On Union Street, across from Union College, there’s a glorious building filled with angels.
If you go inside, plop down on one of the old oak benches and look up, you’ll see angels high above your head, in a round dome that glows with the light of the outdoor sky. Arranged in a circle around the dome, the baby-faced cherubs appear to be looking down at you. Try to count them and you may get dizzy.
And that’s only a small slice of the heavenly angels in St. John the Evangelist Church.
“There are more than 550. We don’t know the exact number. You could spend all day trying to count them,” says the Rev. Richard Carlino, who is pastor of both St. John’s and nearby St. Anthony’s Church.
The angel faces, each a similar sculpture made of white plaster, are everywhere. They hover above the stained glass windows and here and there upon the walls.
Up front, the 35-foot-high white marble altarpiece is topped with a statue of a young St. John with flowing hair. Below the saint, six full-size angels stand or kneel, three on each side of the altar, and each clutches a tall candle.
“It lifts everyone’s thoughts when they come here; it lifts their thoughts to prayer, and you are enclosed in that feeling,” says Florence Gunn of Scotia. Gunn has worshipped at St. John’s for many years. On Sundays, she serves as a eucharistic minister, giving out Holy Communion.
“When I’m here, I give thanks for the people that built this church. We’re so fortunate to have places like this, to appreciate the faith of our forefathers,” Gunn says.
Monsignor John L. Reilly was the man with the vision for this church, and he was its pastor for 60 years.
“He’s so fondly remembered to this day,” says Carlino.
In 1886, Reilly became pastor of St. John’s when the church was on Franklin Street.
That first church, St. John the Baptist, closed in 2009.
Reilly’s parishioners, mostly Irish and some Italian, raised $200,000 to build the new church, and, when the doors opened in 1904, it was one of the largest and grandest churches in the area.
Because Reilly was interested in music, the interior was constructed like an auditorium, with a floor that sloped down toward the altar.
“It has the appearance of an amphitheater,” says Carlino.
St. John’s was the first auditorium-style Roman Catholic church in the nation and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The Gothic, red granite church was designed by Edward W. Loth of Troy, a renowned architect who worked on nine other churches in the Capital Region, including the recently demolished St. Patrick’s in Watervliet.
Some records suggest the stained glass in St. John’s was from Germany and Austria, perhaps by Franz Mayer and Co., which made windows for large Catholic churches around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But no one seems to know who designed and created the other interior artwork.
St. John’s archivist, Lawrence Rainey, has died, and at the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, archivist Sister Nola Brunner dug deep into her files.
“There is nothing about the angels,” Brunner said in an email.
For Janet Rainey, music director at St. John’s, the church is a special place because of her family. It’s where her children celebrated their First Communion, and six years ago the funeral for her husband, Lawrence, the former archivist, took place there.
Surrounded by angels, Rainey has been playing the church’s Hutchings-Votey organ, with its 3,000 pipes, since 1974, first as a part-timer, then fulltime starting in 1985.
“There are just so many of them, all the little heads,” says Rainey. “And when the sun is shining through the stained glass, it’s magnificent. When people first walked in here in 1904, they had to be overwhelmed.”
The church’s beauty has made it a favorite site for weddings, and with the college across the street tourists stop in, too.
“We have a lot of visitors from all over the world,” she says.
In 2002, St. John the Evangelist featured in “Sacred Places,” a WMHT-TV documentary about special places of worship in our area.
As for all the angel faces, they were probably inspired by Renaissance art, says Penny Howell Jolly, an art history professor at Skidmore College who teaches medieval and Renaissance European art and architecture.
“I would associate them with 15th-century Renaissance, particularly Donatello and artists like Mantegna. They are probably meant to be cherubim,” Jolly says.
In the Christian tradition, angels were spiritual beings, servants of God who could act as benevolent messengers or mediators between heaven and earth.
“There are nine ranks of angels, according to the 13th-century writers,” says Jolly. “The highest ones are the seraphim and the cherubim, and they surround the throne of God in heaven.”
During the Renaissance, the Italian sculptor Donatello and other artists, like the Italian painter Mantegna, began making images of naked baby angels.
“They start out as little boys, little male creatures, nude with wings, or not always nude, sometimes with drapery and wings,” the professor said. “Then they get this kind of shorthand version, of heads with wings.”
Jolly, who looked at a YouTube video of the interior of St. John’s, guesses the faces were made from plaster poured into a mold.
“That means you could make 500 of them relatively quickly,” she says.
On a cold Tuesday morning, St. John’s was so quiet one could hear the hiss of steam through the radiators.
Carlino was getting ready for a funeral, and a few people, dressed in black, began to walk in.
“It’s a beautiful edifice,” Carlino says. “People ceaselessly comment on the beauty of this edifice. But the church is not a building, it’s the people, the people of God.”
Gunn, the giver of Communion, echoed the pastor’s statement.
“It’s truly the people as much as the place that makes you feel restored,” she said.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.