In 1779, German settlers came to the Finger Lakes area bringing with them the expertise of grape growing and winemaking. The land of course had already been occupied by the Senecas, but in true American settler form, they sat down anyway and made it their own. They formed a small town known as “Watkinstown” named after a Revolutionary War Captain, which then would be changed to “Middletown” because of its location on the road between between Canandaigua and Bath, and then in 1808 would be changed to the name we’re familiar with today: Naples, NY. Many felt that the landscape near the water lined with row after row of grape vines and rolling hills had a familiar feel to the town in Italy and they tried to bring some of that old world familiarity to their new home.
As the town began to grow, 24 families came together and petitioned Bishop McQuaid of the Rochester Diocese to allow them to form a congregation and build a church. The group used the local town hall for a couple years while building their original church on the corner of North Main and Tobey St, and cost it them $2,500 to build. This church was traditional for the time period, featuring a white-washed long and narrow, tall steeple with tall but simple stained glass windows. In Upstate New York you’ve likely seen tons of churches that fit that kind of description. In the late 1960’s that church was torn down, and present day St. Januarius was built over a two year time span.
St. Januarius church celebrates its namesake that it took from a Bishop who served near Naples, Italy until he was martyred in 305 CE. When Januarius was thrown to a fiery death and persecuted for his beliefs (Remember: Constantine didn’t legalize Christianity until 314 CE), it’s said that the flames never touched him and since this didn’t work, he was thrown to a pack of wild animals and still, he couldn’t be harmed. Finally, a beheading was ordered and afterward a female follower of Januarius collected a small vile of his blood that to this day bubbles and liquefies several times a year–especially near the Feast of St. Januarius on September 19th. It is said that if during the expected times that the blood does not boil, disaster is imminent. I should point out that many followers of the Catholic faith seem to disagree on the validity of the stories surrounding St. Januarius because so little is known or documented about his life. The more I’ve researched his life, the more interesting it becomes because of the unknown factors, and the science behind the liquefying of the blood. The more I dig for information, the different the stories get. However, they all agree that the blood in the vials liquefies; though the Catholic church doesn’t recognize it as a miracle. Additionally, Friedrich Nietzsche even included a nod to the patron saint and the “blood miracle” in his book The Gay Science which I read in 10th grade, but probably didn’t fully grasp.
The present day St. Januarius was specifically designed to incorporate and fit the local landscape while honoring the elements common to the area. The town was named after Naples, Italy, the church was named after the patron saint of Naples, Italy–there was definitely a Naples theme happening and they wanted that to continue. Architect Jim Johnson was commissioned to design a place for traditional Catholic worship with a bit a progressive inspiration. Johnson drew the out floorplan of the church to look like the outline of a grape leaf. The shape of the leaf is wide and tear-dropped coming to a point at the east side facing North Main St (the old church faced South toward Tobey St). Vertically, the shape continues with that theme by emulating the design of a grape leaf turned over, where the tip of the leaf actually points upward due to the strength of the midrib. Instead of the long, narrow and tall steeple, St. Januarius embraced the idea that a lot of other churches in the 1960’s America did by creating a wider, shorter church similar to that of a fan blade. The idea was that rather than sit in a pew facing perfectly forward only seeing the backs of the heads of other parishioners, you could now see the sides of the faces of the people you were in service with; this was meant to instill a sense of community and belonging within the church.
Though the shape of the floor plan and the roof look unique, most people first notice the outside walls of the church. The entire outside of the church wall is a plain and flat colored cement spotted with freckles of multi-colored stain glass. Continuing with adorning the church with a Naples, NY inspired theme, each of the stain glass dots was intended to represent each of the types of grapes grown locally. While the outside is a smooth cement, the inside is entirely opposite. The walls are comprised of individual panels that were made with a process called sand-casting. By creating small pyramids of wet sand and pouring cement over the top, a deep concave window was created in the wall coming to a peak at a small colored window. Because the sand was reused and each panel needed to be a different size to accommodate the unique form of the church, every single panel ended up being an individual form, so none of them are the same. While visiting I watched a short video about the process and it looked horribly time consuming and tedious–the largest of the panels weighed in at 40 tons! It seems that the building of the church was more of a work of art rather than a construction job. These windows and panels are precisely the reason that the newer church was built facing the East, for morning services as the sun is still rising the church is completely lit up. During the day, the lights shine inward and look incredible from the inside while at night, light shines out from within the church and the outside looks like christmas tree lights–we’ll have to go back and get some shots of what it looks like at night. Supposedly, there was no rhyme or reason as to how the colors formed but it certainly seems that there was. Behind the raredos there is even a collection of red windows forming almost the shape of a cross with orange and yellow surrounding it. Red = blood of Christ, orange and yellow = rising sun; it sure seems like there was at least some thought put in to it.
So, the old church had a long, narrow and tall nave with white-washed outsides and the new church had a wide, fanned shape nave with a wine cellar sort of feeling and specks of colored polka dots shining through. The old church had an altar that stood traditionally atop five steps (the new church actually had this as well for a quite a while) and faced away from the congregation while the new has only two steps, and a wheelchair ramp, and the altar sits away from the raredos so that the priest can face the congregation. The worship space for this congregation took on an incredible transformation from traditional to almost artistic in a short course of time. It’s pretty incredible if you take in to consideration Catholics’ willingness to go outside the box and try new things, and the fact that Naples, NY is fairly conservative in and of itself. To help the transition for some of the parishioners that weren’t as keen on the change, the new church continues to display the original stained glass windows from the old church (though, they are on a wall and no natural light shines through them), the original stoups from the old church, the original pews and two lighting fixtures that hang above the altar were also brought over. Additionally, the front doors to the old church are now indoors and used for the doors to enter the confessionals. In addition to the community center they added on to the back of the church they continue to provide numerous renovations and additions as part of a two-phase project costing the congregation nearly $300,000. [ June 26th, 2012 EDIT: It’s been brought to my attention by the Diocese of Rochester that the renovation costs were not incurred by the congregation, but rather by two private donors, in addition to any parishioner who volunteered to donate toward the project.]
When we started our list of Sacred Sites in Upstate NY to go visit, this was one that had been included early on. The history of St. Januarius is rich and long, particularly for that area considering the amount of developed land in the Finger Lakes during that time span, but for me the unique construction and look of the the church is what has always stood out as a point of interest. If you’re in Naples, you should definitely see this place in person!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com