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The Story of the Great Doors at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL

Entering a repurposed, mid-century plastics factory and finding a liturgical church inside is a shock that has grown familiar to regular attenders at Church of the Resurrection. However, walking past the sturdy i-beams and spare walls of that church and finding a set of carved oak doors so beautiful that they would be at home in a European cathedral evokes a sense of astonishment and wonder that will not easily fade. These doors—carved in the tradition of Medieval European cathedrals where great central doors depicted Biblical images for pedagogical purposes—are of museum-quality artistry, and have been over six years in the making. The story of their creation is a meaningful one of collaboration, masterful artistry, and patience.

The Idea

The idea for these Great Doors was born simply enough, through Resurrection’s architect, Jamie Simoneit. Jamie was working with a client who had commissioned hand-carved doors from master woodworkers in Indonesia, and suggested Resurrection consider doing the same for this crucial space between the narthex and sanctuary.

“The idea was a wild dream,” says Fr Kevin Miller, who was Associate Rector of Resurrection at the time. “How could costs be kept manageable on such an elaborate project?” But when Jamie explained that he could organize at-cost shipping and that his client would even donate two pre-existing doors to Resurrection to install in the Sacristy and All Saints, the idea of Great Doors took hold of everyone’s imaginations. It was in keeping with Resurrection’s strong culture of incorporating the arts in worship as well as the growing desire in everyone’s hearts to build not just a church that was home to one congregation, but a cathedral that would become home to a whole diocese.

The All Saints Day carving.

As the donated doors for the Sacristy and All Saints Chapel were delivered and installed, a group of artists and theologians gathered to dream big for the Great Doors.

“I suggested that we develop a team of artists to create a series of drawings rather than copying the great masters,” says Laura Tabbut, who was then a member of Resurrection highly involved in creating pieces of art for the new building.

This team steeped themselves in art history for many months before beginning to draft what would become the Great Doors.

The process

The team of artists decided to depict the 7 feasts of the liturgical year on one side of the doors: Epiphany, Christmas, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints, all capped off by Easter. On the other side, the original plan was to depict the “triduum,” or three holy days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, on half of the doors. The other half would then be covered in a traditional woodworking pattern to match the donated doors.

But when the drawings were eventually sent over to the carvers in Indonesia, the artisans pushed back. “They don’t see the level of figural drawings that our artists [were sending over], like, ever,” says Fr Kevin. “So they asked if… we were sure we didn’t have other images to fill the doors.”

The extra two panels were then created to depict all of Holy Week. When closed, the doors tell the story of how Jesus saves us from sin and death—from marching into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to initiating the practice of Communion at the Last Supper, to wrestling in prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, to his death on the cross, and finally, his glorious resurrection and triumph over sin, depicted in a crowning arch over the doors. When open, the doors show the seven feast days of the church, welcoming people into the life of worship.

The process from idea to creation was one of high collaboration between a team of artists led by Laura Tabbut, who did much of the art history research, Janice Wood, who helped with composition, and Ray Wu, who drew the final drafts of each panel.

"Ray was chosen because he had the technical ability to shade and give form to things, which was necessary for the carvers to know how to carve", recalls Laura.

Individual artists led by this team brought drafts of each panel to Canon Theologian Stephen Gauthier, Bishop Stewart Ruch III, Katherine Ruch, and Fr. Kevin Miller, and all would discuss the composition and focus for hours. Ray would then take those decisions and draft up final drawings of each panel.

“Not counting the initial drafts and discussions, each final panel took Ray at least 40 hours to create,” says Laura.

Once the drawings were approved by the whole team and sent to the carvers in February of 2015, Ray continued to skype with the carvers to ensure that the artistic vision of the team was being implemented.

In November of 2016, almost two years later, Ray was unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and passed away within weeks. One of the final emails he sent was concerning a detail on the Great Doors.

“They are Ray’s masterpiece,” says Fr Kevin.

“I found out that Ray was dying on All Saints Day, 2016,” remembers Laura. “I’m so glad we’re consecrating these doors on All Saints—it feels like we are honoring Ray.”

One parishioner recalls having a dream while Ray was in a coma in the hospital, in which Ray showed the parishioner the drawings of the Great Doors. “Ray told me in the dream, ‘I would draw Jesus so differently now. He’s so much more beautiful than this.'"

We honor Ray for the sacrificial generosity and masterful artistry that he poured into these panels for Resurrection in the last four years of his life.

THE CARVING AND INSTALLATION

For several years, Resurrection staff would receive glimpses of progress in email photos, but the doors still sometimes felt like a faraway dream.

Dan Easley took the baton of project managing the creation of the doors from Fr. Kevin when Dan came on staff in 2015, and had the role of patiently walking the doors through their final two years of carving.

He checked in regularly with the carvers and navigated questions ranging from door handles to how to hang 400lb doors (it turns out you need specialty pivots!) until finally, in the summer of 2018, the exciting news came that the doors were ready to ship. The two doors and tympanum (the triangular wooden cap to the doors of Jesus’ resurrection) were crated in specially-made steel and wood containers. Once stateside, the doors were brought on a truck to Resurrection, where they waited in the church warehouse, while staff worked on figuring out how to install them.

Providentially, the arrival of the doors coincided with construction on the children's area of the church. The same team that was working on the children's classrooms was able to install the doors. It took three days just to prepare the space, hoist, and hang. All was finished in October 2018.

"I don't usually use this word when it comes to construction," said the general contractor, "But these are beautiful."
“This project shows what can happen when you get theologians and artists working together,” says Fr. Kevin. “It exceeds your imagination.”

The final product is something that is pure Church of the Resurrection. Rooted in a core belief that matter matters, the intricate carvings are physical reminders that something as simple as doors could become an essential, beautiful tool in the life of the church.

Written by Meghan Robins. Photos by Michael Johnson.

Credits:

Photos by Michael Johnson

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