“O Almighty God! Look down in mercy upon Thy servants, who moved by an ardent desire to worship Thee, are about to erect a house in which Thine honor shall swell, Thy word be preached and the comfort of the holy sacraments dispensed to Thy believing church, Bless Thou from on high this our beginning, that what we begin in thy name may be accomplished by the power of Thy Spirit. Give success, we pray Thee, to the work of love which our hands have undertaken, that the blessings of thy gospel may be handed down to the latest posterity and the whole earth be filled with Thy glory. Hear us for the sake of Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever Amen.”
The prayer offered by The Rev. Dr. Beale M. Schmucker, first pastor of St. John’s, at the laying of the cornerstone of the “first” church on June 25, 1854.
Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church had its origins in a felt need for services in English in a mid-nineteenth century Allentown community where Lutheran worship was conducted almost entirely in the German language. Though services in English were offered at Saint Paul’s at that time, a small group of English speaking Lutherans determined to establish a new congregation looking forward to the changing cultural heritage. In 1852 land for a new sanctuary was donated at the southeast corner of Fifth Street and Maple Avenue, money was raised, and construction soon began. The cornerstone was laid on June 25, 1854, and the completed edifice was consecrated on May 6, 1855, as “a temple of the living God.”
Although the new sanctuary stood completed, the congregation which was to occupy it had not yet been formally organized. Not until July 16, 1855, did the incipient members meet to pass the resolution to organize a congregation to be known as Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and to petition for formal acceptance as a member in the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and the Adjacent States. On October 22, 1855, a constitution was adopted as a basis for incorporation in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and in February the application for incorporation was granted. In April of that year, a corporate seal was adopted, which over the years has become the living emblem of the congregation. Early minutes of the congregation set forth its rich symbolism; “…the Seal exhibits a lamb with a glory encircling the head to represent the Lamb of God. The lamb bears a banner with the word pax (peace) inscribed on it, to show the Lamb victorious, and that its victories are those of peace… Above the design is the inscription: Christo duce, verbo luce (Christ our Leader, the Word our Light). At the base… is a miniature copy of Luther’s seal.”
Under the leadership of its first four pastors the congregation prospered in its new edifice for some three decades. On October 30, 1887, however, the building was virtually destroyed by a disastrous fire. Undaunted, the congregation immediately dedicated itself to the task of rebuilding. Extensive reconstruction was accomplished in record time, and the renovated church was rededicated on January 28, 1889. The new building served a growing congregation well until 1930, when its deteriorating walls were condemned by city officials as unsafe. An era had ended and a time of decision was at hand.
On May 17, 1930, the congregation reached a unanimous decision that Saint John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church would “perpetuate its mission in the present location, believing that the voice of the Gospel is needed in the heart of every great city.” Despite the fiscal reality of the great depression, congregational leaders moved boldly ahead. A Philadelphia architect, Dr. Frank R. Watson, was engaged to create design plans for the new structure, and for four years church members engaged in strenuous fund-raising. The first contributions, totaling $107, came propitiously from the confirmation classes. The site for the new church, now conceived to be “an imposing Gothic structure, built to endure for three centuries,” was consecrated on Sunday, June 24, 1934. The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, September 22 of the next year in an outdoor ceremony presided over by Pastor Schaeffer.
The first element of the new cathedral to be completed was the Children’s Shrine (baptistery) consecrated in September 1936. This rib-vaulted chapel, where literally hundreds of the parish children have now been baptized, contains one of the art treasures of the church: an exquisite sculpture once the possession of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. In a close little circle of three figures, a hooded eremite, representing the Church, is depicted unveiling to two small children the love of God in Christ our Savior.
Finally, after nearly a decade of strenuous enterprise by a host of people, the congregation occupied its new house of worship. For some nine years it had conducted worship services in the auditorium of the church school building and it was impatient to use its splendid new structure. Though the church was still unfinished, the people of Saint John’s determined to hold their first worship service in the new building on Christmas Eve of 1938, and in a stirring procession on that date, they moved across South Fifth Street into a new era of their history.
Not until October 29, 1939, was the church formally dedicated, in an impressive Reformation Sunday ceremony attended by more than 1200 worshipers. The ritual opened with the surrender of the keys by Dr. Frank R. Watson, the architect, to Pastor Schaeffer, who in turn threw open the doors to allow the congregation to enter. The dedication took place in front of the altar, which memorialized the late Dr. John A. W. Haas, former president of Muhlenberg College, and Dr. Pfatteicher preached the dedicatory sermon in the completed Saint John’s.
