Finding family in NYC, personal tour of St. John's

Trip Start Mar 14, 2006
Trip End Mar 15, 2007

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sandy very kindly got up at the crack of dawn and gave me a lift to the bus in Tenafly, a community near her home. It was a lovely sunny day as we went through such little towns on our way as: Englewood, Leonia, Palisades Park, Ridgeview, Fairview, North Bergen, Guttenberg and West New York. Between there and Weehawken we started to go downhill at a rapid speed. This was curving down through the Palisades towards the Lincoln Tunnel. This is a 1.5 mile-long (2.4 km) tunnel under the Hudson River, connecting Weehawken, New Jersey with New York City.

Three tubes carry six traffic lanes in total. During the morning rush hour one traffic lane is used exclusively by buses. The New Jersey approach roadway, locally known as the Helix, spirals in a full circle before arriving at the toll booths in front of the tunnel portals. We went round and around and around until it felt we were falling off something. Then we entered the Tunnel. I don't like tunnels at any time and have to say it was a bit scary to know one is 'way under the Hudson River going s-l-o-w-ly. Visions of earthquakes and terrorist plots tried to fill my mind - and that was before I became aware later that there really was a terrorist plot to blow it up in the New York City landmark bomb plot in 1993, but the plan was foiled.

I got off the bus and made my way through the Port Authority station towards Penn Station, which are HUGE complexes. With nearly 4.5 million people riding the transit network each weekday, the system is a major venue for commerce, entertainment and political activism and I had to wind my way through these to make my way to I think it was 34th Street and 7th Avenue (have never been good at directions involving an Avenue Street grid). Almost immediately I recognized my American cousin, Andy from his photograph and clerical collar.

We got on like a house on fire from the start. He'd brought me a HUGE collection of Crease family tree genealogy he'd put together from all the information he'd collected, was given and what existed. We walked down 7th Avenue towards Broadway and he showed me around a bit of Manhattan. The Empire State Building poked its pointy head up above much of the time. We got to Times Square. It was soooo big and flashy; I could not find a decent place to take pictures without running into other buildings. I felt like an alien dropped in a neon light show - even at mid day. We eventually found a coffee shop and talked family tree "stuff" until about noon. He has developed an amazing collection of information and, like me, can talk about it endlessly. In that way, we are a good match.

Then we took the subway from Manhattan and had to transfer once getting off at Cathedral Parkway, which was very close to St. John the Divine Cathedral (110th Street). It is an absolutely beautiful though unfinished High Gothic cathedral - the largest cathedral in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World's Records (St. Pauls in Rome and one in France, not being cathedrals). It was started in 1892 and construction continues in various phases and levels of productivity to this day. It has a fascinating history and I would refer to wikipedia for some of it.

In front of the complex is the huge Peace Fountain, which depicts the struggle of good and evil in a rather pastoral and park-like setting. Apparently there are peacocks there as well. Andy took me off to his offices next door. I believe it was originally built as a place where Synod would meet; however, Synod became too large to meet there by the time it was finished and it now houses offices, halls, etc. I met some of his co workers; we took pictures and copied various of our family histories.

He then gave me a personalized tour of the Cathedral. We went in past the "Ithiel Town Building" (he was the designer). It is part of the unfinished portion of the Cathedral (as is the planned vast crowning spire) but shows the work in progress without its facing stone. The Cathedral is huge. Apparently it was built with the capacity to seat approximately the entire population of Manhattan (assume at the time it was built anyway). The shallow dome which covers the Great crossing (temporary until a spire is erected), is high enough to fit the Statue of Liberty less the pedestal. Initially we noted that the interior of the Cathedral is shrouded in scaffolding. This is because (per a web site) "on December 18, 2001, a fire swept through the unfinished north transept, destroying the gift shop and for a time threatening the sanctuary of the cathedral itself. I believe the altar area was blocked off and no one saw it publicly until Easter 2006. In 2003, the Cathedral was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In January 2005, after settlement of some of the insurance claims, the Cathedral began a massive restoration that will remain in progress until the Fall of 2007. A state-of-the-art chemical-based cleaning system is being utilized, primarily to remove smoke damage resulting from the 2001 fire. "

The difference between the unrestored interior and the restored is the difference between night and day. Not only has it restored the horrible black, greasy soot stains from the fire but it is also removing the decades of caked on dirt and grime from use and candles. No one remembered, for example, the colours of the tiles on the floor and the creamy facing stone used in the beginning. I believe it is probably better than the original now; however, that is just my opinion.

