EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on Richland Source in 2014.
About a hundred years ago, when you rode into Mansfield on the train and looked up at the ‘City on a Hill,’ one of the most striking aspects of the skyline was the predominance of church steeples.
From the Square you could easily identify no fewer than eight separate houses of worship within walking distance by simply looking up at the blue sky above the rooftops of the mundane business world.
That’s exactly what steeples were meant to do.
The Point of Steeples
The earliest known versions of the steeple were established in the Middle-Eastern and European worlds where the architecture of synagogues mandated a tall pole be attached to the roof so that worshippers could find the place from afar.
The idea of the steeple reached its most glorious fulfillment during the Middle Ages, when the monumental Cathedrals of Europe were designed to dominate the landscape of any city or village with a clear signification of the importance of worship to the community.
Rodin wrote, “The Cathedral is the scaffolding of Heaven. It gathers itself for flight; it rises, then stops the first time to rest on the balustrade of the first tier; then the construction resumes its skyward flight. It stops at the limit of human powers.”
When the church, as a significant building in the landscape, was established in New England, the spires were intended to be the highest point in any town — to indicate that spiritual principles predominated over every other earthly concern.
The steeple points to Heaven, directing the attention of all people to higher thoughts.
Because of our skyline, Mansfield quite naturally came to be known, in Ohio newspapers and travelogues of the time, as the City of Churches. A mural based on that theme, City of Churches, was commissioned in 2013 to hang in the sanctuary at St. Luke’s Point of Grace.
The 14’ x 25’ mural incorporates images of 16 downtown churches that were prevalent in the scenery from 1880-1945. They are arranged in the design so that the steeples are ordered much as you would see a bank of organ pipes mounted on the wall of an old time sanctuary, presented in the semblance of a stained glass window.
The wooden framing elements of the picture were adapted from photos of actual woodwork inside the church. The people who populate the image all come from actual congregational portraits from 1900-1930.
100 Years Later
In 1914, the City Directory listed 29 churches, and today there are nearly 200 — so in significant ways Mansfield is even more strongly a City of Churches a century-plus later. These houses of worship, however, have largely dispersed away from a centralized view downtown, and though there are still many steeples — and impressive ones, too — the trend in architectural style for new churches clearly has less meaning attached to high-reaching spires.
The purposes of inspiration, once relegated to public steeples, are now more personally internalized to individuals whose own inner directives must point above to higher thoughts and motives, so our heritage as the City of Steeples exists today not in the skyline, but in our hearts, and our memory. And in our mural.