Saint Luke’s parish began humbly enough in 1913 with fifteen people meeting in an upper room on Station Square in Forest Hills, above what was then the local post office. From there it moved on to Sunday morning services in different people’s homes, and then in 1916 to a temporary wooden chapel, which was replaced by the present brick building in 1924.
Saint Luke’s was built in the 13th century English Gothic style. Gothic architecture is a wonderfully flexible form. It works for small churches like Saint Luke’s and great cathedrals like Canterbury and Chartres–a form designed in the 12th century to create a lightness and a more soaring space, to lift people’s spirits to the infinity beyond the building.
It is a marvelous concept, and in simple terms it’s rather like building a boat. If you look up to the ceiling of the nave you’ll see something like the hull of a ship but with the ribs on the inside. The wood is bowed and joined by hand to bear the weight of the tiles or the stone that will be laid on top–the same way that a boat is built to withstand the onslaughts of the sea. In fact, the word nave comes from the medieval Latin word navis, meaning ship. If this were an English church, it would be made of stone cut from a nearby quarry. In that same spirit of using local material, Saint Luke’s is constructed of old bricks from an upstate demolition site. The fact that they were worn and somewhat mismatched adds to the building’s charm and gives it a mellowness.
Saint Luke’s was blessed in having as its architect Robert Tappen, a member of the congregation who was associated with the distinguished architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson–the firm that was then building the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. By day Robert Tappen was in charge of construction of that great cathedral. His evenings and weekends were spent in Forest Hills, with his plans for Saint Luke’s spread out on his dining room table, and vestry members gathered around, striving to find a meeting place between his broad vision and their slender budget. They were able to do so because he not only donated his architectural services but also took charge of construction, at no cost to Saint Luke’s.
Robert Tappen died in 1963 and there is a small memorial to him tucked away between the choir stalls and the sacristy door.
When Saint Luke’s was completed in 1924 it was a narrower building planned for expansion. The spaces between the arches at either side of the main aisle were filled in with lathe and plaster with simple rectangular windows. Only one was of stained glass, a gift from the church school. A few years later when these temporary walls were knocked out and the side aisles added, that window–depicting the holy family–was moved to its present place at the right of the world peace altar. This is the only rectangular window in the building, all the others are arched. You will also see on the wood panel behind that little altar some lovely gold leaf decoration. That is the work of Saint Luke’s first rector, the Rev. William Lander.
As the craftsmen who built Saint Luke’s neared the end of their task, each of them contributed a day’s pay to buy a commemorative stained-glass window. This window depicts Jesus as a boy working with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop and is located in the rear left of the church.
All the other windows were given as memorials, most of them during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Some were made by the same New York craftsman who designed some of the windows for Saint John the Divine, others by a prestigious glass studio in London, England.
One window that is rather different is located in the little chapel off the narthex. This chapel was designed to be the baptistry and the central window shows two little boys in their pajamas saying their evening prayers–given in memory of a 25-year-old man who died in World War II. This chapel is now the place where a small group gathers every Wednesday morning for a mid-week Eucharist.
At a time when this church had no silver vessels and no funds to buy them, Father Lander put an old iron cooking pot in the narthex and requested offerings of jewelry, silverware, old rings, cufflinks, anything made of precious metal or stones. When the pot was full, its contents were used to fashion the lovely chalice that we have used every Sunday ever since.
Our unique font is the contribution of a later rector, the Rev. Thomas Blomquist, who served as a naval chaplain during World War II. Returning from his service, he brought back this giant clam shell from the South Pacific. Aside from the fact that it is rare and beautiful, there’s a lot of Christian symbolism in a shell. Medieval pilgrims traveling on foot to Rome or to Santiago di Compostella wore scallop shells in their hats so that others on the road would recognize them as pilgrims and give them safe passage. So at all our baptisms we have this lovely symbol of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, on which the newly baptized is setting out with the blessing and protection of the church.
Over the years many parishioners have left their mark on Saint Luke’s with a variety of donations that add to its beauty and comfort. And every congregation makes other contributions that are intangible. Every time any one of us comes to church we not only take something away–a sense of peace or an inspiration–but also leave something of ourselves behind. Over time the walls of a church soak up the prayers of the faithful and all the concerns and joys and grief and hope that we bring in those prayers. All those people who planned and struggled to build Saint Luke’s and to make it such a special place knew this and gave of their best so that we, in turn, could cherish it, be strengthened by it, and pass these things on. May we all have the grace and the will to do so.