Dean Letter: Chairs

Hello St. Paul’s,

If you’ve been in the church over the last two weeks you know that we have made the change from pews to chairs. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to any cathedral member: we have been talking about it for over a year, and we went through an extensive search for the best chairs for our purposes. You’ll recall that the impetus for this change was a desire on the part of Chapter to make the Cathedral nave as flexible and accessible as possible, so that, in this time of diminishing church attendance, we can support our ministries by making cathedral spaces available for community use. This is an ancient part of a cathedral’s vocation, and for that reason most cathedrals do not have pews. You could say that our pews were an historical accident, due to the fact that St. Paul’s started out as a parish church in the era when Episcopalians had to rent their own pew in order to guarantee a seat in church. I am glad to say that we no longer have what amounts to a means test for parishioners to qualify as full members of the church.

When a generous donor offered to underwrite the cost of changing to chairs, we got to work soliciting sample chairs from several established manufacturers of church seating. We were looking for comfort, the correct aesthetic, and the ability to stack and move the chairs relatively easily. Many of you participated in the “sit test”. The runaway favorite was the Howe 40/4 chair, a relatively contemporary design that has stood up well to being stacked and reconfigured over the years in cathedrals including Philadelphia, Salisbury, and Canterbury. We selected a stain that would match the wood paneling in the chancel and placed the order. Fortunately, there is an armchair version, which offers extra support to those who are less mobile, and we ordered 50 of those in addition to 350 of the standard chairs. We also ordered book racks that will hook between the chairs, providing a little extra lateral space.

It took many months for us to make a decision and for the order to be fulfilled. Meanwhile, our staff got busy finding suitable homes for the old pews. We offered the shorter pews for sale, and nearly all of them have been spoken for. We found several organizations that repurpose old wood into toys and other items: they have taken custody of the long pews (which were quite dilapidated). Kathleen Burgess worked hard to make sure nothing was discarded. Bob Oslie removed the memorial plaques and stored them. In due course we will select a suitable spot for a wall of honor and install the plaques, along with those from the chapel pews.

A few questions have come up repeatedly, and I’m going to address some of those now.

  1. How will we accommodate those who like to kneel during worship? While attached kneelers would have impeded us in moving and stacking the chairs, we have started a project to provide cushion-type foam kneelers, with custom-made cross-stitch covers. A group of parishioners is working on designs. Unfortunately the foam is on back-order, and we will have to wait a couple of months for the kneelers, but meanwhile we still have most of the short pews in place with their attached kneelers.
  2. How will we care for those who are unsteady or require extra assistance with sitting and standing? The chairs are hooked together for greater stability, and each row will have at least one armchair.
  3. Why would we want to reconfigure the chairs? As we saw at the sesquicentennial Gala, the Cathedral can be transformed into a magical space for special events. We want to be able to offer this kind of transformation for community use, in keeping with the special charism of a cathedral. We will be able to move the altar and pulpit, to turn the chairs to face the font, to make space for a symphony orchestra – the possibilities are very broad.
  4. How are we paying for all this? A single generous donor is underwriting the entire project, with the exception of the kneelers, which will be funded from the pew sales.
  5. Is this the end of changes to the nave? No: we are currently engaged in a project to expand the chancel (the area behind the Communion rail) forwards and to render it and the chapel wheelchair accessible and completely flexible. For some time we’ve needed to repair the sagging floor under the altar, and this project will replace the wood flooring with the same beautiful stone flooring that we have in the chapel and sacristy, besides creating a ramp to both the chancel and the chapel. We can expect to see construction at the end of this year. This project is also underwritten by a single generous donor.
  6. Why do we keep making changes to our beloved and familiar worship space? The world has changed; people no longer attend church as they used to; in order to maintain our beautiful building, continue our treasured traditions, and grow our faithful parish family, we must make changes that will support our ministries going forward and serve the community around us.

I am grateful to Chapter and the staff for their willingness to move forward with these improvements so that St. Paul’s can continue to grow and flourish.

See you on Sunday!

Your sister in Christ,


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6 thoughts on “Dean Letter: Chairs”

  1. So happy to see the new chairs and the opening up of space. Also glad to hear that the chapel will soon be wheel-chair accessible. Will have to come back sometime and give it a test!
    Best to all,
    Christa Vragel

  2. I’m very disappointed and saddened that the Cathedral has made this change. The chairs look horrible. The pews were far better than the chairs. What a shame and a disgrace.
    Did you consider seniors who need support standing up, and their balance?
    When there is no one standing in a chair, and a senior citizen behind them need support standing up, they would have grabbed the back into the pew. Now what is that senior citizen going to use to help them stand up?
    I am a native to San Diego, and I often visited the cathedral when growing up in San Diego. Now I will not be coming back to the Cathedral.

  3. Wonderful message, Penny. Thank you for the update regarding the chairs AND chancel project. Many changes preparing us for the exciting journey ahead!

  4. I like the chairs just fine. But a serious problem is the audio system. It’s an acceptable system, PROVIDED the speaker moves the microphone to say a foot from her/his mouth. Many have it 2-3 feet away. My hearing is not great but it’s okay. I can barely hear most speakers. Two friends tell me the same thing. Looking around the church on Sunday, I’d say most of us are over 60 and many post-70/80. Thanks.

  5. Dear Penny, thank you for moving forward with this project. However:
    As I approach 85 and have balance issues, I will miss being able to grab a pew when ushering. Carrying a cane & storing it could be problematic. I’m willing to give it a try.
    See you Sunday

  6. The pews to chairs project has
    been boldly conceived and
    tastefully executed.
    Thank you Chapter, Dean
    Penny and gracious donor for
    your wise, future oriented


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