Blending the Sacred and the Secular in Providence

There’s a convention in thinking and writing about “sacred space”—often referred to as a place for religious purposes, rituals, or transcendence—as a thing apart from “secular space,” with clear boundaries between these two realms. This idea of two distinctly separate places suggests that secular places are never sacred, and that sacred places simply don’t (or shouldn’t) inhabit the realm of the secular. 

This notion was challenged by the seminal book The Secular City, by the American theologian Harvey Cox. Published in 1965, it is still considered a landmark in its conception of the role of religion in urbanism. Cox’s thesis was that bright lines between sacred and secular really don’t (and shouldn’t) exist, particularly in an increasingly urbanized world. He questioned the implied “purity” of a sacred realm, as well as the simplistic bromide that a city was ultimately a den of evil. Both the sacred and the secular are much more complicated than that. Such distinctions also overlook the city’s greatest potential: To be a place where both the secular and the sacred can be experienced in unison, a diverse place. 

I was reminded of this recently when I visited Grace Pavilion, an addition to Grace Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. The church was designed by the celebrated architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846. As beautiful as Upjohn’s church is, it has the drawbacks of many old religious structures: thick walls, heavy doors, windows you can’t see through—architecture that frustrates the creation of a connection with the city that surrounds it. A few years ago, a parking lot right next to the church became available for development, and the congregation decided to create a new landmark on Westminster Street, a way to reach out to the city. The Pavilion at Grace, as it’s known, was designed by Centerbrook Architects. 

“We view the new building as an extension of our ministry,” explained Rev. Jonathan Huyck, the rector of Grace Episcopal. The narrow but deep site offered an opportunity to recess the new multipurpose building from the street edge, creating a courtyard next to the church and in front of the pavilion. “It is one of the few new public spaces in downtown Providence,” Huyck told me, adding that the pavilion itself is one of the first new buildings on the street in decades. 

The intent was to create welcoming exterior and interior spaces to serve not only the church, but the larger community as well; a place where the sacred and the secular might co-exist. “Its use by the community has been robust,” said Christopher Barker, director of administration at Grace. As expected, the soaring, vaulted interior of the pavilion, beautifully illuminated with soft light and wonderful views out to Westminster Street, has become a popular spot for wedding receptions. But it’s not just for parties. Barker ticks off a list of local and national nonprofit organizations, community groups, and civic organizations—all secular in nature—that have gathered at the pavilion to further their own missions, “many of which align with our own,” he said, adding that the pavilion and its courtyard have become a way to “allow us to help organizations and events we want to help: charter schools, fundraisers, concerts for seniors.” 


Part of the attraction to the pavilion’s indoor and outdoor spaces is its architecture. Designing a new building next to a noted work such as Upjohn’s might intimidate any architect. Jim Childress, a principal at Centerbrook, noted that the congregation wanted something inviting and transparent that echoed its Neo-Gothic “grandparent” next door. The solution is what might be described as a reinvention of Gothic architecture, fashioned from copper instead of stone. The color resonates with the older building’s brownstone, and its lacy details permit a glassy envelope, revealing the warm interior to the courtyard and Westminster Street beyond. You might say it’s a glass box that belongs to its time and place. 

The pavilion opens out onto a courtyard elevated above the street by several feet, giving it a prospect on the thoroughfare and subtly insulating it from the bustle of cars and pedestrians without isolating it. Light and dark granite paving in the courtyard is laid out in a labyrinth pattern. The courtyard is open to anyone during the day, just as the church is, and Huyck and Barker reported that it is a popular spot for people to sit and read or relax with a cup of coffee. Children in a reading group from a local library are regular visitors.

A metal fence and gate with Gothic details extends across the courtyard as it faces the street. It was added as a deterrent to unwelcome visitors after hours. Its presence is unfortunate in this urban context, as it seems a betrayal of a true mix of sacred and secular. But congregations everywhere struggle with this balance between welcome openness and necessary vigilance. 

Harvey Cox has observed that in a religiously diverse world, where fear of “the other” is common, it’s essential for houses of worship—especially in cities—to create spaces both sacred and secular, settings of diversity and encounter. As Cox told me in an interview, reflecting on this contemporary need, “we can share spaces without losing much; in fact, we might even gain something from it.” This was Aristotle’s idea, Cox said: “A city is a place where strangers meet. What happens when strangers meet? You can have hatred and bigotry, but you can also have the emergence of a new, richer form for community.” This is the potential of the pavilion and its courtyard as assets for the local neighborhood and the larger city of Providence, as well as for Grace Church, where the gate is open to all.

Featured image: Jeff Goldberg/Esto.


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