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Last week I decided to take a self-guided walking tour of Nantucket’s historic churches, something I haven’t done since my first extended visit in 2014. As I paused to study the front of the churches—Baptist, Episcopal, Unitarian, Quaker, Catholic, Methodist and Congregational—I found myself examining them through landscape architect Gordon Hayward’s eyes. Do the entries say “welcome”? Is it easy to identify the main entry?

Those questions led me to another question. Does the condition of the entry to a church building reflect in any way the condition of the congregation?

Contemporary Church Campus Comparisons

Our sprawling church campuses in Texas and smaller cities and towns across the country present a somewhat different issue of entries. Often a large back parking lot leads to the main entry (or entries) to offices, educational and recreational space and the sanctuary itself. The visitor who sees the church from the street may have a very different perspective. Can those visitors find their way? Is the path to the main entry well marked? If attending a wedding or a funeral, do they know where to go? Does the approach to the church say “Welcome! Come celebrate with us”?

In contrast, long walks, broad lawns and gardens are rare for churches in the historic districts of colonial towns. Here on Nantucket, First Congregational is uniquely situated on hill, with a long straight path leading up to the entry (a walk that invites wedding guests to line up and throw rose petals as the bride and groom leave the church); and St. Paul’s Episcopal has new gardens that invite passersby to stop and rest on a bench to enjoy the beauty. These church grounds encompass many of Hayward’s garden design principles.

A famous New England gardener, landscape designer and author, Hayward spoke at the recent Nantucket Garden Festival, and I blogged about his talk:

The order in which Hayward plans a garden is quite different from what I have considered in the past. Start with the paths. Draw a straight line from the front door to the spot where guests will first see the house—parking area, curb or gate. If there are multiple visible entries, clearly identify the path guests should take to the primary entry. Mark the entry well, perhaps with a cluster of container plants. It should say “Welcome!”

In that more private garden where you entertain, mark a straight line from the primary door to the furthest point. What catches the eye there? A view, a bench, a shade tree? That’s another path. Side paths lead to other outdoor spaces. In other words, don’t settle for a sprawling lawn where guests have neither a path to take nor a visible destination. [Italics are my thoughts.]

What does any of this have to do with widowhood and reclaiming joy? Nothing I suppose, but I first reclaimed joy here on Nantucket; and the island has so much that gives me joy: history, architecture, flowers and gardens—all found in the meeting houses of the town. I go back to Keats: A thing of beauty is a joy forever. In beautiful surroundings I find joy. In serene and peaceful surroundings, I find the serenity and peace that lead to joy. The world is full of so much ugliness. I am grateful to escape it occasionally. In the churches I find the combination of spiritual and aesthetic beauty.

About the Churches

Nantucket history is different from most of New England. It wasn’t founded by Puritans but by a handful of Baptists who came to the island in 1659 to escape the intolerance they found on the mainland. By 1700 the island was Quaker, and that remained the dominant faith for 125 years. The age of the existing meeting houses (an old-fashioned term that very clearly distinguishes between the congregation and the building it meets in) does not reflect the order in which the denominations arrived on the island. Most of the building were built during the heyday of whaling, when Nantucket was the wealthiest place in America. The original Episcopal church was destroyed in the 1846 fire that also contributed to the destruction of the whaling industry. I have pictured the churches chronologically, in the order of their construction:

  • Old North Vestry of First Congregational Church, “winter church“—about 1725
  • Unitarian Universalist Church, originally the Second Congregational Church, or the Old South Vestry—1809
  • Methodist Church—1831
  • First Congregational Church, in front of the Old North Vestry—1834
  • Quaker Meeting House, now the property of the Nantucket Historical Association—1838
  • Summer Street Church, originally First Baptist Church—1840
  • Mary, Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church—1897
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—1901

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Photo is of First Congregational Church, a quintessential New England church, set on high ground, its steeple dominating the skyline and a landmark for sailors.

My forthcoming memoir, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, will be released September 15 by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press. You can preorder here.