The completed church rose some eighty feet into the Allentown sky to crown the Civic Center, and it was acclaimed in the local press as “the most beautiful Lutheran church in America.” Erected at a cost of $326,000, it represented the finest craftsmanship of its era. Built to endure for centuries, the structure is fabricated almost entirely of the stone that comprises its massive walls. The Chestnut Hill granite used in the exterior walls and the native stone interior will both color and grow in beauty as they weather and age. The individual stones are hand-hewn and laid in flat random range. The trimmings, both interior and exterior, are of Indiana limestone, much of it also hand-hewn. Aesthetically the structure embodies a splendid wedding of strength and beauty, designed to create an emblem of the majesty of God’s creation.
Architecturally the church is a cruciform consisting of ten bays and an abbreviated transept, its design producing in miniature the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. The northernmost of the ten bays serves as the narthex or vestibule, the three at the south form the choir and sanctuary, and the remaining six constitute the pewed nave. From column to lofty column the nave is thirty-five feet wide, and it extends beyond its interior arches into a broad space to the east and a narrower space to the west.
The west aisle, beautifully arched in Gothic style, creates an ambulatory, some five feet wide, leading to the Vestry Room that now forms the west arm of the transept. The broader east aisle was expanded to create a chapel. Though it is an integral element of the nave, the chapel has its own sanctuary, with an altar that was transferred intact from the old church building. Above the altar a polychrome reredos depicts “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple.” The chapel provides appropriate space for small worship groups. Here the Eucharist is celebrated weekly on Saturdays and those Sundays when it is not included in the regularly appointed worship service.
Transepts in the choir and sanctuary provide chambers for the organ and galleries on two levels for choirs and instrumental musicians who have traditionally enriched the high festivals of the church year at Saint John’s. The aisles and center alley of the church are of flagstone, and the floors beneath the pews are oak laid on concrete. The ceiling is of open construction, towering some seventy feet above the nave, with purlins and jack rafters exposed, and paneled in rich cerulean blue.
The truce cruciform structure of Saint John’s remained incomplete, however, for nearly twenty years. Truncated east and west wings had to be added to form the arms of the cross, and a spire or fleche, aspiring toward heaven in the manor of the French medieval cathedral, had to be set in place. The east wing, designed to provide classrooms and rehearsal rooms for the choirs, was completed in 1953. The west wing followed, providing on the ground level a vesting sacristy for the pastor and an office for the choirmaster and, on the second level, a Vestry Room, used for receptions and small assemblies. Last to be erected was the slender spire, soaring 180 feet into the skyline over the city. A dedication ritual for the east and west wings and for the fleche took place on September 15, 1957.
An integral thrust of the cathedral tradition resides in the conviction that beauty inspires worship, that the aesthetic and the religious experiences are near allied. Therefore the builders of Saint John’s were profoundly concerned to embody in the new church the finest specimens of stained glass and to initiate a tradition of sacred music that would enhance the worship life of every parishioner.
The magnificent windows of the church are the creations of Nicholas D’Ascenzo (1871-1954), who, at the age of eleven, left his native Italy to become one of the most renowned artists in stained glass in the United States. His studio in Philadelphia became a center in the movement to recreate the grand traditionalist style of a Gothic revival in America. His major installations earned for him, an international reputation, and his glass is still treasured in such American cathedrals as the Riverside Church and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. D’Ascenzo also created windows for a number of college and university chapels, including those at Yale and Princeton Universities and at our own Muhlenberg College. His work is also a feature of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, as well as numerous office buildings and banks, for it was the artist’s credo that art performs a necessary human function in beautifying man’s every activity and encounter.
At Saint John’s the great windows at the north and south ends of the building represent impressive specimens of D’Ascenzo’s art. At the south of the high altar of buff and pink Kasota marble stands as the focal point of the church. Above it a richly carved and traceried reredos supports a figure of the Christ of the Word, and on the gold fields of its panels are depicted the polychromed figures of the twelve apostles. Above the reredos soars D’Ascenzo’s great window, emblazoning in pure primary blues and reds the theme of the Divine Commission. The central motif is an aureole within which shines the figure of Christ with St. John and two kneeling disciples. Sheep symbolize the redeemed in Christ. In the lower levels are pictured the remainder of the Apostles, and in the side panels two angelic figures suggest the union of work and prayer.
