In Wisconsin, An Enduring Sanctuary Was A Pioneer Dream

Sep 8, 2019

The small wooden church is half-hidden, nestled on a hill in southeastern Wisconsin in the city of Delafield. St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church was built in 1851, one of the historic "carpenter Gothic" churches surviving in the United States, and on the National Register of Historic Places. It's such a quiet place residents often forget it's there, though it was established by the pioneer founders of the city.

As a girl in Delafield, I wondered about its strange name, and the tombstones that went from the graveyard up to the door. I was lucky enough to meet Father Steven Peay, who fills in sometimes for the regular rector. St. John Chrysostom, Father Steven Peay explained to me, was the name of a 4th century bishop of Constantinople. He was the patron saint of preachers, and the Greek name "Chrysostom" was given to him because it means "honeyed mouth" or the "golden-mouthed one." Steven Peay is an emeritus dean of nearby Nashotah House Theological Seminary, which is an influential, "high church" Episcopal seminary. While there, he taught church history and homiletics — the art of preaching and writing sermons.

A stained glass window in St. John Chrysostom church honors Ralston Cox, the young seminarian whose dream it was to establish it. He drowned before he could see it built in 1851.
Jacki Lyden for NPR

In the 19th century, Ralston Cox was a seminarian at Nashotah House when he decided to start his own mission church a couple miles away in Delafield, then on the Northwestern frontier. Cox traveled from Wisconsin to Philadelphia to consult with the famous church architect, Richard Upjohn. But on his return trip to Wisconsin, tragedy struck. Cox drowned in the Ohio River. His family built the church as his memorial, of oaks so tall there are no knotholes anywhere.

"This is all wood and lathe," said Father Peay, showing me around through an arched doorway. These doors and their wrought iron hinges and trims — they match a church in England — were all made by the local village blacksmith, named John Luther. Also original: the narrow pews and the pulpit.

There have been some illustrious "golden-mouthed ones" in that pulpit. None more so than Arthur Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. He came to Nashotah House to teach at the seminary, which still keeps the bishop's staff and 10-gallon Stetson his students gave him. Father Peay says that when he preaches at St. John's Chrysostom, he senses what he calls "a thin place."

"Where you know that the space between you and God is very thin, and where you feel very very close to God. And I think you would discover, when you talk to parishioners, that they feel the same way."

Laila Ericksen, 10, kneels at one of the historic grave markers on the grounds of St. John Chrysostom church, in Delafield, Wis. The town's founder, Charles Delafield, is buried here.
Jacki Lyden for NPR

It is a "thin place" too because of the connection to the past. Melissa Eriksen grew up in the church. "My husband was baptized here, we were married here, my kids were baptized here, my sister is buried here, so it's all a very personal connection to me in this parish," she said.

And there are more connections in the graveyard. It's like "Spoon River Anthology," where "All, all are buried together on the Hill." There's Charles Delafield, who donated the church land and gave the city his name. Nelson Hawks, who had a stagecoach inn. The church sexton is buried by the side door. There's the Cox family, and their in-laws, the Markoe's. Mary McGlinchey, a parishioner for 50 years, takes me outside to the cemetery.

"When I go in through the cemetery, and I see Markoe and Cox and Hawks and all these families; I think they had a vision," McGlinchey said. "And 160 years later, this church is still standing. I just don't think that this world can appreciate the effort , and what this church stands for."

Her young daughter is buried in the cemetery, too.

The St. John Chrysostom church of 1851 is indeed, after almost two centuries, still a thin place, and an enduring sanctuary, in my hometown of Delafield, Wis.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's a small, red church in southeastern Wisconsin constructed of wood with an ornately trimmed roof half-hidden on a hill. It was built in 1851 by the city founders of Delafield in a style known as carpenter Gothic. It's St. John Chrysostom. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places. And it's still in use. It's also the hometown of Jacki Lyden, who sent us this audio postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Even as a girl, the quaint, wooden church nestled up on its hill intrigued me - St. John Chrysostom - strange name with its wooden bell tower and pioneer tombstones staggered in the churchyard. I was lucky enough to meet Father Steven Peay, who fills in here sometimes, and ask him about this 4th-century bishop of Constantinople.

STEVEN PEAY: The patron saint of preachers - his name was John. Chrysostom was a title that was given to him. And it comes from the Greek for golden-mouthed. And so St. John Chrysostom was the golden-mouthed one.

LYDEN: Steven Peay is an emeritus dean of nearby Nashotah House Theological Seminary, renowned as an influential, high-church, Episcopal seminary. In the 19th century, Ralston Cox was a seminarian there when he decided to start his own mission church in Delafield. He traveled from Wisconsin to Philadelphia to consult with the renowned church architect Richard Upjohn. Then on the return trip - tragedy. Cox drowned in the Ohio River. His family built the church as his memorial of oak trees so tall, there are no knotholes anywhere.

PEAY: This is all wood and lathe. And then the doors, especially the doors to the side, were all done by a local blacksmith. And as you can see, these large hinges - those are all handwrought hinges. And those are all handwrought nails.

LYDEN: The village blacksmith, a man named John Luther, made those nails and hinges - also original, the pews and pulpit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you believe in God the Father?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I believe in God the Father Almighty.

LYDEN: And there've been some illustrious golden mouths in the Delafield pulpit like Arthur Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. He taught at the Rashotah House seminary, which still has the 10-gallon gallon Stetson his students gave him. Father Peay says when he preaches here, he feels what he calls a thin place.

PEAY: Where you know that the space between you and God is very thin - you feel very, very close to God here. And I think, as you talk to parishioners, you would discover, you know, that they feel the same way.

LYDEN: A thin place because of the connection to the past - Melissa Eriksen grew up in the church.

MELISSA ERIKSEN: My husband was baptized here. We were married here. My kids were baptized here. My sister's buried here. So it's a very, very personal connection to this parish.

LYDEN: One of those connections is the graveyard. Like "Spoon River Anthology," all - all are buried together on the hill. There's Charles Delafield, who gave the land and the city its name, Nelson Hawks, who had a stagecoach inn. The church sexton is buried by a side door. There's the Cox family and their in-laws, the Markoes. Mary McGlinchey, a parishioner for 50 years, takes me outside.

MARY MCGLINCHEY: When I go in through the cemetery and I see their families, you know - and I think they had a vision. And here it is, you know? A hundred and 60-plus years, it's still standing. I don't think we can appreciate it enough. I just don't think that this world can appreciate the effort and what that church stands for.

LYDEN: Her young daughter is buried here, too. The St. John Chrysostom Church of 1851 is, after almost two centuries, indeed, a fine place - my hometown of Delafield, Wis. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEET FOXES' "CASCADES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.