A New Direction in Church Design – Crisis Magazine

A New Direction in Church Design – Crisis Magazine.

A New Direction in Church Design

Blessed Sacrament Shrine

One day fifteen years ago, I happened to be channel surfing past the Eternal Word Television Network when I was greeted by a momentary flash of heavenly beauty across the screen. Quickly flipping back, I realized that it was a Mass being celebrated in an unusually majestic church with an extensively gilded and marbled interior.

Having never seen this church before, I distinctly remember asking myself why today’s churches can’t still be built to glorify God the way this beautiful “old” work of art had been. Within minutes, however, I felt as though a joke too good to be true had been played on me—what I was witnessing was in fact the Mass of Consecration for this magnificent and brand new church.

That church is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, which was commissioned by Mother Angelica and is now a longstanding familiar sight to viewers of EWTN. That day back in 1999 marked a turning point in my understanding of the direction of Catholic sacred architecture in the post-conciliar period.

Up to then, I had been conditioned to believe that such blatantly Catholic forms and furnishings were but a stale hangover from the Church’s distant “triumphalist” past, and that my attraction to them was some sort of perverse personal weakness that indicated an obstinate, unenlightened resistance to “the spirit” unleashed in the 1960s. Yet, as I slowly took in what was there before me on the television screen, at the threshold of the new millennium, I felt an unexpected sense of both joy and vindication. To my young mind at least, it was as though I was witnessing a visual clarion call challenging the prevailing mentality of modernism that had successfully held sway in the Church for some thirty years.

Now, let us fast forward to 2014. Relatively speaking, it is still somewhat of a rarity to see a new ecclesiastical project of such delicate care and quality. However, it is not nearly as rare as it was at the turn of the century, and considering various ongoing deterrents both within and outside of the Church, that alone is significant.

It is true that a certain indiscriminate preference for the contemporary remains firmly ensconced in the average American parish. Yet there has also quietly developed a parallel phenomenon: a deliberate and measured return to tradition, born of a deep desire to reestablish continuity and stability in Catholic life. Given the wide appeal it enjoys among younger priests and committed laity—the Church of tomorrow—I dare say it has gained a life of its own. A brief survey of just some of the many projects from the past several years serves to illustrate this point, and is a feast for the eyes and soul in the process.

Parish Life
In 2003, a small church in Houston, Texas was consecrated for the parish of Our Lady of Walsingham, designed by the very old and established firm of Cram & Ferguson Architects. This unique Marian title, based on the English apparition and pilgrimage site of the same name, is specifically evoked in the building’s neo-Gothic style, which draws heavily on the vernacular architecture found in the village of Walsingham, Norfolk, England. It therefore becomes a strong visual tie to its namesake.

St. Raymond of Peñafort Church, located in Springfield, Virginia, was consecrated in 2006. Designed by Bass Architects, Chartered as the first permanent home for a young parish founded in 1997, its fortress-like Romanesque stone façade and stout brick towers are prominently visible from the bustling Fairfax County Parkway, and therefore seen daily by thousands of passersby. It incorporates intricate stained glass and various antique furnishings.

5Another larger project by Cram & Ferguson is St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, Tennessee, consecrated in 2009. Romanesque through and through, its vaulted interior contains large, newly completed apse and dome murals in a naturalistic style. With the parish having outgrown its previous building after just a couple decades, the size and permanence of this new church guarantees that it will adequately serve and inspire for generations to come.

St. Benedict’s Chapel is located in Chesapeake, Virginia, and was consecrated in 2011. Designed by Franck & Lohsen Architects for a parish operated by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), it is possibly the first parish church in the United States built specifically for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or Traditional Latin Mass, since before Vatican II. The elegant yet humble design clearly presents itself as a Catholic church, while also incorporating elements of the architecture typical to the local region.

9Franck & Lohsen also designed the stately St. John the Apostle Church a few hours north in Leesburg, Virginia, which was consecrated in 2012. This old parish had long outgrown its small nineteenth-century wooden church, and needed one large enough to accommodate the continuing population boom in Loudoun County. The new design employs various traditional details, with material choices and other elements reflective of the historic town, as well as reminiscent of the old church. The liturgical and devotional furnishings were rescued from a closed church in New Jersey, at which Venerable Fulton Sheen was the homilist for its consecration in 1929.

