Changing with the times

Historic church undergoes ‘minimal’ indoor renovations

By Mike Finney
Posted 3/6/21

DOVER — The Rev. Charles S. “Chuck” Weiss and leaders of Christ Episcopal Church know the uproar that would surely come from preservation groups if they dared to make any outside renovations to the church's nearly 300-year-old sanctuary.

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Changing with the times

Historic church undergoes ‘minimal’ indoor renovations


DOVER — The Rev. Charles S. “Chuck” Weiss and leaders of Christ Episcopal Church know the uproar that would surely come from preservation groups if they dared to make any outside renovations to the church’s nearly 300-year-old sanctuary.

However, to bring the church more up to date and with the hope of offering a wider variety of activities to members and the community, they have taken on some “minimal renovations” inside the building.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided the church, at 501 S. State St., ample time to get started on the indoor renovations, since the church has been having its services online since last spring.

The project has already brought a new organ console and sound system, and they decided to move the altar closer to the congregation and update various other physical pieces.

The updated layout for the main area of the church around the altar involves making everything movable, so that, in the future, the church will be able to host concerts, plays and other events.

“One of the things I’m especially excited about is that what we’ve done is very flexible, so that we can do things in a way we’ve always done in a very traditional way, but we can also open it up and do all sorts of new things,” the Rev. Weiss said. “So we’re sort of able to help everybody connect with God in their own way. I’m really excited about the flexibility.”

Jon Rania, lay ministry associate and director of music for the church, said making the changes has been a time-consuming project. A lot of thought has had to go into each update.

“The altar used to be up there (farther back), but we moved it (closer) to create better sightlines for the congregation and to make this whole area more interchangeable,” Mr. Rania said. “What you’re seeing (in the altar area) was just done within the past year, so it’s only been about a third of the entire project.

“The organ was a new console that was originally installed in 1947. It was refurbished in 1985, or in the mid-’80s, and then, in 2010, we digitalized it, and we actually added new pipes, which are live speaking pipes, they’re not just for show. The crowning, the second part of that, was the replacement of the (organ) console.”

Nancy Quinn, parishioner and head of the church’s History Committee, can tell anybody just about anything they need to know about the evolution of Christ Episcopal Church.

“We can’t change the outside (of the church) anymore, but we can do whatever we want — when we all agree on what to do — when we decide to make some changes to the inside of the building,” Ms. Quinn said. “I’m really excited the people up in the balcony are going to finally get air conditioning.”

She said the congregation at Christ Church is the oldest in the capital city and that the church building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been in continuous use since it was constructed in 1734.

Ms. Quinn added that when Dover was laid out by William Penn’s surveyors in 1717, two religious squares were designated.

Meeting House Square, now a part of the Children’s Theatre Inc., was reserved for “dissenters” (Presbyterians) at Old Brick Church, which stands on the corner of Governors Avenue and North Street. Meanwhile, Church Square was reserved for Church of England (the current Christ Episcopal Church).

Just glimpsing at some of the names in the graveyard alone offers up some of the significance of the history of Christ Episcopal Church — there are Loockermans, Ridgelys and Sykeses, as well as other well-known Dover historical names on the grounds.

The legendary Caesar Rodney, a statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a lifelong member of the church. His grandfather, Charles Inglis, also served as its pastor from 1759-64.

“It was a central place, and all the people who came here were town leaders, and state leaders, too,” Ms. Quinn said. “We have a lot of governors in the cemetery and legislators, both state and national.

“This was a real hub here. This is definitely a ‘center.’”

The Rev. Weiss and the other church leaders are trying their best to make the church a center of the community once again with the new round of renovations.

“I am thrilled. I am absolutely thrilled,” said the Rev. Weiss. “This is a conversation that’s been going on for more than a couple of years, I suppose. We had a year of town hall listening sessions and planning and so forth.

“And we just had our annual meeting on Zoom and caught the parish up on what our plans are, and there is, by and large, great support for our continuing to complete them. We started the renovations, and then, COVID hit, and so we will be completing our church renovation project later this year.”

The reverend said funding for the renovations is coming from a variety of means.

“The numbers that we’re talking about are not that substantial, but we are funding them through a combination of sources,” he said. “Part of it is funds that our predecessors set aside, ages ago, for this very work. There are some funds that can only be used to renovate the church.

“In addition, we are reaching out to the diocese, which has something called the Advanced Development Fund, which is essentially a matching gift program and encourages our parishioners to match, some of them. So those three sources will come together beautifully and seamlessly.”

Meanwhile, the renovations are taking place during the pandemic, and the congregation will be introduced to many of them when they are allowed to return for in-person services.

“The things that we heard from our congregation is that they wanted to feel more connected in worship,” the Rev. Weiss said. “So we’ve done a lot, so that people can see and hear and feel as a part of one community.

“I have invited the parish back on Palm Sunday, which is March 28. That will be the first time since mid-November that we are looking at coming back. We will be socially distanced with face masks and all that. So we’re going to begin again then for those who are comfortable doing so.”

He added, “There are signs of hope. The world is opening up slowly and safely.”

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