No sooner had West Side Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, celebrated a successful renovation of its chapel and Christian education building than the events of 9/11 changed the church — and everyone’s lives — forever.

“We were only able to have a couple of services in the new chapel before 9/11,” said Kurt Kaboth, a ruling elder and chair of West Side’s board of trustees at the time of the terrorist attacks. “As the largest Presbyterian church in Bergen County, we were very fortunate that that no one from our congregation was killed that day. Somehow we managed to get through Christmas.” 

And then came the fire. 

On Jan. 8, 2002, the sanctuary was all but destroyed along with part of the education building.

“Even as the firefighters were still going through what was left of the building, we decided to continue every single one of our mission programs,” Kaboth said. “We wouldn’t let the fire deter us from being a church. I think everyone was determined to overcome this setback with a let’s-get-it-done attitude.”

After relocating the church’s worship services to a nearby middle school, West Side’s leadership immediately mobilized its full membership, engaging hundreds of people in the rebuilding project through subcommittees dedicated to redesigning the worship, youth, music and choir spaces, as well as the church kitchen and other key features of the facility.

From the outset, the church was committed to finding an architect who understood the complex nature and usage of a multifaceted facility, including the unique challenge of creating a worship space. The committee chose Newman Architects, among whose renovation projects was the Battell Chapel at Yale University.

The church also invited a prominent theologian — Serene Jones, who was then the Titus Street professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and is currently president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York — to join the team as a consultant.

“Because we had divergent priorities and expectations for our sanctuary, we had many creative discussions and deliberations about who we are and how we use our space,” said Katherine Cunningham, one of the church’s former associate pastors. Cunningham, who is married to Kaboth, was invited to offer her perspectives along the way as the former Middle English country, stone church was transformed into a modern structure that incorporates elements of the previous building.

“There’s now a sense of intimacy and of sacred space, but still very human space,” she said. “I was privileged to go to Palestine to help choose the limestone that is on the floor of the narthex and sanctuary — from the Bethlehem region — so the space is close to my heart in many ways.”

It is also now an award-winning space.

Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church Houston, TX

Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church Houston, TX —John Lindy

West Side Presbyterian Church’s renovation and redesign was one of 32 projects to win a prestigious 2014 Religious Art and Architecture Design Award co-sponsored by Faith & Form Magazine and the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (IFRAA). The awards program was founded in 1978 with the goal of honoring the best in architecture, liturgical design and art for religious spaces. The program offers three primary categories for awards: Religious Architecture, Liturgical/Interior Design, Sacred Landscape, and Religious Arts.

“Jury members agreed that religious art and architecture is flourishing throughout the world, and that artists, architects, liturgical designers, students, and others are exploring ways to balance tradition with new demands of religious practice,” said Faith & Form’s editor Michael J. Crosbie in a press release. “The landscape of sacred space is changing, along with the dramatic shifts in organized religion.”

Three other PC(USA) congregations also received 2014 awards: First Presbyterian Church of Burbank (California); North Presbyterian Church, Cleveland, Ohio; and Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas.