Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church - New Haven, CT

Symbolic Logic

In the middle of residential Westville, the Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church stands out for its contrasting ornamentation and stark simplicity. An onion dome of richly burnished copper sits atop an assembly of bare concrete slabs. Seen from above, these form the arms of a Greek cross, each extending the same distance, a shape that originated in Byzantine architecture.

It’s a church, but in important ways, it’s a home like the houses surrounding it. It’s subject to damage and wear but is continuously upkept and adapted for the people who regularly return to it. Father Michael Westerberg, the rector who leads the parish, says, “We’re in our 39th year here, so it’s home, by all means.”

Those 39 years refer to Westerberg’s own time at the church, which has been located here for more than 50 years. The parish itself dates back to 1915. Its first home was a small, wooden, formerly Protestant church on Dixwell Avenue. By the 1950s, the parish had outgrown the building, so it purchased the current property on the corner of Alden Avenue and Burton Street. The parish priest at that time moved into the house on the property with his family while the parish building committee got the funds together. They approved a design by Carl R. Blanchard—a proponent of the then-popular Brutalist style of architecture that continues to jut monumentally out of a number of sites in New Haven—and the church was built in the house’s place, its first service held in January 1967.

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But trouble was just around the corner. “The building was less than a year old when we started having leaking problems with it,” Westerberg says. Its fiberglass dome let water in when it rained–enough to require the placement of full-sized garbage cans to capture it. “It is not an exaggeration. They actually had mushrooms growing in the rug,” Westerberg says. Funded by the parishioners, the original dome’s replacement was aluminum, pale gold in color. It solved the worst of the church’s leaks but was itself damaged by Hurricane Irene in 2011. This time, insurance kicked in and, as a crowd of parishioners, reporters and onlookers gathered, a new dome made a careful yet Felliniesque flight from the parking lot to the top of the church.

All three domes have been onion-shaped, with pointed peaks. Onion domes, Westerberg explains, came into favor as Old World churches migrated north and needed to prevent snow from gathering. Inside the church, the dome manifests as a gentle concavity. “Visually, this is to convey the nearness of God,” Westerberg says, whereas the more pitched, pointed Gothic ceilings associated with European cathedrals evoke a feeling of distance and smallness on the part of the observer. Painted inside the dome is an icon of Jesus. To Orthodox parishioners, what makes this a moving sight–and also part of what makes it an icon, and not merely a painting–is the very fact of its visibility. “The God who cannot be seen allowed Himself to be seen in the man Jesus,” Westerberg explains.

Other icons are painted on the walls throughout the church. To the eye of a visitor, the scenes where the walls curve into the ceiling impart a sense of the New Testament as populated. People are seen casting their nets, drawing water, looking up from ordinary tasks with earnest faces as Jesus addresses them. The painting style is simpler than the High Renaissance style of Michelangelo and other Roman Catholic church painters.

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As a result, the images here are more like storybook illustrations and perhaps the more alive for it. All the icons are the work of a single Orthodox painter—Father Theodore Jurewicz—over a period of 36 years. In demand all over the world as well as in his own church in Erie, PA, the iconographer works in stages. In 2011, when his work for Holy Transfiguration was profiled by the New Haven Register, he was completing the front of the loft. The most recent brushstrokes are now above the loft in the back of the church. Some of the images aren’t yet fully painted, their outlines giving way to bare white wall at the top of the stairwell. The completion of the painting will also be the completion of a larger project, initiated by Westerberg, to “build a church within the church.”

As Westerberg explains, the church in its first decade was as Brutalist inside as it was outside, its concrete walls imparting heft but little warmth in any sense of the word. Electric heat was affordable until the energy crises of the 1970s made it less so. Meanwhile, the church roof–unpitched in accordance with the Brutalist style–continued to leak even after the first dome had been replaced. Only after Westerberg arrived in 1980–and after at least one roofer had been taken to court–was that problem fully resolved. (The judge and the lawyers involved in that case had themselves arrived at the church one day to see water falling from the ceiling and, according to Westerberg, the case was decided 10 minutes later.) They were then free to add interior walls, swaddled with insulation and trimmed with stained wood, and in the process replace right angles with traditional arches and curves without fear that these too would be damaged whenever it rained. “If there are holes, we have angels with their fingers blocking them right now.”

The use of the space has evolved even as it awaits Jurewicz’s return. The loft had been built for a choir, but with roughly 150 adult parishioners and many kids arriving every Sunday, it’s become a classroom space for the Church School program. There, angels and saints gaze down on low tables with kid-sized chairs and shelves bursting with colorful books. The choir now sings on the church floor. If there weren’t a church hall in the basement for socializing and sharing meals, there’s a sense that the nave could be adapted for that purpose too.

The one truly unalterable element in the church is the Iconostas, an ornate wooden screen of painted icons with a gate in the middle. It separates the pews from the altar with seeming sternness, but to the Orthodox it expresses a welcome as unmistakable as a low kid’s table.

Westerberg explains this by first citing the altar’s equivalent in the temples of the Old Testament. “In the Holy of Holies, the high priest was supposed to go in just once a year and not without an offering of blood. And as a matter of fact, because others were not supposed to enter in, if you read Leviticus, you find that the high priest had to go in with a rope tied around his ankle, so if he should die in there, have a stroke, or be disabled in some way, without going in and violating the Holy of Holies, they could just pull him out.”

That, in other words, was then. “Through Christ, that separation has been broken down, but the wall remains to show us that an access has been gained.” As if to demonstrate, Westerberg disappeared behind a door in one of the panels then reemerged at the gate, parting the curtain and swinging the doors open, all the way out with no hint of pomp, so a visitor could have a look.

Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church
285 Alden Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 387-3882

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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