John McCleaf and the pews he built for St. Luke’s
It all started when I asked John McCleaf, one of our parishioners at St. Luke’s, Brighton, a seemingly simple question as we shook hands after a Sunday worship service, “How hard would it be to refinish these pews with a new coat of stain?” The first thing you need to know about John is that he is a master craftsman, specializing in woodwork. The second thing you need to know is that master craftsmen take their work very seriously. Serious as in there is no simple way to “freshen up” pews, there’s only the right way.
John replied, “What you’re talking about is sanding off the polyurethane coating and the stain; that’s a huge amount of work, months of labor.” Weeks went by and I could see John giving the pews a once over after each service. Then one day he said, “You know, I could build pews for the amount of time and energy it would take to refinish and repair the existing ones.”
Thus began the pew project. John presented to the vestry design plans, a cost analysis for supplies (labor would be his gift to the church), and an estimated time line. Given the parish’s blessing, he began the project in October 2017.
The third thing you need to know about John is that he is diligent. For eight months he woke up early (Sundays were days of rest), went to his workshop, and worked on the project until evening. Lovingly transforming six thousand pounds of red oak lumber into twenty pews.
“He was driven,” said his wife Beverly. “He’d go into his workshop, I’d hear him sawing away, he’d come in for lunch, and then he’d go back and work until dinnertime.”
Most of us would consider this a Herculean project; John saw it as a challenge. “For years I wondered how difficult it would be to make pews,” he explained. “I discovered I enjoyed fabricating the pieces and fitting them together. It was like doing a massive puzzle.”
Like many Episcopal churches, St. Luke’s Brighton Parish has a tradition of supporting local artists. At our fall festival (known in the community as the Candle Festival; when years ago the parish sold hand-dipped candles) artisans are invited to sell their wares. The Brighton Quilters handmade quilt raffle has been a big draw for over 50 years. A portion of the proceeds from the festival supports the local food pantry.
Throughout the year, members of the community visit our labyrinth, an Eagle Scout project by parishioner Ian Smith, and stroll through our Memorial Garden. John’s work is the latest addition to our sacred space. Completed in May 2018, the pews now reside in their new home. We invite you to visit; our church doors are always open.
The Rev. Vikki Clayton, rector of St. Luke’s, Brighton
John McCleaf in his studio