RALEIGH — Parishioners of First Presbyterian Church of Raleigh filed into their sanctuary Sunday morning for the first time in 17 months, experiencing changes to an otherwise familiar space.
Their 112-year-old sanctuary was new again in ways big and small. The most obvious change was the light pouring in from three arched windows over doors that lead into a large gathering space lit by clerestory windows.
“It’s much brighter, much more open,” said Daniel Johnson, a member for seven years. “It’s a wonderful improvement.”
First Presbyterian was celebrating a construction project that restored and modernized its landmark building overlooking the State Capitol. The project also connected the church to a new classroom and office building that provides a new public face for the church on Salisbury Street.
The church has been on this corner since 1818, two years after its founding, and the new construction marks a recommitment to downtown.
The sanctuary building was last renovated in the 1950s, and some of the changes then have now been undone. The sheetrock that covered the arched windows and side doors has come down; gone, too, are the walls and dropped ceiling that turned the former sunlit gathering space into a series of rooms. Also uncovered were two round, stained-glass windows on the sanctuary’s north wall that disappeared for reasons apparently related to a new air conditioning system, “an utter waste of beauty,” said Rev. Edward McLeod Jr.
Still, that last renovation was itself a promise to remain downtown “at a time when life was moving to the suburbs,” noted associate pastor Robert Inskeep.
Like other downtown churches, First Presbyterian hung on during the area’s decline and recent revival, making the most of a half of a city block that means parking and space will always be at a premium. The church’s location is embedded in its mission: “Serving Christ from the heart of the city to the ends of the earth with love, faith, and action.”
As Sunday’s service began, McLeod first thanked God for equipping the congregation to carry out such a renovation, then thanked parishioners for being gracious and patient during a “time of discombobulation.” There had been none of the murmuring that Moses heard during the wandering in the desert, McLeod said.
“If Moses had had you with him, the Old Testament would have been a different story,” he said.
McLeod built his sermon around the changes, particularly one he asked parishioners to notice every time they enter the church: the pulpit, baptismal font and communion table, previously scattered around the chancel, were brought together, front and center, in line with the cross on the back wall.
“It’s not about aesthetics,” he said. “It’s about theology.”
Before the renovation, people exited Sunday services into the street or into a dark side corridor that led to religious education classes. Now, the big wide doors open into the restored gathering space that leads to the new classroom building beyond.
“This is probably my favorite thing. The way they opened this is just beautiful,” said Carolyn O’Briant, a member since 1962. “It’s much more of a community.”
Despite all that was new, the sanctuary remained familiar, like home. Mary Martin, who had seen the space when it was covered in plastic, dust and scaffolding, struggled to find words to describe the feel of the place she has worshipped since 2004.
“It just has this heavenly feeling to it. It just has this peace,” Martin said. “And that remains, whether it’s under construction or brand new.”