Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Church That Might Have Been

Design for a chapel, 1834, from Edward T. Davis and John L. Sanders,
A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina:
The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis

By John B. Green III

Judge William Gaston, lawyer, congressman, and state supreme court justice, was one of the founders and patrons of New Bern's fledgling Roman Catholic congregation in the early 19th Century.  The congregation met in private homes but Gaston soon sought to secure a permanent place of worship.  Through his son-in-law Robert Donaldson of New York, Gaston had become acquainted with the nationally-known architect Alexander Jackson Davis.  Davis was an energetic proponent of the various romantic-revival architectural styles then becoming popular.  Between 1834 and 1840 Davis supplied Gaston with at least two sets of plans and renderings for a Roman Catholic chapel in the Gothic style.  Buttressed and spired, with tracery windows, the chapel would be the purest expression of the Gothic-Revival style in New Bern and North Carolina and a dignified home for the town's Catholics.  But it was not to be.  Architectural exuberance and religious fervor soon ran head-long into a practical bishop with an eye on the bottom line.

Design for a chapel, 1840, from Mills Lane, Architecture in the Old South: North Carolina

The Right Reverend John England, Bishop of Charleston, had organised the parish of St. Paul in New Bern in 1824.  He had worked closely with William Gaston to promote the local congregation and to secure a place of worship.  But he balked at the cost and complexity of the proposed Gothic chapel.  Counseling Gaston to build a church at a cost and in a style which could easily be erected in New Bern, the Bishop supplied a sketch plan of a plain frame church.  With the plan in the hands of New Bern builder Hardy B. Lane, the result was the St. Paul's Catholic Church on Middle Street familiar to generations of New Bernians.  Completed in 1841, the wood-frame church combined late-Federal and Greek-Revival details.  Although significantly altered in appearance by the 1896 addition of an entrance tower, the church is still recognizable as the building which Bishop England approved.

St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, photo ca. 1862. U.S. Army Military History Institute

Although his grand Gothic chapel would never be constructed, Alexander Jackson Davis did leave one tangible reminder of his connection to William Gaston and New Bern.  Upon Gaston's death in 1844, his family asked Davis to design a suitable monument for his grave. The resulting classically styled sarcophagus, executed in Italian marble, marks Gaston's final resting place in Cedar Grove Cemetery to this day.

Grave of William Gaston, Cedar Grove Cemetery, New Bern, photo ca. 1910, from Mary Louise Waters, A Short Historical Sketch of New Bern, N.C.