The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York has the distinction of becoming a ruin before it is even finished. I hadn’t been there in decades, and I had not known there was a serious fire in 2001.


The metal scaffolding that surrounded the tower in this picture has come down in an admission that the tower will never be finished.

After entering the door one walks down the main aisle through on a grey-painted plywood corridor, such as used to grace the Toronto airport. This seems to occupy 2/3 of the building.

The main altar and surrounding chapels are finished, but are already decaying.

It is hard to understand what was going through the minds of the Episcopal worthies in the 1880s when they projected building the largest cathedral in the world.


What could it have been used for? Unlike Washington, New York has no state occasions that require vast spaces. The 400 (New York society) may have been Episcopalian, but they would have been lost in the echoing spaces of their cathedral. Perhaps it was simply American boosterism  New York will have the biggest cathedral in the world! Alas, the cathedral  is instead becoming a modern ruin. 

If the faith had been kept, it would matter little, but the Cathedral’s website proudly chronicles the events it has hosted:

(After some standard politically liberal stuff in the 1960s)

1973: Tennessee Williams is honored with an evensong service incorporating raeings from his dramatic works and other writings.

1982 Halveti-Jerrahi Order of Dervishes at Istanbul performs Islamic liturgical dance beneath ten Crossing’s dome.

1984 Cathedral exhibits Christa, a bronze crucifix by British sculptor Edwina Sandys depicting Christ as a woman.

1986 Philippe Petit performs Ascent on a high wire.

1990 Big Bird and other Muppets pay tribute to puppeteer Jim Henson at his memorial service.

1999 Stonewall 30: A Sacred Celebration brings thousands from New York’s gay and lesbian community.

The sadness of it all.

Leave a Comment