One of the newest functioning parish churches in the United States is St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, designed by Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC, and consecrated in 2013. The heavy brick exterior, evoking the familiarity of earlier American immigrant churches, makes for a commanding and permanent presence from the outside. Inside, one is uplifted by a nobly simple, bright, and spacious classical serenity. The altar is given special prominence by its location under a colorful baldacchino, or altar canopy.

Also consecrated in 2013 is St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, designed by O’Brien & Keane Architecture. This large church is reminiscent of the Romanesque architecture found throughout Tuscany, which St. Catherine herself would certainly have known. A boldly contrasted triforium arcade below the clerestory provides an additional element to draw the eye’s focus to the altar and tabernacle. Numerous shrines with larger-than-life wooden polychrome statues, custom made in Italy, line the side aisles.

15Currently under construction is St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, South Carolina, designed by McCrery Architects. The design is predominantly influenced by Renaissance architecture, and consists of a church that sits back from the street, behind an entry courtyard incorporating formal gardens and flanked by twin ancillary buildings with colonnades. This establishes a peaceful transitional zone between the outside world and the Holy of holies, and gives one a sense of being drawn in toward the façade.

Our Lady of Grace Church in Maricopa, Arizona, designed by Liturgical Environs, PC, has begun construction as well. This Gothic style design, which incorporates shallow pointed arches and a hammer beam ceiling, is the focal point in the development of a large parish campus. The church is intentionally designed with future expansion in mind, which will seamlessly allow for it to triple in size as the parish grows.

Religious Life
Various religious orders are experiencing a rise in vocations and are quite young in their overall composition. As a result, the United States has seen several new monasteries planned, begun, or completed in recent years to accommodate the anticipated continued growth. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, who care for the aforementioned Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament on the grounds of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Alabama, are no exception.

16Another notable example is the Monastery at the New Mount Carmel, planned for the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming (producers of Mystic Monk Coffee) and designed by McCrery Architects. This sprawling Gothic Revival complex will include a chapel at its core, hermitages housing up to thirty monks, a refectory, guest and retreat quarters, and other spaces that will enable the monks to live faithfully according to their rule and flourish as a growing and thriving community for generations. The land is situated in a remote and peaceful mountain setting.

Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1999 and situated in the Ozarks of Oklahoma, is a similar scenario. Designed by Thomas Gordon Smith Architects, it blends Romanesque and Renaissance elements, and it continues to be built in phases. The overall program is constructed piece by piece according to the highest priority, and the monks have the happy problem of not being able to build fast enough to keep up with their community’s steady growth.

Campus Life
On college campuses, perhaps in the category of “not your average Newman chapel,” the story continues. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, designed by Duncan G. Stroik and consecrated in 2009, is the focal point of the quadrangle at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. The design is true to its locale in the mission lands of Southern California, but also clearly tied to a sacred tradition that goes even further back. The result is a stunning edifice that would hold its own alongside the finest European churches.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity InteriorAlso in the Golden State is Our Savior Church and USC Caruso Catholic Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects with Perkowitz + Ruth Architects, and liturgical furnishings by Liturgical Environs. Consecrated in 2012, the project consists of a church and adjacent student center in an Italianate Romanesque style. Some defining features are the rusticated travertine exterior, expansive stained glass windows, and open piazza tying the two buildings together.

The Diocesan See
We are even seeing signs that a rediscovery of tradition has begun to filter up to the highest levels. While new cathedral construction is not nearly as common as the other building types discussed, it is especially significant. As the mother church of the diocese, a cathedral is often seen as prototypical; an indication of the general philosophy a bishop would like to see adopted by the parishes under his auspices.

22The Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina has commissioned a new cathedral under the patronage of the Holy Name of Jesus, to replace the current cathedral, which has become inadequate to serve the rapidly growing Catholic population in the region. The design, currently in development by O’Brien & Keane, is of a style similar to that of the aforementioned St. Catherine of Siena in the same diocese, but on a larger and grander scale. Expected to take about two years to complete, renderings show that it will incorporate high vaulted ceilings, arcaded side aisles, and a substantial dome.

Across the globe, the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima in Karaganda, Kazakhstan has arisen from the ashes of the former Soviet Union. Consecrated in 2012, it stands as a brand new witness to the triumph of Christian hope and perseverance over communist oppression. By the use of Gothic Revival, an expression of an earlier style that originated out of a purely Christian religious and social setting—as opposed to something postmodern that would only serve to reinforce the instability and uncertainty introduced by the oppressors—order is restored from chaos, and hope to the future. It is no accident that, in a town that housed concentration camps for people of faith within recent memory, the cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, who implored all of her children to pray daily for the conversion of Russia.

