
Fortunately, there are still distinctive old church buildings in the northside city center of downtown Birmingham with congregations founded within a year or two of the 1871 founding of the city.
The Cathedral Church of the Advent, an 1883 Gothic sandstone structure, stands on 20th Street across from the Harbert Tower (www.adventbirmingham.org). When I worked in downtown Birmingham in the ‘90s, I would often take a lunchtime break in the peaceful Advent church garden to read and reflect. A block away, on the other side of the Harbert building, is the First United Methodist Church’s brooding Romanesque structure built in 1891 (www.firstchurchbham.com).
It is noteworthy that the architecture of the 1989 post-modern Harbert office tower – formally known as the Regions-Harbert Plaza – acknowledges its proximity to Cathedral Church of the Advent and First Methodist in its building materials and architectural set-backs and flourishes.
A few blocks northwest of First Methodist (now known as First Church Birmingham) is downtown’s most famous church, 16th Street Baptist – site of the horrific 1963 bombing that killed four young girls and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement (www.16thstreetbaptist.org). The building, completed in 1911, is a distinguished Byzantine-Romanesque structure that anchors Birmingham’s Civil Rights National Monument.
Built in 1888, the Victorian Gothic First Presbyterian Church (www.fpcbham.org), east of 20th Street, is only a block over from the Cathedral of Saint Paul (www.stpaulsbhm.org), a Neo-Gothic building completed in 1893, whose brick masonry is so reminiscent of many of the downtown structures from Birmingham’s early decades.
On a recent Saturday morning a couple of days before Christmas, I went into the Cathedral. A couple of parishioners were in the sanctuary preparing for mass. The majestic impact of the soaring room was heightened by the Moller pipe organ that was at that time filling the building with bright and vibrant sacred music of the season.
Outside, the day was overcast, but the stained glass windows shone brightly as the sun occasionally burst through grey December clouds. I sat in a pew toward the back and listened to the music for a while, savoring the solitude and peace of the room and the history it encompassed. Then it was time to travel out into the busy streets and continue with holiday preparations.
May 2018 bring good news. Look for and savor the beauty that surrounds you. Happy New Year.