The area of the nave is now blocked off for restoration and one can only glimpse the beauty of the magnificent 40 foot diameter Great Rose window, which contains over 10,000 pieces of glass and the figure of Christ in the centre is life sized (5'7"). Many of the themed bays are being cleared out now prior to restoration; however, the National AIDS Memorial and the Memorial to the firefighters remain currently. The latter memorial is specific to those killed in a fire in 1996; however, within hours of the terrorist attacks on September 11 hundreds of New Yorkers spontaneously congregated at the Cathedral and the memorial has become a shrine and a place to honour the firefighters killed on September 11.

Andy introduced me to the Dean, the Very Reverend James A. Kowalski, who offered supportive comments on my world travel journey and amazement that we are family and that we have met after all this time. We saw the magnificent white marble pulpit and I took a photo of Andy next to it. He says it is an awe inspiring place from which to preach.

We then moved to the massive arches above the choir noting that they are unfinished as well. The first services in the nave were held the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and later construction on the cathedral was halted, because the then-bishop felt that the church's funds would better be spent on works of charity, and because America's subsequent involvement with the Second World War greatly limited available manpower. Apparently the stone carvers all went off and joined up the war effort.

We walked around the seven almost fully restored chapels radiating from behind the choir. These (per the brochure and wikipedia) are each in a distinctive nationalistic style, some of them borrowing from outside the gothic vocabulary. Known as the "Chapels of the Tongues" (Ansgar - with marvelously restored tiles, Boniface, Columba, Savior, Martin, Ambrose and James), their designs are meant to represent each of the seven most prominent ethnic groups to first immigrate to New York City upon the opening of Ellis Island in 1892 (the same year the Cathedral began construction). The one representing Franc has in it a statue of Joan of Arc done by Anna Hyatt Huntington. It was donated to the Chapel of St Martin of Tours in 1922. At the statue's feet lies a stone that came from the cell where Joan of Arc was held in Rouen, France

There is also a beautiful series of marble carvings around, I think, the Bishop and visiting Bishop's chairs which represent those religious and civil figures who support the virtues, I think, of justice, peace and tolerance throughout the centuries since the birth of Christ.

Outside the Cathedral are the Great Bronze Doors which are 18 feet high and 6 feet wide, weigh 6 tons and comprise 60 panels in bas-relief depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. On the wide steps climbing to the entrance, five portals arch over the entrance doors. The central Portal of Paradise depicts St. John witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus, and 32 biblical characters standing on intricately carved plinths depicting scenes from Revelations. One of these, little noticed, is an eerie portrayal of two buildings looking very like the World Trade Centre towers falling in some kind of a conflagration. After 9-11 it also became a shrine to the actual event.

We then had a lovely lunch at an Indian restaurant and Andy walked me down towards Central Park with directions how to get back downtown on the C subway line. We offered and received hugs goodbye and I was back on my way back to Demarest.

I would very much like to return to New York City, not only to see Andy and his family, but also to see the Cathedral in it's truly cleaned state (should be finished in 2008) and "do" NYC as a tourist and not just a passing traveler.

Arrived back in Tenafly about 2pm and Sandy very kindly picked me up. We were having thunderstorms so the computers stayed off. We had dinner out with Garry, friend of Sandy's at Rosa's in Emerson, NJ which was half way between her place and Sandy's. I again retired a bit early after another wonderful glass of Laphroaig single malt scotch, tired after my busy day.
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