Despite the diversity of hands involved in these works, they are all steeped in timeless Catholic tradition and unmistakably state-of-the-art buildings: a true illustration of a hermeneutic of continuity. And while the focus here has been only on new construction, the increasing prevalence of traditional renovations—or re-renovations, to be more precise—merits its own attention, and will be the subject of a forthcoming essay in Crisis.

Lest delusion set in, the ratio of new traditional churches to posh amphitheater spaces still being built is grossly disproportionate. Nevertheless, after the epic social and liturgical upheavals of the last century, it is a wonder that any sort of traditional resurgence is happening at all, and these projects seem to be only increasing in number and scale with each passing year. Just a decade ago, attempting to write this piece would have proven difficult; twenty years ago, impossible.

This should give cause for optimism to those faithful who yearn for the vitality that flows from firm Catholic identity and its enduring visible expression. After all, as the saying attributed to Chesterton puts it, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” Such wisdom is surely not lost on the many pastors, parishes, religious communities, architects and others helping to cultivate this budding sacred renaissance in the midst of a disintegrating culture that is too often hostile to faith.

Northern California Shaker

The  earthquake near Napa yesterday morning brought together a bunch of events that happened to me which make clear that we’re only temporary residents of this planet…First, of course, was being nearly shaken out of bed at 3:10 in the morning.  The description is a bit exaggerated, though they said that the tremors moved the earth sideways about two feet per second.  But it did give us notice that the night was over.  Secondly, we attended a gathering for the first anniversary of the death of an aunt.  Third, related but not, we had plans to escape town this weekend, just for an overnighter, but found out that our new pastor’s 60th birthday is this weekend, and he’s planning to celebrate.

The first event shows us, in no uncertain terms, that we cannot even inhale our next breath without God being involved.  That earthquake shows the power of things in the universe.  Just watching the power of waves, or the timeless scene of the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, or the Rockies, and you realize that you’re just so small.  And temporary.  Attending any life event, be it a child’s birthday, a funeral, wedding, or ordination, and you realize, by who’s there and who’s not, that life is so short.  And then when you lay out plans (we even planned to go to Mass at a certain cathedral, and visit a mission in Central California), and some little thing gets in their way, if you’re listening, you, again, see the power of God.

Never lose sight of God’s Power.  See it everywhere it manifests.  And thank Him for it.  Even for something as simple as your breath or heart beat.

Giving your life part 2

Remember the other day, when I mentioned priests, and religious giving their lives, being dead to the world?  You know, the same is true about those who are married, too.  As a married person, I am dead, to the world.  I don’t dress for others, I don’t present myself, appearance-wise, to others, and I don’t seek the approval of others.  If I’m a woman, and I’m married, I don’t dress, make my hair, or makeup for the approval of others, or to get people to notice me.  My appearance is strictly for my wife’s approval.  If she’s happy the way I dress, wear my hair, etc. that’s all that matters.

I put God first, of all, my spouse and family next, my self last.


This includes giving my time to other endeavors.  So, if you spend time that belongs to your family to the internet, for example, or other things, is that right?  There can be a fine line…


The point is to devote yourself to what’s important, and if you’re married, shouldn’t that be what’s most important in this life?  If you want what’s best for your spouse, then help him/her attain heaven.  And do it to the best of your ability.  It might save you a lot of trouble, down the road…

Giving your life

We often thank military people who die in service, police who die in service, firefighters who die in service, many, many people who die serving others. But do we ever think to thank priests, nuns, and other consecrated religious for their service? If not, why not? After all, they must die to themselves, and to the world in order to serve the needs of the Church.

This is different in the Protestant world, at least, many parts of it.  If you’ve seen the recent movie “Heaven is for real”, you know that small-town pastors wear many hats, including one that provides for their family.  So, many times, a Protestant Pastor has other endeavors to deal with-family, finance, and life, in general.  On the other hand, with a Catholic priest, he is taken care of, modestly, from head to toe.  Yes, a diocesan priest has expenses-insurance, food, auto, and retirement. That’s what his salary is for.  And I’ve never seen a religious want for anything (though I’m sure they may in some places).  But the religious (speaking of Catholic religious) are totally dead to the world.

