Church of the Pilgrims - The Story of a New, Old Sanctuary

April 30, 2007

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"The changes in the sanctuary will change us as a church.  We will still be the same people, to be sure, but physical spaces shape us in ways in which we are not entirely aware, and just as the current space has shaped our past, so the new space will shape us in ways that we cannot now fully appreciate."  Reverend Jeffrey K. Krehbiel, Pastor, Church of the Pilgrims, Washington, D.C.

Church of the Pilgrims is an active, urban church with a strong sense of history, hospitality and emphasis on service to the broader community.  The liturgy, however, had been hindered by the architecture, unchanged since the 1920s.  And, like many urban churches, the congregation became smaller in numbers over the years.  Church of the Pilgrims addressed these challenges by reconfiguring the sacred space to meet the current worship needs and better suit the congregation.Church of the Pilgrams Exterior

The sanctuary was built in the 1920s in the gothic revival style.  The church as a strong street presence, with its main entrance and bell tower oriented towards the public square at 22nd and P Streets in northwest D.C.  The sanctuary interior is characterized by its soaring volume, monumental stained glass windows and custom wood detailing.  The sanctuary plan is organized with a long center aisle, 17 rows deep (see existing plan) leading to a raised chancel dominated by a commanding pulpit on the center axis.  This model worked well for many years but posed significant challenges to present worship and the smaller congregation.  The congregation gradually decreased in size over the years; 90 to 100 people fill the pews on a typical Sunday, creating a less than intimate feeling for worship inside the 350-seat nave.

Worship services at Church of the Pilgrims are creative and energetic.  Active participation by all is the norm.  Members and friends of the congregation are encouraged to help plan and lead worship.  Music plays an important role.  The range of instruments is likely to consist of organ, piano, guitar, flutes, or even unaccompanied voices.  Music is selected to help the community participate more fully and reinforce the theme of the Sunday gatherings.  The music selections include praise songs, Taize chants, Lutheran chorales, Gregorian chants, Gospel hymns, English hymns, and spirituals -- just to name a few.

After several years of conversation, the design process gained momentum when the congregation retained Kerns Group Architects to plan and design a "new" sanctuary.  The Sanctuary Design Committee distilled discussions with the congregation into a clear list of goals for the new design:

+  Create a stronger sense of community within our worship space
+  Achieve a better balance between word and sacrament
+  Increase flexibility
+  Be less hierarchical, bringing pastors and worship leaders together with the congregation
+  Reduce the seating capacity
+  Balance the traditional elements of our sanctuary with the new.

Each of these objectives was met in the new design:

The new plan is anchored by the placement of font, table and pulpit.  Existing walnut pews were modified and placed six rows deep in a "U" around the table.  Members of the congregation now face one another gathered around the new communion table at the center.  The reduced seating capacity and new configuration create a stronger sense of community among worshipers.  The open area in the rear allows for flexible seating to be added when needed.  New lighting, flooring and large scale banners further define the central worship area, creating a "room within a room."Church of the Pilgrams Interior

The existing sanctuary design with its high central pulpit emphasized the preaching of the Word and diminished other sacraments.  The new pulpit is located behind the communion table on the main floor, accessible to all.  This arrangement restores a balance between the word and sacrament.  The baptismal font with a large, new glass bowl created by Kathleen Ash graces the entrance to worship and is on an axis with the communion table and pulpit.  Its location emphasizes the importance and public nature of the sacrament and serves as a reminder of congregants' own baptism.Church of the Pilgrams service

New design elements such as flooring, lighting and banners are contemporary in design, while the use of the original dark, walnut pews in a new configuration continues the spirit of the original sanctuary.  The custom wood communion table and pulpit of American Walnut, designed by Tom Kerns, FAIA, are contemporary in design and draw inspiration from details found in the sanctuary.  Colorful new banners, designed and created by Jane Hanson take their cues from the existing stained glass and other motifs in the sanctuary.  The new circular light fixture implies unity and strengthens the focus on the table and pulpit. 

These somewhat modest changes have indeed shaped those who enter.

Sean Reilly, AIA, LEED AP is a principal with Kerns Group Architects, Arlington, VA.  Sean specializes in the planning and design of religious facilities.


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