For nearly the last year (but not quite yet, we’ll let you know when that happens), Chris and I have been going pretty strong on exploring the burned over district, but every time we think we are nearing the end of our list, we are pleasantly surprised with finding something we never knew about right here in Rochester, NY. Today Chris and I went and visited somewhere that I bet many of you have driven by a hundred times and never knew what you were looking at – the First Church of Christ, Scientist at 440 East Avenue.
Several weeks ago, I contacted the First Church of Christ, Scientist, introduced myself and explained why I was calling. The woman I was speaking to, who introduced herself as Lindsay, was expectedly curious about who the heck Chris and I were. Fortunately, after looking at our blog and talking to other Scientists, Lindsay shared that she was very willing to give us a tour and after a few weeks of waiting, that day finally came. Chris and I showed up a few minutes early as we usually do and took our perfunctory pictures of the exterior. We noticed a sign on the corner of East Ave and Prince St advertising that the Christian Science reading room was open to the public (and we recommend you all check it out!) which directs the reader to the back entrance, so that’s where we went. Literally upon walking in, we were quickly met by Lindsay and escorted into the Sunday school area of the church.
Chris and I then were introduced to four other Christian Scientists, one of which was actually Lindsay’s husband Mark. Chris and I were then asked to share again what has led us to our journey which we gladly explained. Once we had told our story, Lindsay explained that it is very hard to give a history of Christian Science without first giving a history of its founder Mary Baker Eddy first, who I will now attempt to briefly share about.
Mary Baker was born on July 16, 1821 in the state of New Hampshire. Mary’s father was a practicing Congregationalist, which is something Mary did not always agree with. Mary was married to three different men in her lifetime and we were told that after the death of her first husband, Mary took it upon herself to free her husband’s slaves, well before slavery was actually abolished. Mary Baker took the name of Eddy during her third marriage and it was at this time she and her new husband moved to Boston, Massachusetts; only for her husband to die a year later. For most of Mary Baker Eddy’s life, she is reported to have been “sickly” and persistently ill. However, it does not seem to be agreed upon with what exactly Ms. Eddy actually suffered from (after looking this up on the internet, I read that Mary Baker Eddy is believed to have suffered from ‘hysteria,’ which basically used to be used as a catchall diagnosis when they didn’t have any other answer for the ailment). Mary attempted several different “cures” for her illness, all of which ultimately failed. In 1866, Mary Baker Eddy had an accident where she became severely injured. It is reported that Ms. Eddy asked for her Bible and after earnestly reading a specific passage, miraculously felt better than she had before her accident. Mary Baker Eddy is then reported to have taken the next three years in order to further study the Bible and analyze the phenomenon that she had experienced, and eventually came to develop what she referred to as Christian Science.
Let me just say that Christian Science is definitely not Scientology. Mary Baker Eddy authored the book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in 1875, which along with the Bible, includes the entire explanation of Christian Science. But assuming you may not read these books any time soon, the following explanation is from a pamphlet we received on our tour which states: “Christian Science teaches that God is unchanging Love, that He is the ultimate power of good in our lives and the world. And from this basis, it explains that man is good and loved – as Jesus Christ taught. It also explains the Science or spiritual laws that enabled Jesus to heal; and it answers questions about evil, and about spiritual reality.” To re-frame a bit what this means, Mary Baker Eddy believed that illness could be healed through an “awakened thought brought about by a clearer perception of God” and explicitly rejected the use of drugs, hygiene and medicine based upon the observation that Jesus did not use these methods for healing. Ms. Eddy believed her healing method was based on scientific principles and could be taught to others, which she then sought out to do. In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy and her students established the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, which has since become the Mother Church of the entire religion as a whole.
Chris and I periodically interjected questions as we were being told this history and what I shared above is but a smidgen of the whole story. Apparently, in the hopes to spread that faith, Mary Baker Eddy sent three of her students to Rochester, New York in the hopes to establish a church there, which ultimately did happen and the First Church of Christ, Scientist of Rochester, New York was officially established in 1916. Believe it or not, but eventually the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, and also a Third and Fourth were also built because the population of Christian Scientist just continued to grow exponentially. Chris and I asked just how many Christian Scientists are there in Rochester, NY these days? However, we were told that since the creation of the Church, Ms. Eddy instructed that numbers of followers should never be kept and to this day, this expectation has been followed, and actually neither Lindsay nor anybody else really knows the current population of Christian Scientists in Rochester, except that it has definitely decreased since the second, third and fourth churches have since closed, leaving only the current First Church of Christ as the sole Christian Science Church existing in the City of Rochester.
Something then occurred which I thing was a bit unexpected by everybody and Chris and I were very touched to have been privy to. A few of the Christian Scientists we were talking to spontaneously shared with us, two guys they have never met before, how they came to be Christian Scientists and how for them, their experience was evidence enough of the Science. The stories that were shared with us were incredibly intimate and powerful, and Chris and I felt honored to be allowed to hear them.
After we learned of this history, we were given an explanation about the room we were in, which was the Sunday school room and how the several little meeting rooms off of the bigger room were utilized. We then left this room and taken on a tour of the rest of the building and completely had our socks blown off as we walked into the main meeting area. The First Church of Christ, Scientist of Rochester, NY is not what one may expect in a church, and the best way to describe it is that it feels like being in the Main St. Auditorium Theatre. The room is enormous and has a spectacular ornamented, coffered ceiling with a sun burst coming out of the middle of it. Apparently there is enough seating for approximately 1200 individuals and was intentionally made with acoustics in mind, since sound echoes through the entire room. This main auditorium room is a complete circle 100 feet in diameter. There are six stained glass windows on each side wall of the room, but besides that, there is really no other ornamentation, with no statues, no icons, no crosses, no paintings, and really no altar. Instead, there is a platform at the front of the room with three chairs and also an organ. The Christian Science Church is a lay church, which means there is no clergy. Instead, assigned readers sit in front of the congregation and read aloud a pre-determined teaching from the Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. We were told that the Mother Church in Boston pre-determines what teaching every church will review every Sunday of the year, so that theoretically I could go to a Christian Science church in California and still here the same teachings I would here in New York.
After we left the main meeting room, I was completely blown away by what happened next. Lindsay and Mark then took us on a tour of the rest of the building. What I mean is that we were taken to parts of the building that most Christian Scientist’s probably have not seen. We were able to actually go in the basement to see how the church had originally been connected to the City of Rochester’s municipal steam pipe heating system (which may have been a privilege of the denizens of East Avenue – remember, Eastman only lived down the street), so this was pretty cool. Then, we were also able to go up on higher floors through old and unused rooms of the building and then ultimately continued to go up and entered what I guess was the attic, which was a room above the already incredibly high main meeting room. Being able to experience this side of the First Church of Christ, Scientist was simply incredible and something I thank Lindsay and Mark for allowing us to do.
As we came down from the attic, Chris, Lindsay, Mark and I realized that everybody else had gone home, so the four of us sat for a few more minutes in the meeting room and talked further. The thing I said to Lindsay and Mark then and I will repeat now is that Christian Science seems to be an incredibly spiritual belief system and much less dogmatic than other faith systems we have experienced. Now I have no idea if the people we were talking to are a good example of what all Christian Scientists are like, but I have got to say that the aura around the people we met on this day was incredibly warm and welcoming. We all agreed that we could probably continue and talk to one another all afternoon, but since we had been there already for over two hours, we thought we should probably get going. We walked back out through the reading room, I purchased some necessary reading materials and we said our goodbyes, hoping to return to the Christian Scientists sometime soon in the future.