So, we need to thank our priests for giving their lives-to Christ.  How can we do that?  The Archdiocese of St. Louis has a nice insight on this:

Pray a daily Rosary for your parish priest and encourage others to pray with you. Contact your priest and let him know that you are supporting him through prayer.
Live in Unity
Take an active role in your parish community. Attend Mass weekly and become a good steward by offering your gifts of time and talent. Attend parish sponsored events and/or support your parish financially.
Manage Your Expectations
Remember your pastor and parish priests are only human and while they would like to be present to support all parish happenings and family celebrations, this may be impossible. Be accepting of your priests. Recognize their individual gifts to the parish. Help your priests by informing them of illnesses and special needs within your community.
Avoid Gossip
Come to the banquet of the Lord with a positive attitude and avoid negative talk that may only lead to misunderstandings. Be mindful of how you speak about your parish priest with others, especially around children. If you have a disagreement with your parish priest that cannot be resolved through prayer, honestly and respectfully discuss it with him in private.
Appreciate Your Priests
We all need positive encouragement and priests need affirmation too. Tell your priest when you enjoy a homily. Thank him for bringing Jesus to you. Drop him a note or card to thank him for his dedication to the Lord and the Catholic Church.
Encourage Vocations to the Priesthood and Consecrated Life
Help your priests by praying for an increase of vocations. Teach your children and grandchildren to be open to the Holy Spirit and invite young men and women to consider religious life as a vocation. Encourage and support Kenrick-Glennon Seminary by spiritually adopting a seminarian. Volunteer your time with the youth of your parish. Prayerfully support the programs offered by the Office of Vocations.

Exciting movies coming out

Today, the film adaptation of the novel “The Giver” by Lois Lowry premiers.  I haven’t seen it (yet) but I’ve seen previews, and I want to recommend it.  I know about the story, and this movie is a reminder of what happens when government changes words around to mean different things.

Wikipedia summarizes the plot pretty well:

Jonas, who is eleven years old, is apprehensive about the upcoming Ceremony where he will be assigned his job or his “assignment in the community.” In his society little or no privacy is allowed; even private houses have two-way intercoms which can be used to listen in for infractions of the rules. However, the rules appear to be readily accepted by all, including Jonas. So it is without real protest that he initially accepts his selection as the Receiver of Memories, a job he is told will be filled with pain and the training for which will isolate him from his family and friends forever.

Yet, under the guidance of the present Receiver, a surprisingly kind man who has the same rare, pale eyes as Jonas, the boy absorbs memories that induce for the first time feelings of true happiness and love. Also, for the first time, Jonas knows what it is to see a rainbow, and to experience snow and the thrill of riding a sled down a hill. But then he is given the painful memories: war, pain, death, and starvation. These are memories of the Community’s deep past. Jonas learns that the Community engineered a society of “sameness” to protect its people against this past, yet he begins to understand the tremendous loss he and his people have endured by giving their memories away, embracing “sameness”, and using “climate control”.

In his “community,” which is under extreme control, there is no suffering, hunger, war, and also no color, music, or love. Everything is controlled by “the Elders,” who are looked upon in a very positive light, though they control whom you will marry, whom you receive as children, and what you will be “assigned” as a job. The people in the community do not have the freedom to choose. Jonas aches with this newfound wisdom and his desire for a life Elsewhere blossoms. But the final blow for Jonas comes when he asks the Receiver (who now calls himself “The Giver”) what “release” is. The Giver says that he could show him, and allows Jonas to watch a present-day tape of his own father, a seemingly kind and loving man, “releasing” a baby twin by giving him a lethal injection. Like any other “aberration” from sameness, identical twins are against the rules, so the smaller of the two is dispatched like garbage, without the one who conducted the release understanding the true meaning of the action. Together, Jonas and the Giver come to the understanding that the time for change is now, that the Community has lost its way and must have its memories returned. The only way to make this happen is if Jonas leaves the Community, at which time the memories he has been given will flood back into the people. Jonas wants the Giver to escape with him, but the Giver insists that he will be needed to help the people manage the memories, or they will destroy themselves. The Giver also wants to remain behind so that when his work is done, he can be with his daughter: Rosemary, a girl with pale eyes who ten years earlier had failed in her training to become the new Receiver of Memories and who had asked to be released (the memories of pain and loneliness having overwhelmed her).

The Giver devises a plot in which Jonas will escape to Elsewhere, an unknown land that exists beyond the boundaries of the Communities. The Giver will make it appear as if Jonas drowned in the river so that the search for him will be limited. In the meantime, the Giver will give Jonas memories of strength and courage to sustain him and save up his meals as Jonas’ food and water supply for his journey.

