From Bethlehem to Boston to Oak Park

December 19, 1999

Not many people know the connection between our church and the famous Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The connection goes from the carol to its author to the church he built to the Presbyterians of Oak Park to Calvary Memorial Church. In 1864 a pastor named Phillips Brooks visited the Holy Land at Christmastime. In those days there weren’t many tourists who made that difficult journey, and in many places, he saw things much as they had been in the days of Jesus. In 1867 he wrote a poem based on his visit to the Holy Land, which he said was “still singing in my soul.” A year later he showed it to his organist, Lewis Henry Redner, who composed the music on Christmas Eve. It was sung for the first time the next day. “O little of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.”

In 1869 Phillips Brooks became pastor of the Trinity Church in Boston. There is a fascinating connection between that Boston church and Calvary Memorial Church. In the 19th century the Trinity Church of Boston was recognized as one of the truly great, nationally-famous American churches. When the Trinity Church burned down in 1872, Pastor Brooks led in its rebuilding. It is a magnificent structure that still stands on the Boston Commons. When the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park decided to build a new sanctuary in the 1890s, the building committee corresponded with the building committee of Trinity Church and used their drawings as a guide for our present sanctuary, which was built by noted church architect W. G. Williamson in 1901. The Trinity Church was built by H. H. Richardson in a style sometimes called Richardsonian Romanesque. Echoes of that style can be seen in the vaulted arches of our sanctuary and the covered portico leading to the West Wing. Someone from Calvary visited the Trinity Church several months ago and commented on his return that at least from the outside Calvary looks like a replica on a smaller scale of that famous church.

Today Phillips Brooks is remembered mostly as the author of a beloved Christmas carol. Since in Christ all things come together, we can say that there is a line that stretches from Bethlehem to Boston to Oak Park. Perhaps this will stir our hearts the next time we sing these words:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?