The great north window presents a Pentecostal scene. Beneath the clouds and a burst of heavenly light symbolic of the Holy Spirit, issue tongues of fire resting upon the heads of the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. In the upper central lancets appear the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Below, John is performing the baptism of Christ, with the multitude in the background and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending.
Slender windows grace each of the six bays of the nave, both on the east wall and the west. In the western bays the brilliant medieval colors are continued in the six portraits in glass. In the southernmost bay stands Luther, the founder of our ecclesiastical heritage, and his neighbor to the north is Paul. Then follow the Old Testament worthies Isaiah, Ruth, Samuel, and finally Moses the lawgiver himself, each with his own stance and mien. The east side windows, of geometric patterns, are more subdued in color but quietly effective in their creation of a mood appropriate to the chapel.
The splendor of the stained glass at Saint John’s has been enhanced by the arts of painter and sculptor, and makers of all sorts. When the west wing was completed in 1953, a lovely Renaissance painting of “Madonna and child,” painted in the early sixteenth century by Andrea del Brescianino, was hung in the newly created Vestry Room. A few years later in 1969 a bronze statue of John of Revelation was set in the central niche above the outer door to the narthex to enhance the main entrance. The work of a local sculptor, Aleko Krylakos, the robed figure, serene but exalting, holds aloft a tablet bearing the symbols of Alpha and Omega, inviting worshipers to come within and experience the epiphany which his own countenance reflects. Much care has been exercised over the years to insure that the symbolic artifacts and interior furnishings match the splendor of the building: a magnificent brass holder for the Pascal candle, wrought in Germany, a well-wrought stand for the advent wreath, fashioned of oak to match the pews and the wooden tracery, colorful needlework and paraments – all lend their enriching contributions to the worship life of the congregation.
Matching the visual splendor of the cathedral church is the long tradition of fine music that Saint John’s has fostered over the years to enhance its worship experience. Our present choirmaster and organist, Eric Gombert, has aptly defined the function of the choir as “enabling the members of the body of Christ to give praise to their Lord and assist in the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of sacraments.”
At the heart of the musical heritage at Saint John’s is the magnificent Ernest M. Skinner organ installed when the church was built. Some twenty-five years later, in the mid-sixties, a program of renovation and expansion was inaugurated. A new console was repositioned closer to the entrance to the chancel, and a Spanish style trumpet was mounted horizontally high above the chancel, where its silver resonators speak dramatically from the peaked blue ceiling. At present the organ consists of ninety-one ranks of pipes making up seventy-five stops, divided among Great, Swell, Choir, Solo, Antiphonal, and Pedal.
The musical programs at Saint John’s-its traditional Christmas Eve candlelight ritual, its special festival services at Easter and Reformation, its Sunday afternoon choral evensongs, and its annual concert series-have indeed made a significant contribution, not alone to the worship life of the congregation but to the cultural life of the Lehigh Valley.
As the cathedral church celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in this place, it is the devout hope of the present leaders of the congregation that Saint John’s in the years and decades to come will continue to be a presence in the Civic Center of Allentown, and that its spire and its activities will provide a living witness to the glory of God in the urban landscape.
The sculptured group is the original by Pascal of Paris designed as a gift of the late Russian Czar Nicholas to his sister the Duchess Vera von Wurttemburg. It bears the imprint of the Royal Russian Sea, the double eagle with a capital M for the ancient house of Muscovy.
While engaged in his devotions the Eremite is visited by the little children to whom he tells the story of God’s love in Christ. The one stands in rapt awe looking into his face; the other bends to imprint a kiss upon the body of Christ on the little crucifix held in the monk’s hands. This group forms the center of the little chapel serving as a Child’s Shrine, a tiny children’s corner in a cathedral church. Its object is to instill the spirit of worship into the life of the little children and give them their own place within the church building. Incidentally, it furnishes the proper motif of the work actuating the congregation of St. John’s in its outreaching ministry to hundreds of unchurched children in their community.
This group was acquired in a Lucerne gallery by Mrs. William G. Keck, who gave it to her son, Andrew S. Keck, who, in turn, gave it to the Pastor, Reverend. William C. Schaffer for St. John’s Church.