Cathedral of St. John the Divine

  • Religion
  • 1892

Wall Street banker J. P. Morgan was a devoted Episcopalian. He was an officer of his local church. He served on a national committee charged with revising the Book of Common Prayer (much of which he knew by heart). As an adult, he set aside three full weeks every third year to meet with theologians and discuss faith. And he quietly underwrote the salaries of scores of Manhattan clergy.

He was also the principal funder behind the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan, one of the largest stone churches in the world. In 1892 alone, the year construction began, Morgan donated the current equivalent of $13 million to underwrite construction of an Episcopal edifice that could compare with the Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral begun a dozen years earlier in midtown. The massive church—covering much of a city block, with interior ceiling heights of 124 feet—is constructed in traditional stone-on-stone style without steel or modern supports, in a riotous Gothic/Byzantine/Romanesque style. Its rose window is made of 10,000 pieces of glass assembled in traditional medieval fashion. Ellis Island opened the year construction began, so the cathedral includes seven chapels designed in seven distinct national styles to represent the seven largest immigrant groups then flooding into the U.S.

In the 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt headed a campaign to raise $10 million in private donations (the equivalent of $134 million today) for the next stage of construction. This allowed building to continue even through the Depression. Work was stopped by World War II, however, and the cathedral, though heavily used, remains incomplete in many of its elements—sparking its nickname, St. John the Unfinished.

Among many remarkable elements of Christian iconography on the building are a series of stone carvings reflecting apocalyptic scenes from the Book of Revelation, which was authored by the cathedral’s namesake, the apostle John. Interpretations by the modern stonecarvers include scenes of New York City being engulfed by a tidal wave, the Brooklyn Bridge cracking in two, and the World Trade Center towers and Chrysler building teetering. Even as a work in progress, this wholly donor-funded cathedral represents one of the most monumental Christian edifices in the world.