Religious Freedom Celebrated on Holiday Tour – Newport This Week

Posted By on December 13, 2019

Touro Synagogue will be decorated for the holidays and docents will educate visitors on the evolution of Chanukah during the open house tour. (Photo by Michael Melford)

The Historic Houses of Worship Holiday Traditions tour will take place on Dec. 23 from noon to 3 p.m. This free self-guided tour celebrates religious freedom in Newport with nine local houses of worship dressed up for the holiday season opening their doors for public viewing.

Newport was the cradle of religious liberty in America, said Charles Flippo of Touro Synagogue. Many of these houses of worship have sanctuaries that are just worth seeing in their own right, but particularly here at the holiday season.

This years participating houses of worship are Touro Synagogue, Channing Memorial Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Newport Congregational Church, First Presbyterian Church, Church of Saint John the Evangelist, St. Marys Catholic Church, Trinity Episcopal Church and United Baptist Church.

Many of the houses of worship will have informational flyers or people on hand to answer questions. Some will also offer refreshments.

Touro has had as many as 200 people come through its doors in the past. Thats a lot of people in a few short hours, said Meryle Cawley, director of the Touro Synagogue Foundation. One of the things we stress all of the time is this is not just a Jewish story, but its really an American history story, and where we fit in with these houses of worship in this birthplace of religious freedom.

The Church of St. Johns historic creche, or nativity scene, features 16-17th century figurines which were presented to the church in the early 1900s as a gift from the Webster family. (Photo courtesy of The Church of St. John)

All faiths are welcome to enter the houses of worship. Expect to see beautiful displays of poinsettias and stained-glass windows. Channing Memorial Church will have four Christmas trees and garland accentuating the buildings two historic John LaFarge stained-glass windows. According to Fr. Nathan Humphrey, the defining feature of Christmas at St. Johns has a historic creche or nativity scene featuring 16th and 17th century figurines from Europe. First Presbyterian Church, built by Scottish stonemasons who had been denied equal worship for economic reasons, has a curved seating arrangement and no balcony, ensuring that all attendees were treated equally during services. The sanctuary is also adorned with stained glass banner windows, and simply decorated with greenery and poinsettias to accentuate its inherent beauty. United Baptist Church will present the significance of Christmas from a historic protestant position, Pastor David Dewberry said. A Chanukah exhibit at the Loeb Visitors Center can be explored before or after visiting the synagogue.

The holiday open house began as an extension of the Four Faiths tour, which runs during the summer and includes Touro Synagogue, United Baptist, Newport Congregational and Channing Memorial. The holiday tours are similar to the Independence Day open house when approximately 13 houses of worship, depending on the year, open their doors to visitors.

That open house program was a huge success, Cawley said. We thought it would be nice to have something in December with a slightly different slant of traditions.

Flippo said that the Touro Synagogue holiday tour doesnt happen every year. It depends on when the holidays fall. This year, Chanukah falls during Christmas.

Some of the houses participation have changed as their needs have changed, Flippo said. The group [of congregations] that we have participating this year has been a core group for the holiday and Independence Day tours. [Newport has] some of the most beautiful sanctuaries and the best decorations and traditions.

Holiday traditions have evolved throughout the ages. In Colonial America, many religious traditions didnt consider Christmas one of the high holidays. Some traditions even outlawed its celebration.

We invite people to talk about how these different houses of workshop have come to change over the years, Flippo said. Pretty much everybody has different Christmas celebrations, and what were trying to celebrate in this is how all of the houses of worship here were free to develop their own traditions rather than having a state religion impose traditions on everybody.

At the Loeb Visitor Center, the presentation will share the story of how Chanukah went from a minor holiday to one that is widely celebrated. Chanukah has a special place in the Touro congregation. In 1763, the synagogue was dedicated on Chanukah night. Historically, the first Chanukah was when the temple in Jerusalem had been rededicated following a fight for religious freedom.

This is an opportunity for people to revisit the historical religious reasons behind both holidays, and an opportunity for people to see historical buildings during a time of year when they will be beautifully decorated, Flippo said.

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Religious Freedom Celebrated on Holiday Tour - Newport This Week

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