From the Church to the Chair: A Sermon on The Feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Paul’s, Erie

July 26, 2015 — Dean Downey’s sermon during the service for the Centennial Year of St. Paul’s as a Cathedral



A few years ago, we were between bishops. I noticed that the area around the Cathedra (the Bishop’s Chair) was looking kind of shabby. The carpets and cushions needed to be replaced and it seemed a good time to do it, since it would be a while until

The Bishop's Chair

The Bishop’s Chair

we had a bishop to sit there. I lifted the cushion of the chair and saw a flat piece of wood underneath. Looking closer, I saw that it was a plaque, put there like a magazine under the couch when guests are coming. It was so worn and beat up that it could barely be read, so I asked A.J. Noyes to restore it. I will tell you what it says, but not yet. We’ll get there by way of the stories of two other plaques, found at the back of the side aisles, which commemorate two men, father and son, who served here as priests and who were sent out west from here as Missionary Bishops.

This beautiful church was built in 1866, during the Civil War, and was consecrated in 1869 by Bishop Kerfoot of Pittsburgh, one of the great reconcilers after the war. The priest who led the building project was the Rev. John Franklin Spalding. During his time in Erie, he not only built St. Paul’s, but he also planted and built Episcopal churches in the four corners of the growing city. This was the time of the Strong Vincent and his brother Boyd, who became the Bishop of Southern Ohio. One of the earliest baptisms in this building was that of Harry T. Burleigh, the renowned African-American singer and composer.

John Franklin Spalding’s passion for mission led to his being elected the Missionary Bishop of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. The Episcopal Church in those days consecrated Missionary Bishops to start and develop the Church in new territories. This broke the stereotype that we only sent bishops to new places when they could ride the train in Pullman cars to towns where churches and nice homes were already waiting for them. So Spalding was consecrated bishop here in this church, at the end of 1873, and sent to the western frontier.

While he was here in Erie, he married Lavinia Spencer, of the prominent Spencer family. One of their children was named Franklin Spencer, after both his parents. He was born in 1865, while the church was being built. He lived in Erie until he was eight years old, when the family moved to Colorado. Franklin returned to Erie to spend alternate summers with his grandparents. After attending Princeton and General Seminary, he joined his father as a priest in Colorado. In 1896, twenty-three years after he had left Erie as a boy, he was called to return as Rector here at St. Paul’s.

Like his father, Franklin Spencer Spalding had a passion for mission. The younger Spalding, however, focused more on social transformation than church planting. He was a strong advocate for the working class, caring deeply for their struggles in the new industrial economy. His building project was not a church, but St. Paul’s first parish house, seen in those days as a bold statement about civic engagement and the church’s life beyond worship services. And like his father, he was elected a Missionary Bishop, in his case of Utah, and, again like his father, was consecrated bishop here in this church and sent west to take up his work.

His social concern only grew during his time in Utah. In the latest history of the Diocese of Utah, the chapter about Bishop Spalding is entitled, “The Socialist Bishop.” In his many trips east to raise funds for his mission work, he became known as a compelling and challenging speaker. He had the opportunity to preach in Westminster Abbey during the time of the Lambeth Conference and the Pan-Anglican Congress in 1908, but perhaps his most provocative sermon was preached during the General Convention of 1913 in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. Here is part of what he said,

“We worship in a great church like this, and it makes us forget the slums just over the way; we wear our holy vestments, and we forget the millions who have only rags to wear; we debate our canons and names, and we forget the toiling workers who are pleading for a living wage; we discuss hymns and prayers, and we forget that there are ten-thousands of thousands whose hearts are too heavy to sing and whose faith is too weak to pray.”

The following year, Franklin Spencer Spalding was killed at the age of forty-nine when he was hit by a car while crossing the main street in Salt Lake City. The next year, 1915, one hundred years ago, this church, built by the elder Spalding, this church where father and son Spaldings served as priests and were consecrated Missionary Bishops, became the Cathedral of Saint Paul, the first Episcopal Cathedral in Pennsylvania.

