Monday, September 14, 2009

Dreams of Gothic church never met

Corona del Mar would have been home to the oldest church in the Western Hemisphere if the small but wealthy congregation of what was then St. Matthew’s-by-the-Sea had its way in 1986.

The then 64-member-strong church had plans to dismantle a 13th century Gothic church in rural England and have it transported and rebuilt, brick by brick, in Corona del Mar, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986.

“It was a little bit of a pipe dream,” said the Rev. Stephen Scarlett, rector of what is now St. Matthew’s Anglican Catholic Church.

“It depended on a lot of things happening,” Scarlett said. “Archaeology students would be so happy to dismantle it they would do it for free.... People would be so happy to have it in town they would give away the land to put it on for free.”

The cross-shaped St. Bartholomew’s church in the village of Covenham in Northeastern England was built in 1257.

Anglican church authorities declared the church “redundant” in 1978, meaning it had to be demolished unless an alternative use could be found for the building.

“Because we are traditionalists, we believe that it’s important to communicate honestly and emphatically our roots in historic British Christianity,” the Rev. Samuel Scheibler, an assistant pastor at St. Matthew’s, told the Times in an article dated Jan. 11, 1986.

“Therefore, this project is for us a sermon — literally a sermon in stone,” he said.

The congregation estimated it would take $35,000 to dismantle and pack up the church, plus the cost of shipping.

Momentum behind the Newport church’s plans eventually crumbled, much like the old church itself, Scarlett said. For one thing, the old church wasn’t exactly up to earthquake codes.

“You couldn’t even really rebuild it and use it,” Scarlett said. “The closest thing you could do is build a modern building and adorn it with stones from the old church.”

Although the townspeople of Covenham were happy to sell St. Bartholomew’s because they had no money to restore the crumbling structure, the Anglican church blocked the sale.

Church officials in England were “reportedly unhappy about the prospect of permitting the church to go to a breakaway congregation of the U.S. Episcopal Church,” the Times reported in July 1986.

St. Matthew’s abandoned their dreams of having a Gothic church in favor of using the congregation’s money to hire Scarlett as its full-time rector in 1986, he said.

The congregation eventually changed its name to St. Matthew’s Anglican Catholic Church and completed work on a new church building at 2300 Ford Road in Newport Beach in 2002. Scarlett estimates the congregation has about 300 or 400 members today.

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