Looking back and looking forward

Centennial celebrations at St. James Church in Florence

Christina N. Caughlan
May 15, 2008

On April 23, 1908, the cornerstone was laid of what would become the sanctuary of St. James, la chiesa americana (‘American Church') in Florence, Italy. Last week, in friendly cooperation with the City of Florence and the U.S. Consulate, the parish hosted a series of events to commemorate its first hundred years of ministry in via Rucellai.


Festivities commenced with an open house to greet the many Americans who braved the all-time-low dollar and traveled to Florence specifically to take part in the celebrations. A newly released DVD about St. James provided an audiovisual backdrop, and Andrea Maggi, the architect who supervised the massive renovation project launched in 2000 and completed in 2004, led a tour of the church and grounds.


The next day, visitors were treated to a walking tour of Florence led by Luciano Niccolai. That evening, some 150 people mingled in the rectory and garden for cocktails and then proceeded into the sanctuary, transformed for the occasion into a magnificent banquet hall, to enjoy an evening that included the voices of the Merry Maidens, who specialize in Renaissance and Baroque madrigals, floral arrangements that matched the stained glass windows, and a menu of classic Tuscan fare served by an elegant and discreet squadron of waiters.


The evening was also graced by reflections and anecdotes. Right Reverend Edward L. Lee, Jr., Bishop of Western Michigan and rector of St. James from 1973 to 1982, spoke, as did Horace Gibson, co-founder of the American International School of Florence, pillar of the church community since 1963. Gibson is co-author, with the Reverend Clement Welsh, interim rector from1982 to 1983, of St. James Church: A History of the American Church in Florence and the book was officially unveiled for the occasion.


The celebrations continued the next evening, at a reception at Palazzo Canevaro, the U.S. Consulate, a majestic and well-appointed venue overlooking the River Arno. Baroque oboist Sand Dalton, accompanied by St. James organist and pianist Riccardo Foti, provided the music; and Nora Dempsey, U.S. Consul General, graciously opened a session of reflection, as former rectors and friends of St. James shared memories of the parish.


The festivities culminated on Sunday, April 27, with the Centennial Rededication Ceremony and Holy Eucharist. In recognition of the role that St. James has played in the life of the broader community, the heraldic flag of the City of Florence, the Gonfalone, arrived, accompanied by the chiarine, traditional standard bearers and trumpets. With more than 350 parishioners and friends gathered, the event drew considerable attention from the local media. With the assistance of interpreter Timothy Chaplin, Fr. Featherston opened with introductions and thanks to the visiting clergy and civic dignitaries: Gianni Biagi, representing the mayor of Florence, Valerio Valenti from the Prefect's Office; Francesco Tagliente, Questore (chief of police), and Consul Dempsey. The ceremony continued with comments from the Right Reverend Pierre Whalon, bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.


Consul Dempsey spoke for many when she said, ‘Florence is a beautiful city, and I feel honored to live here.  Like many of my predecessors, Florence became that much more beautiful when it started to feel like home.  And it started to feel like home when I found St. James'. Dr. Biagi described the important role that the parish played in Florence after the devastating 1966 flood, when the community helped to raise $425,000 in flood relief and coordinated the distribution of the funds as weekly grants for families and businesses. He also thanked St. James for its ongoing service to the city, especially the Food Bank, which distributes free foods and clothing every Thursday, and the Interyouth dinner program, which serves university students from more than 40 American study abroad programs operating in Florence.


Prayers in English, Italian, Ibo, Tagalog, French and Spanish described this international, multiethnic parish. When the trumpets announced the departure of the Gonfalone, a procession of children led the congregation into the sanctuary.


What followed was, by all accounts, a most extraordinary celebration of the Holy Eucharist, officiated by Bishop Whalon, with Fr. Featherston preaching. Assisting were, with one exception, all of the living rectors of St. James, representing more than 40 years of clerical leadership: in addition to reverends Lee and Welsh, reverends John P. Tederstrom (1967 to1972),  the Samuel Hartman (1983 to1990), and Peter F. Casparian (1995 to 2004). In addition, the Reverend Canon C.K. Robertson (Canon to the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church), brought warm greetings and solidarity from the national church, as well as the delightful confirmation of the presiding bishop's intention to join St. James for the closing ceremony of its centennial year in April 2009. He also presented the parish with an exquisite Native American interpretation of the Good Shepherd.


There were particularly touching moments of the service: the bishop's thanks for Fr. Featherston's brief but memorable tenure as rector (which ends on May 5, 2008), followed by a standing ovation from the congregation; the story told by Judith Jones, lay vicar for a mission church in the Diocese of Texas, of how she and her husband, Lewis, happened to be traveling though Florence during Centennial week and the warm welcome they received.


The musical offerings that graced the service were as diverse as the parish community itself, and ranged from classical to contemporary gospel pieces offered by the Chancel Choir, Merry Maidens, Nehemiah H. Brown and the Florence Gospel Choir, and Spirit of the Living God, directed by Lucrezia Balatri.


The celebrations lasted well into the afternoon, with lunch catered by Jocelyn Fitzgerald and her team of parish volunteers. To the delight of all present, members of the parish's large African community, in full festival regalia, processed through the gardens, chanting and dancing to traditional drums.


Even as the parish bids farewell to the week of celebration, it looks forward in hope to its next 100 years of ministry.

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