Symbolically, what makes a cathedral a “cathedral” is the fact that it is the place of the “Cathedra,” the bishop’s chair. In 1943, some remodeling was going on here, and a new Cathedra was built. It was given by Mr. and Mrs. Norman W. Wilson. Wilson was one of the great business leaders of Erie and a strong leader and benefactor of St. Paul’s. And so now I will tell you what was written on the plaque I found underneath the cushion of the Cathedra.

To the Glory of God and in Memory of

The Rt. Rev. Franklin Spencer Spalding, D.D.

1865 – 1914

Rector of this Parish from 1896 – 1905

Bishop of Utah from 1904 – 1914


Was Given in Grateful Remembrance by

Mr. and Mrs. Norman W. Wilson – May 13, 1943


A great business leader honoring a socialist bishop! This is the Episcopal Church at its best and this is the deep DNA of this place, of St. Paul’s, of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, at its best. Like any Cathedra, this chair for the bishop represents the fact that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our congregation alone, something that extends across time and space. And this particular Cathedra, in this particular cathedral, embodies a generosity of spirit that reaches across political and economic divisions out of a greater concern for the common good. And that generosity of spirit is desperately needed in our nation and world. I appeal to us today to claim our heritage of missionary passion and generosity of spirit and to do so, like the Wilsons, with “grateful remembrance.”

This place and its people have a distinguished past — the Spaldings are notable but not alone. We have come to a happy centennial celebration as a cathedral, with a much longer history as a parish. The future holds great challenges. How will we respond to the “Nones” and the “Dones” — the growing number of younger people who claim no religious affiliation and the growing number of older people who no longer practice or perhaps even believe like they once did? How will we find significant and meaningful ways of participation and support for religious life as the ways we once knew slip away, part of a culture that matches up less and less with life today? How can we make a difference in the face of things like poverty, violence, extremism of all kinds, environmental changes, and the emergence of multi-cultural societies and globalization?

Now, Christians are hopeful people. Desmond Tutu says we are “prisoners of hope.” Even with all the challenges, I find much to be hopeful about. In particular the younger people who are finding their way in or finding their way to the Episcopal Church give me hope. That includes some fine younger clergy. They have never known any church other than the one we have today with all its challenges. These younger people and clergy are part of what God is stirring up among us.

And our ultimate hope is in God, the God who came to us in Jesus, who died on the cross and rose from the dead. Jesus whose passion propelled him into the Temple to restore its purpose as a house of prayer, and a house of healing, and a house of hope for all people. Jesus has done this again and again in the past, and will continue to do so, sometimes in ways that are disruptive and disturbing, and often in ways we could never expect. This Cathedra, this chair, in this church, embodies such hope, and so I would like to give the last word to Franklin Spencer Spalding, in whose memory the Cathedra was given, words he spoke not long before his death.

“The Church must become Christian, and, therefore, missionary in its real essence. It must realize it can only know the Doctrine by doing the work. The Church’s history, its form of government, its liturgical services offer constant temptation to waste time and thought and dissipate energy. Just as truly as the individual must forget himself in the cause to which he is devoted, if he is to advance the interests of that cause, so the Church must forget herself, her boastings about her Catholic heritage, her efforts to perfect her liturgical forms, her fussing over already too complicated national, Provincial, and Diocesan organization and make it her one and only duty to save men from sin and all the misery which sin creates. She must realize that the only reason there is a Church is that collective action is more efficient than individual action. We in Utah are a feeble folk and we have little or no influence over the Church at large — but we can do our duty in the little sphere of service to which Christ has called us.”

Could I repeat that last sentence with just a slight change? We at the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Erie are a feeble folk and we have little or no influence over the Church at large — but we can do our duty in the little sphere of service to which Christ has called us.

The Very Rev. John P. Downey, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie, PA

John Downey

One thought on “From the Church to the Chair: A Sermon on The Feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Paul’s, Erie

  1. Thank you for the inspiration to keep spreading Christ’s good news where we are and to do so with one another within our diocese and among our fellow Christians within our community.


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