St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church, Honoring their Open Door

Walking through the 11th Street horse-walk into the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church is like walking through a magical passageway into a holy place. It’s all the more meaningful knowing that this passageway was used by countless anonymous Villagers with HIV/AIDS beginning in the 1990’s, all of whom were on their way to the Open Door. A pastoral safe haven during a time of crisis when many Christian communities turned their back on those who were suffering, the Open Door, begun by the Reverend Samuel O. Cross, was just that — an Open Door — for almost 20 years.

St. John’s in the Village, at the corner of Waverly Place and West 11th Street

Pastoral Work in Context

Faith communities in the Village played key roles in the AIDS crisis as it unfolded in the 1980s. The Sisters of Charity’s role in the founding of St. Vincent’s Hospital is featured in the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s production of St. Vincent’s Project: Novena’s for a Lost Hospital, which explores that history. The production begins in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church, home of the Open Door. I sat down with Fr. Graeme Napier, newly arrived in the Village from Oxford, England, who told me that the connection between St. John’s and the Sisters of Charity were the “many hundreds” of AIDS patients who were cared for physically and pastorally by both organizations.

Rattlestick Theater actor in character as a Sister of Charity in the St

“Finding God in AIDS”

The door from the courtyard brought pastoral seekers into Wade House, a historic townhouse. The Open Door, which ran from 1998 until 2017, provided acceptance, advice, support, and spiritual counsel to HIV+ people as well as to their significant others, friends, and care-partners. This program was free, spiritually-focused, totally anonymous, with the maxim of “Finding God in AIDS.”  When I asked Fr. Graeme about this, he affirmed that the maxim was in itself a spiritual quest, whose meaning is meant to be found individually — something different to each person. “The counseling aimed to help all affected place their experience in the context of their individual spiritual journeys and their relationship with God.”

St. John’s Courtyard, Entrance into the Horse Walk (right), with the Open Door across the way (left)

Launched officially in 1998 by Fr. Samuel Cross, who was brought to St. John’s in 1993 to specifically carry out this work along with other tasks, “the Open Door was a very Village response to HIV/AIDS.” Clergy at St. John’s had been providing support prior to 1998, when the Rector had a significant ministry of folks who were HIV+, and he welcomed Fr. Sam to take that on. Fr. Cross upheld the Open Door until he retired in 2017, returning to his native Tennessee. When he retired, he destroyed his pastoral records, as he had promised those he served, to maintain their anonymity.

St. John’s History

Sanctuary at St. John’s in the Village

According to St. John’s history, “Until 1971, Saint John’s in the Village occupied a classical revival church on this site. After a fire destroyed this neighborhood landmark on March 6, 1971, the current church building, designed by Edgar Tafel, a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, was constructed.” The new (relatively) building is full of light, great acoustics, and a beautiful organ.  The St. Benedict’s courtyard is lush and surrounded by the church itself, the building which houses the Church’s four clergy, and the building which houses the Church’s Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute. It was in this last building, Wade House, that the Open Door also met.

The Open Door

The Open Door, in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village

The Open Door is forest green, with ironwork in the shape of interlocking crosses, and floral decorative cover over the light hanging above. A plaque will be blessed in the church and affixed by the doorway to commemorate the Open Door’s work. Fr. Cross is visiting the Village this month and on Sunday, June 17th, at St. John’s in the Village, the plaque will be blessed and Fr. Cross will speak on the spiritual and pastoral role of The Open Door. All Villagers are welcome. The plaque will then be affixed, and lunch will be served for all.

Celebrating and Continuing the Work

Though the Open Door no longer exists, something of its work is continuing at the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute.  This includes St. John’s daily pastoral care, and the Church’s partnerships with other Village organizations. Despite a public misconception that the AIDS crisis is over, St. John’s knows that it continues in alarming numbers and that long-term survivors still struggle to live with the disease and the side-effects of the drugs which keep them alive. HIV/AIDS status aside, St. John’s doors continue to be open to the LGBT community and celebrates Pride’s roots in the Village with a Eucharist on the morning of the Pride March for the entire community. St John’s community of Episcopalians is known for its hospitality and acceptance.

The courtyard is filled with embellishments from the Church’s history, including this doorbell and statuary

Learn more about St. John’s in the Village here, and attend their plaque ceremony on June 17th at 11:00am.

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