Divine designs: Powerful symbolism lies in area's church architecture

For many of the faithful, a church is more than simply a building. It's a symbol of the followers' faith it shelters, a silent witness to the beliefs they hold dear.

Gethsemane's pipe organ
The Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo has an interesting-looking pipe organ with two sets of horns coming horizontally out of it. Dave Wallis / The Forum

For many of the faithful, a church is more than simply a building. It's a symbol of the followers' faith it shelters, a silent witness to the beliefs they hold dear.

For others, a church speaks by what it doesn't say. Commonness or simplicity of designs can reveal an emphasis on the spiritual over the physical or the notion that God is not bound to a particular place.

Fargo-Moorhead has no shortage of churches that have tales to tell through their architecture. From Catholic to Protestant and beyond, we chose six churches whose architectural qualities are intriguing for various reasons. Today we'll feature three of those six; next Saturday, we'll focus on three more.

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral

3600 25th St. S., Fargo


Date: 1993 (dedicated)

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral was designed to "look like a prairie town," complete with a "grain elevator bell tower," says Joan Tillotson, who served on the building committee for the project. The outlying sections of the building are "the little houses that might be around."

The structure is a blend of both refined and raw elements. Exposed white roof trusses rise in juxtaposition to spiritually oriented, stained-glass images. Polished concrete floors contrast with a grand pipe organ even as square, rough-hewn columns stand in medieval elegance.

The old-world block walls in the chapel could only properly be complemented by brown-robed monks, yet much of the interior decor has the look of rural, wood-framed construction.

"We jokingly call it 'prairie gothic,' " Tillotson says.

The cathedral was dedicated in 1993 after the congregation's downtown building was burned beyond repair in 1989. It's a structure that speaks to both the tradition of the Episcopal Church and the agrarian interests of the Plains it inhabits.

Longtime member Margie Bailly sees the structure as "combining the practicality of the Scandinavian heritage and culture ... and the pomp and circumstance of the Church of England."

St. John the Divine Episcopal Church


120 8th St. S., Moorhead

Date: 1899 (completed)

St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Moorhead owes its form to the same famous American architect who designed the U.S. Supreme Court Building and the Woolworth Building in New York City, which was once the world's tallest.

Cass Gilbert modeled the church on the English Elizabethan style, designing it in 1896, a year after he was commissioned to erect the Minnesota Capitol building.

William Davy, who donated the land on which the church is constructed, and congregation founder Benjamin Mackall "were instrumental in engaging Gilbert," a 1967 Forum article states. The design fee was a modest $175.

The building was designated a Minnesota state historical site in 1967.

Its architecture is a blend of old-world cottage charm and classic church construction. The rugged stones of the foundation were quarried from Minnesota lake country. The wood shingles, which are straight from a Grimm's fairy tale, flare out gracefully as they meet that foundation.

A textured brick chimney on the north side and the Tudor-styled cross timbering of the entryway further enhance the structure's old-world feel.


Like the Episcopal faith itself, the structure of St. John the Divine has a traditionalist flair. The primary part of this worship space forms the shape of the cross. The orientation of the church is also steeped in tradition.

Michael Johnson, associate rector of the congregation, says the "congregation is facing toward Jerusalem," which is where Jesus is said to descend when he returns to Earth.

First Congregational Church

1101 17th Ave. S., Fargo

Date: 1963 (dedicated)

When the Rev. Kevin Cassiday-Maloney tells people where he serves as pastor, they sometimes recognize it as the building "with the praying hands."

"That was definitely planned," he says of the First Congregational United Church of Christ building in Fargo.

The two halves of the church's wood-shingled roof curve simultaneously toward one another and upward to form the towering center portion like the fingers of massive hands folded in prayer. Imposing buttresses form the anchors for 14 approximately 2,500-pound curved beams that support the structure.


Perry Clark was a member of First Congregational UCC and designed the building. In a publication printed for the dedication of the church in 1963, the late Clark said, "It was decided to dramatize the sound foundation of our Christian beliefs by exposing a powerful structure, which is not hidden, but reaches forth from the ground and takes a never-ending course to infinity, reminding one of eternity."

Also distinctive of the church are the somewhat random series of colored tiles that decorate several portions of the structure including the sanctuary's inner front wall.

Cassiday-Maloney says they "don't make any discernable pattern," but they do move upward.

He sees these as representing the journey of faith and the idea that not everyone's spiritual path is identical.

The massive wooden beams that support the structure remind Cassiday-Maloney of Noah's Ark. But their curved form also brings to mind the notion of flexibility. He sees that as a reflection of a church that allows for differences and the idea that it doesn't have to be a "cookie-cutter" kind of faith.

Visit Forum religion reporter Shane Mercer's online blog at .

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