Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Oak Park Burned Down

My childhood church of Oak Park in Flint, MI burned down this month. It had closed as the church I knew a long time ago, but had re-opened to a private group, then closed again, then re-opened as a wedding venue. From what I've seen and read, it has been closed since 2015. However, due to accidental arson, it will never reopen, and none of the woodwork, stained glass, or furniture can ever be salvaged or re-purposed.

My dad, who also grew up in that church, was the one who emailed to let us know and he took the photo you see to the left of the damage. His heart hurt at the loss and shared how painful it was to see it in that condition after the lifetime of memories associated with it as well as the structure itself.

I wrote him back with a similar feeling of sorrow over what was lost. There were two kinds of beauty in that place––One kind of beauty is simply made of memories; the fellowship over the years with our church family, potluck meals together, the experiences of groups getting together to repaint, repair, or clean areas that had fallen into disrepair, good sermons, bad sermons, Christmas pageant rehearsals, the Wolfe family bringing popcorn balls to all the children at Christmas Eve service, Sunrise services at the crack of dawn as the light broke through the eastern stained glass window, hiding from my Sunday School teacher to avoid class for a week, lighting the candles as an acolyte for over a decade, Silent Night being sung acapella each Christmas Eve as we illuminated the entire sanctuary with just candles. I told my Dad that these these things were always meant to be temporary—never meant to last other than in our memory.

The other kind of beauty is something that could have been preserved indefinitely, something this fire did destroy:  the artistic beauty of the architecture. In my time at that church I think I explored every inch of the building that was accessible (and even a few spots that really weren't). From the top of the bell tower into the second basement to the pipe loft for the organ (accessible by catwalk)––I knew that building.

And I really appreciated how beautiful the trimmings were. We had several ornate large illustrative stained glass windows, one of the largest functional pipe organs in the area, murals and stenciled wall painting by Elmer 'Bud' Peterson (no relation), and carved woodwork everywhere: the wall paneling, the communion rail, the pulpit and lectern, the alter, the vents for the organ––even our speakers & hymn number plaques!

When I was in college at Mott, my grandfather told me at a family dinner that he had all of the stained glass fragments as well as two round windows still in-tact from the 1960's era remodel where one of the large windows and several smaller ones were removed to add on an addition (which I knew as the library, classrooms, bathrooms, office, chapel, and nursery. He wanted me to have those bits and to put them to good use. My Mom, who worked in the office at the church at the time, pointed out that he shouldn't do that and that we didn't own those––the Church did.

While Commandment #8 is Thou Shalt Not Steal––Thank GOD my Grandfather did and that I assisted him in the crime. Because those two round windows aren't burned in the carcass over on the corner of Saginaw & Hamilton in Flint, MI. Their beauty lives on in our dining room.

When I started doing my own stained glass work after college, I incorporated some of the fragments into portraits I made for my Dad, Mom, & Grandparents. Sounds weird to say it, but I wish we'd stolen a lot more from that church.
Before writing my Dad back, to tell him all of this I went through the family photo albums to glean any more good memories from Oak Park that I could find. Funnily enough there were very few photos of events at the church, or of the people––that church family.

Most of the photos we ever bothered to take were of that second kind of beauty––the kind that is meant to last forever.

Below are some of those photos including paraments my Mom made for the pulpit and lectern, the rose on the alter the Sunday after my birth, and my Dad decorating the Christmas tree we donated from our back yard to the church that year

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