It was the sunniest of Florentine mornings when I sat down in the vestry with Reverend Richard Easterling and his husband David Wohlgemuth. Richard is the new priest-in-charge of St. James Episcopal Church, who is settling into the role after six years as the rector of St. George’s Church in New Orleans.
This must be an odd time to begin a new assignment. When did you arrive in Florence and what were your first impressions?
Richard: We arrived on December 23 on one of Delta’s inaugural quarantine-free flights. It was great to be here for Christmas. The Bishop had been tending to the church, so we worked together for the Christmas Eve service and he, very generously, gave me Christmas Day off. Our experience of transatlantic travel is that usually we would hit the ground running and just exhaust ourselves during the day, but because of the lockdown measures jetlag was more difficult than it’s ever been for me.
David: Fortunately, we’ve been getting out and walking around more in recent days. We’ve had a couple of eight- and nine-mile hikes.
R: Everyone has been very generous. The rectory is looking very fresh and nice, and the fridge and freezer are filled with wonderful things. We’re not wanting for food since we’ve arrived!
D: We’ve been fortunate to find a few things, going through the different markets. Being from New Orleans, we do a lot of Cajun cooking. We found smoked sausage, which I never thought I’d be able to find in Italy!
R: It took some looking, but we found some cheddar cheese too. We made a shepherd’s pie last night, which was a bit of home, and David’s going to be very enterprising and try to make a gumbo this weekend.
Florence is very international. Had you visited Italy before applying for the role at St. James?
R: In August 2018, we went to Rome, yes, a city with churches! It seemed like we visited all of them, definitely a healthy portion anyway. We went to the four major basilicas and the Scala Santa. We wanted to branch out by the end of the first week, so we took a day trip to Florence and investigated the city to see what it was about. We went around the Duomo, San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels, and that was quite lovely.
D: We went to the Baptistery too before finishing our vacation in Venice. We’re looking forward to making the grand tour of the art museums, and we’re very excited about being able to visit the opera again and all the various cultural happenings.
Did you happen to come to the church while you were here?
R: We walked past it, but at that point Father Mark Dunnam was still rector and I didn’t know him, but we had an inkling that this was the church where David Bowie was married, so we admired it. You really don’t have a sense of how gorgeous it is on the inside. So, it was sort of a tangential contact. Not long after our visit, when Mark was in the twilight of his time here, it condensed into a denser reality that perhaps we could be here again in a more profound way. And here we are!
Are the church services all operating again now?
R: Insightfully, when the pandemic reared its head, the parish and the overarching diocese worked together to establish a grant for the purchase of technologies, so we could put our services online, which we still are. However, in-person services began in the third quarter of last year. The pews aren’t fixed to the floor, so some have been rearranged to keep things socially distanced and safe. We have communion. The wafers are received on the palm as usual, but there’s not a broad distribution of the wine. One lay person will consume what’s in the chalice. The inability to sing may be more profound. I know David loves to sing, and I do myself.
D: I was a member of St George’s Choir; I enjoyed being part of that. It’s very hard, when you hear a song or a particular piece of music that you like, and you just want to let it out.
R: We hold one service on a Sunday instead of two, which is sensible, since maybe 30 people in the congregation attend. David is much more mission-critical to all this than I am. David sings in the choir, at St George’s he’d arrange the flowers for Sunday. Between the two of us we would green the church at advent and put everything up and get it ready for Christmas. People like me, but they love David, as it turns out! We’re a package deal. We did take reservations for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but as a standard practice there’s no functional need to do that for just Sunday.
D: Also, given that we did services while we are in red and orange, a lot of people couldn’t come because there are a lot of parishioners who live in different areas. They couldn’t make it then and haven’t been in a good while.
St. James is renowned for its services for the community at large. What’s the situation with the outreach projects?
R: We continue to receive items for the food bank (it’s more than just food) that we give back out to the community, but unfortunately right now those outreaches are closed to the public, as is the children and adult lending library, because of insufficient ventilation in the undercroft. While they’re on hold, the vestry and stakeholders in those ministries are preparing for the day when we can open and do so safely. We’re happy that our anonymous groups have started meeting again, in greatly reduced numbers. New Orleans is a drinking town. We’ve seen what alcohol can do to people’s lives and we’ve seen how AA can change people’s lives for the good. That community is one where direct contact and interaction is crucial. I worry that the isolation of the pandemic has been much harder who deal with that burden than it has on everyday folks who aren’t wrestling with addiction. The gift of Alcoholics Anonymous to the Florentine community is that it’s an English-speaking group. As an English speaker in a foreign city, you can feel very isolated if you don’t have a grip on the language and if you’re wrestling with other things as well. I’m glad that St James is providing a face-to-face home for folks who need English and companionship.
D: These services are probably going to be needed even more after we get out of this isolation and quarantine. People will have a place to come and get help.
R: The Diocese and Bishop have established some priorities. Now we’re in the process of finding how to integrate them. For example, care for refugees and the immigrant community in Florence is going to be something that is high on our minds. Identifying and undoing racism is a big priority for us. The third point is environmentalist leadership; that sort of priority does not generate the same friction here as it seems to generate in America. I’ve never seen such sorting of garbage! The secretary had to sit us down and show us a chart of what these colors mean.
On a personal level, what would you like to achieve?
R: One of the things that every church attempts to do, and should hope to succeed in, is to be a place where anybody can come in and know they’re loved, that they’re joining a community that’s going to be there for them and function as a family. St. James functions that way not simply for American or British folks, but for expats from all over the world. We need to be sure that St. James welcomes everyone. Everyone here has an equal stake. If you want to sit in the back pew and attend church, then you’re always welcome to do that. If you want to come into church leadership or serve on the vestry, if you want to read on Sunday, that everyone feels that they have the same ability to be a part of what we do here. I see that as a growing edge for this parish, which was established by the wonderful generosity of J.P. Morgan to mean a home away from home for touring Americans back in that age. Now, we live in a time, even without the pandemic, where making a grand tour isn’t happening as often. The church is being called to pivot and to re-understand itself in light of the facts on the ground. There is a large African Anglican community here. How can these different cohorts cooperate with one another and how do we come into being one, where everybody also feels equal? That’s what we’ll be working toward.
This article was published in Issue 275 of The Florentine.