The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
The image of the cedar tree in the first reading for this Sunday made me think about the ways that wood is used in our churches. Some have wood altars or ambos; others have remnants of wooden communion rails. However, perhaps the most common use of wood in a church is those benches with kneelers attached. I decided to research where these strange things we call “pews” originated.
Early Christians met in homes for the Eucharist. These meetings were small, intimate gatherings for listening to and discussing the Scriptures, praying for one another and sharing a meal — and the Eucharist — together. People walked about or reclined on cushions on the floor.
The first formal church buildings were converted Roman basilicas, which had no seats at all. In these churches, the assembly stood for the entire service. Eventually stone benches were constructed along the outer walls to provide some seating — for the elderly.
The use of pews began after the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant service placed great emphasis on Scripture and the extensive sermon given by the pastor. People grew weary of standing for so long, so the wealthy families began to build their own benches within the churches. Since it was important to not only attend church, but to be “seen” at church, seating in the front was coveted.
Construction of elaborate pews was expensive for each family so they began to build “pew boxes” that they could lock so that nobody else could use them. Ownership of the pews passed through generations of a family as a prized piece of real estate.
In more modern times, pews became part of both Protestant and Catholic churches. While individuals no longer had to build their own pew, the Third Council of Baltimore (1884) encouraged Catholic churches to charge “pew rent” as a means to raise revenue for church maintenance and support of the clergy. By renting a pew, a person was assured of their specific place for any Mass they attended. Those unable to pay pew rent where relegated to any of the unassigned seats in the church.
If you attend a church that was built prior to the 1950s, look at the pew ends. There you might still find a number or a bracket were a name could have been inserted. These are remnants for recording pew rent.
Pew rent is gone and in most of our parishes people are not clamoring to be seated in the front pews. However, as you slip into that hard bench this weekend, take note of the scratches and dings it carries. They are a sign of people in the past who have shared that pew with you, each bringing their own prayers, joys and sorrows. While it may seem that church pews are merely functional, perhaps, if given a chance, in the quiet of your imagination, you will be able to hear the many stories and memories these pews hold.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.