‘Living stones’: Concord’s religious leaders discuss the meaning of faith, place

  • Christ the King Catholic Parish on South Main Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Christ the King Catholic Parish on South Main Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeples from Centerpoint Baptist Church (left) and The First Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Concord on Thursday evening, April 19, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Christ the King Catholic Parish on South Main Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Christ the King Catholic Parish on South Main Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A city view with South Church Concord steeple rises above Pleasant Street in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeple of St. Paul’s Church on Park Street next to the State House in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeple of St. Paul’s Church on Park Street next to the State House in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The red door entrance of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeples from Centerpoint Baptist Church (left) and The First Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The front of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • IQRA Islamic Society of Greater Concord on N. Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • The side windows of  First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Concord on North Main Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The side of  the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Concord on North Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Temple Beth Jacob on Broadway in Concord.

  • The Carmelite Monastery of Concord on Pleasant Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeple of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The front doors of  First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeples from Centerpoint Baptist Church (left) and The First Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Concord on Thursday evening, April 19, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The front doors of  First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The front doors of  First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The steeples from Centerpoint Baptist Church (left) and The First Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Concord on Thursday evening, April 19, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the stained glass windows inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The bell tower at the Carmelite Monastery of Concord on Pleasant Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The cross above the east entrance of the United Baptist Church on South Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A Tiffany stained glass window at South Church Concord, a United Church of Christ church on Pleasant Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/20/2019 2:04:38 PM

There are two tenets that run through many religions, and they are seemingly at odds – a place of worship is both an embodiment of its congregation and, at the same time, just a building.

That’s the feeling some of Concord’s religious leaders had this week after a fire ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The fire destroyed the spire, the roof and the oak beams supporting the building’s vaulted ceiling, causing major structural damage.

For many New Hampshire residents, the fire was painful from a religious perspective, but it was also difficult to watch from a historical point of view. Just like in communities across the globe, the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral hit home.

Places of worship are interwoven into Concord’s community – the Greater Concord Interfaith Council lists dozens of faiths, many of them worshipping in the Capital City. Some of their locations are iconic, as integral to the city’s skyline as the State House’s dome. Others worship in converted or rented spaces.

To understand what place a building holds in faith, we talked to some of Concord’s religious leaders about what their community’s place of worship means to them.

In Christianity

Overwhelmingly, Concord’s Christian leaders agreed: the church is its people. The people are not the church.

“We’re taught that we are living stones making up the church,” said Father Richard Roberge, of Christ the King Parish.

Roberge’s flock had to wrestle with this idea this week as demolition work began at St. Peter’s Church, a former missionary of the Christ the King Parish, to make way for a future residential development.

Everyone knew it was coming, Roberge said. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester has had a two-year purchase and sales agreement with Concord developer Jonathan Chorlian for the location, and the church was deconsecrated last year. But it still hurt.

“We certainly didn’t plan for St. Peter’s to be demolished,” he said, speaking on Good Friday. “But maybe there’s a symbol in the demolition starting in Holy Week, that we have to die in order to rise.”

His flock did not despair, Roberge said. St. John the Evangelist Church is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation, which includes replacing the slate roof, raising the terrace and creating a gathering space.

The 150-year old church is the original headquarters for Christ the King Parish. And as renovations continue, the pews from St. Peter’s and other relics from there and the former Sacred Heart Church will be incorporated into St. John’s, made new.

Rev. Kate Atkinston said the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church community has confronted the meaning of their church head-on, after a fire damaged their Centre Street church in 1984. The location survived and is now 202 years old.

“The people are not the church, the church is the people,” she said. “And that became evident in their response because they gathered wherever they could (after the fire), including in the parking lot of the building.”

What really measures the strength of the “church” is not the structure’s walls, Atkinson said, but how the congregation takes its teachings into the world.

She pointed not just to St. Paul’s food pantry and thrift shop/clothing bank, but the way they approach Stations of the Cross, a devotion ceremony that takes place on Good Friday.

Instead of focusing on statues and pictures, the three-hour vigil included meditations on the working poor, the refugee crisis, addiction, homelessness, the degradation of the environment.

“In order to respond to those teachings, you need to go out into the world,” Atkinson said.

The idea of the church as more of a spiritual edifice rather than a brick and mortar one is also integral to the Church of Christ, Scientist, said restoration committee member Larry Wolfe.

“When you lift it up to a secret place most high … it’s not vulnerable to attack or corruption,” Wolfe said.

But that’s not meant to downplay the importance of Concord’s Christian Science church, which has significance in the faith’s overarching canon.

The Christian Science faith was founded mostly in Boston, where Mother Church is located. But the Concord church is featured often in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, a central figure in the faith. She donated half of her fortune – $100,000 – for the church’s construction in 1904.

That connection spurred worldwide donations for a multi-million dollar renovation that is still ongoing, Wolfe said.

For Rev. John Hopkins of the Concord Lutheran Church, it’s clear the place buildings play in faith cannot be discounted. If anything happened to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door in 1517, it would be devastating, he said.

People put their time and money into building churches, Hopkins. Some of his flock today did so to create their current space, which they’ve been in since 1958.

“We have to remember these buildings are set aside for sacred space, and sacred things do happen here,” he said. “Weddings, baptisms, funerals, they happen in those buildings. And the things that happen there get into our consciences.”

Prior to 1958, the Lutherans were on Penacook Street, now the Knights of Columbus Hall. The Overcomers Church of God worships there.

There was a time when the Concord Lutherans thought of buying a new space, possibly St. Peter’s, Hopkins said. But people hesitated to leave their church.

And standing under the North Main Street’s building’s stained-glass windows, he could understand why.

“If we ever left here, we could have to do something else with these,” he said. “We couldn’t just leave them here.”

In Judaism

In Judaism, places of worship are sanctuaries, said Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob, Concord’s synagogue that practices Reform Judaism. And when they’re damaged, it’s traumatic, no matter how it happens.

That’s what was on Nafshi’s mind as word of the Notre Dame fire spread. She wasn’t just thinking of the cathedral, but also of a fire that broke out at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem on that same day.

A guard booth was the only thing damaged in that incident, but the mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam; any kind of damage to it is scary. The story, however, got comparatively lesser local coverage.

She also thought about incidents where the threat wasn’t elemental: the recent shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, or the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“It’s the violation of a place that is supposed to be holy and sacred,” she said, speaking in the hours before Passover began. “Even when it’s an accident, like when there was a fire at the synagogue in Sydney, the loss can still be traumatic.”

Having a place of worship damaged doesn’t just cause emotional disruption; it also disrupts your routine, Nafshi said. A new place “doesn’t feel like home” when you are forced to go there, she said.

At the same time, Nafshi pointed to 25:8 Book of Exodus, where God told his followers to “build . . . a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.”

“For us, what is more important (than a synagogue) is that God’s presence is in our midst, no matter where we are,” she said. “A building can do that, but we’re told not to get too attached to the building, that God looks to dwell among those in the building.”

Concord’s Jewish community has lived this teaching. Although Beth Jacob was founded in 1907, the congregation met in people’s living rooms for 10 years before they found their first home on Downing Street. In 1937, Episcopal Church sold them a former church on Broadway Street, where Beth Jacob still practices to this day.

That history is important to her congregation, Nafshi said. “It indicates the willingness to sell to the Jewish community, which in the early 20th century was a small community,” she said.

That welcoming nature stood out, considering the times, Nafshi said. Anti-Semitism was rising in Europe, and many Americans felt the same way.

Not being attached to places of worship is also woven into Jewish history. The holiest place in Judaism, the Western Wall, was once a massive temple until the Romans destroyed it in 70 A.D.

There are significant synagogues still, like the Tempio Moaggiore in Florence, Italy. But even that building holds scars – the Nazis used it as a garage and scraped out the gold inlay.

And when Nafshi traveled to France, she found an old synagogue tucked away among storefronts, a remanent when Jewish people were forced into hiding during Christianity’s ascent in the Middle Ages. She said such places are scattered throughout the European continent.

Had she gone into the synagogue, she thinks she would have found a stark room, with only some chairs and an ark – a cabinet that holds a Torah. A simple place solely meant for their faith.

In Islam

For years, Concord’s Muslim community held its services in the East Concord Community Center, contending with tight parking and not enough space for the women to hold their services.

The Islamic Society of Greater Concord searched for years for a place to call their own, while navigating zoning regulations and raising money.

Now over a year into calling North Main Street their home, there are still challenges in the Society’s mosque, said Society President Hubert Mask. They’re in the process building a parking lot and working towards getting the structure, the former location of Capital Offset Co., up to code.

But having a place of their own has been rewarding, Mask said. It’s significant not just for Concord Muslims, but anyone passing through the Granite State looking for a place to pray.

“It’s a place where everyone is welcome,” Mask, speaking from Malaysia on a family visit, said Friday. “It’s a place for people who are transient, going up to New Hampshire’s playgrounds and looking for a place to pray.”

It’s important to have a place where community ceremonies like weddings and school can take place at their behest, Mask said. Having a place of their own means the Muslim community can hold those events “without worrying about renting space or bothering others like we did before.”

This is particularly important as Ramadan, a holy month of fasting, approaches. The Society will hold nightly prayers during that time, Mask said.

The Society’s membership is wide – prayers sometimes include people from as far away as Lincoln, Littleton or Ossipee, who come for the community or a chance to speak with the imam.

Yet the core activity practiced at the mosque – prayer – needs no walls at all for a congregation to partake in. As long as you can find east, you can pray towards Mecca, Saudi Arabia. That’s where Arabic al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, the holiest mosque in Islam, is located. It was built to enclose the Kaʿbah shrine – and if you can find it, Mask said, you can find Islam.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)


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