It’s always a surprising fact: New York City is home to the world’s largest cathedral (defined as a church that is also the seat of a Bishop). The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, even in its incomplete state, looms large in Morningside Heights. And in the current coronavirus crisis, the cathedral will be serving a role traditionally filled by places of worship during historical plagues and disasters: a hospital.
The hospital will be in partnership with Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, located just down the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As reported by The New York Times, the nave of the cathedral and the crypt below will be transformed into an emergency field hospital. By the end of the week, the 600-foot long nave will contain “nine climate-controlled tents, capable of holding a total of at least 200 patients,” the newspaper states.
The crypt, which we visited in 2014 before a renovation and subsequent fire in 2019, will function as a staging area for medical staff. The lower level mirrors the layout of the floor above and was used in the past for artist studios, hosting artists like Greg Wyatt, the sculptor who created the Peace Fountain on the south west side of the Cathedral Close and Philippe Petit, the World Trade Center tightrope walker.
Part of the crypt in 2014, before a renovation.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine has never been used like this before, but interestingly, the exterior sculptures of the church does show numerous disasters taking place. On the Portal of Paradise, located on the Cathedral’s western facade, you can find sculptures that show the collapse or sinking of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers. These figures were added by stone carver Simon Verity between the years 1988 to 1997 keeping with Italian Renaissance tradition of depicting biblical tragedies in a modern context.
World Trade Center on facade of St. John the Divine
The dean of the cathedral, Rt. Rev Clifton Daniel III, told the New York Times that “traditionally, in earlier centuries, cathedrals were always used this way, like during the plague. So this is not outside the experience of being a cathedral, it is just new to us.” Once the field hospital is running, the church will be responsible for building operations. Mount Sinai, along with Samaritan’s Purse, the controversial religious organization that is running the field hospital in Central Park, have been part of the efforts to turn the church into a hospital. (Samaritan’s Purse has stated in news shows and affirmed to Mayor Bill de Blasio that the hospitals will not discriminate regarding who they treat).
The church’s enormous nave, with seats emptied out during the exhibition of Xu Bing’s Phoenix, a fitting metaphor in the coronavirus crisis.