Their plan is changed when Jonas learns that Gabriel, the baby staying with his family unit, will be “released” the following morning. Jonas has become attached to the baby, who also has unusual pale eyes, and feels he has no choice but to escape with the infant. Without the memories of strength and courage promised by the Giver, Jonas steals his father’s bike and leaves with Gabriel to find the Elsewhere. Their escape ride is fraught with dangers, and the two are near death from cold and starvation when they reach the border of what Jonas believes must be Elsewhere. Using his ability to “see beyond,” a gift that he does not quite understand, he finds a sled waiting for him at the top of a snowy hill. He and Gabriel ride the sled down towards a house filled with coloured lights and warmth and love and a Christmas tree, and for the first time he hears something he knows must be music. The ending is ambiguous, with Jonas depicted as experiencing symptoms of hypothermia. This leaves his and Gabriel’s future unresolved. However, their fate is revealed in Messenger, a companion novel written much later.

IT seems like we are going through this type of thought-policing today. People protesting because the police take action at a traffic violation, when the driver’s an “undocumented”, er illegal alien.  Pro-abortion being called pro-“choice”.  Two men getting “married”.  And the list goes on…

I would encourage parents to take their teens to see this movie, and also to set some rules regarding social media usage…because social media plays a part in all this.  Dinner is to be face-to-face with no social devices at the table, for a first step.  Parents should share passwords on all social media, and should have their own accounts and be ‘friends’ with their children on social media, and vice-versa.  Also a limitation of time spent on social media.

But watch this movie.  And warn your friends and family that this is headed our way…

Robin Williams suicide

Suicide, any time it happens, is wasteful, and, frankly, disgusting.  The reaction of his friends and family, and fans is honest, and we all love Robin Williams.  I didn’t love everything he did, but I know he did a lot of good, not only in his career, but in how he treated people.  But it’s disgusting.  All that talent, gone.  We’ll never have one like him.  Any human death is, frankly, wasteful of God’s providence.  I only hope that he was so ill that he wasn’t culpable for his action.

I highly recommend that people get off of idolizing public figures.  I’ve known priests who devastated large numbers of people by disappointing them-by being accused of doing non-priestly deeds, and when called out, not submitting humbly to authority and discipline.  In other words, not acting Catholic or priestly.  One, when he was accused, nearly tore apart the American Church.  Humans are always going to disappoint us.  They will scandalize us.  So take their talents for what they are, and enjoy them.  But it’s better to not get too involved.

I haven’t listened to anything Robin has done in a while, but I remember watching him faithfully, back in the day.  He WILL be sorely missed.  Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord…

Telling the unvarnished truth

Had a discussion with a parishioner yesterday that almost got heated…thank my wife for biting my tongue.  I am interested in building our parish back, and first thing to say is, I may never see it.  I might plant a seed here or there.  And it might fall on fertile soil.  And I have some ideas to invite folks back to the parish, and even get some young folks coming. This guy made the statement that, while he doesn’t agree with any of those hot-button issues (abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage) he thinks the Church has turned people away because of their harsh message.

I wanted to tell him that it’s a grave sin to not tell the truth.  That it’s a grave sin to allow people to not understand that what they’re doing is wrong.  To assist someone or enable someone in their sin is wrong.

That doesn’t mean you have to nag, or shake or wag your finger, or shun, or ostracize anyone.  But you have to let them know how you stand-they’ve let you know how they stand, whether you wanted to know or not, just by their actions, sometimes.  So, if it’s someone you care about, it is important for them to know that you disagree.  From then on, you need to be pastoral.  It’s ok to help a woman mourn after she had her child aborted, just as you would if it was a miscarriage.  But don’t tell her that she was right to have an abortion.  If you’re allowed, you can comfort her, and point her to a priest for confession.  If your friend is homosexual, and engaging in that lifestyle, or getting “married”, you can no more participate in that than if they were stealing, and asked you to hide their theft.  My wife wanted me not to argue with him, and I didn’t, for the sake of peace.

You cannot condone sin, though, and if your church does, then maybe you should consider another church-the one Truth.

Christianity has never been a popularity contest.  Christ Himself told people, in John 6 “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”  And guess what? People who were faithful followers walked away, and went back to their previous lives.

It’s important to know Who is in the Tabernacle.  Without discerning that, you just don’t know what you’re walking away from…