I stood plastered to a long wooden beam, my fingers crossed as I tried not to glance down the narrow wooden staircase I had climbed up. I was standing on cold feet atop one of the steps that led up to the cupola at the top of the dome of Beneficent Congregational Church, and felt a sinking knot in my stomach. I could see all the way down the narrow stairway, built from uneven slabs of old timber, winding in an ascending circle to the small opening at the top. I could hear Francesca, who co-writes our blog at Doors Open RI, talking in a muffled voice to Matt Hird, a church member who led us through the church.
The church, established in 1743 after separating from the First Unitarian Church, has always held an important role in downtown Providence, serving as a community gathering space and school in times of need. The church was magnificent, inside and out, leaving me eager to explore the building in full, including the famed dome, or the “Old Round Top,” as it was once called. Matt ushered us through a small door on the church’s balcony, and down hollow, dimly lit, passages that revealed the thick beams holding up the expansive ceiling of the sanctuary below us.
My excitement culminated when we arrived inside the large opening of the dome. I first noticed the smell of old timbers, and the shimmering dust in the corners of the small windows. The stillness of the atmosphere complemented the space well; relics from before the renovation lay scattered in corners, including the original sculpture that had adorned the cupola. Graffiti more than 100 years old decorated parts of the walls, a testament to the historic significance of the church. A sense of reverence came over me as I pondered how I stood inside a church dome, a structure often only admired from below and afar.
It was only when Matt pointed out a small stairway winding up above me that I noticed where it led. Matt explained that we could climb up to the top of the cupola, and look out over the city through the windows at the tiny opening at the top. I made my way slowly and apprehensively, and flinched every time I caught sight of the flimsy paper signs taped to the steps every few feet, that read: “Danger: Do NOT climb for your safety.”
Matt reassured me confidently that the wooden beams would hold, and recounted that recently, an 88-year-old lady had told him she was feeling good, that she intended to see the top of the cupola, and had seen to her words. I squinted up to the ray of sunlight streaming in through the windows at the top to motivate myself forward, forcing myself up each wobbly wooden slab. I wondered if this was what it was like to walk the plank, and my nerves broke in front of an inch-thick slat that had been split across the middle of the step beneath me.
A few minutes later, Francesca and Matt climbed back, and we made our way down to the Meeting House. We emerged from the back, where black-and-white photographs were framed on the walls. Photos of choirs, children’s choreography, and Chinese immigrant families showed the diverse activities the church had hosted throughout the years.
I looked at the two tall organs that graced each end of the hall, the exquisite chandelier that hung from the ceiling, and the rows of polished pews facing the elevated podium. They had witnessed much change, as had the copper-roof dome. I thought of the resilient timbers that had supported the historic building for centuries, and imagined the sense of purpose, the purpose to “do good,” as the church’s name suggests, that had driven the church through time holding up the Old Round Top.
By Jane Kim
Site: Beneficent Congregational Church, Address: 300 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI