Friday, June 22, 2007


A Sunday many years ago in Saranac Lake, NY we went searching for a place to attend mass. We had gone to mass earlier in the week in a little place outside of town. It was a charming little church (St. Paul?), which I later found out was a “mail order” church. Thinking this little place a gem we deduced that the church in town must be spectacular. So we rode into town seeing striking stone edifices of various churches. We would see the Methodist Church and say, “Wow, if that’s the Methodist Church, what must the Catholic Church be like!?” So it went with the Lutheran church and the Episcopalians, the hope mounting at what the Catholic community must have for the greater glory of God.

The good news is that there was not a grand old building that had been wreckovated in such a fashion as to break an architecterphile’s heart. (I believe a fire took care of that.) The bad news is, the present building looks like a K-mart. It was a giant square room with a low ceiling that happened to have a bit of stained glass in the walls.

Such has been the case all to often in modern church architecture. To make this point Robert Krier says, “Do you want to see good Modernist architecture? You must have plenty of time and your own Lear jet.” Although I think things are taking a turn for the better, we are not at a cure for church architecture. Perhaps it is more like being past a broken bone but still having a severe sprain. Accompanied by gout.

And leprosy.

A circle of friends and I occasionally go on what at been dubbed “Architectural Safaris”. From these excursions I’ve started compiling a little journal of architectural details that have stood out in various buildings in the unsure and uncertain hope that someday I will build a church building that people will want to see, to be in, to be inspired by; that would pass muster of Archbishop Christophe Schonborn O.P. who said, “The most convincing reception of the work will perhaps be this: that in such a church, before such a work, a young pagan can kneel and pour out his whole heart. Then the artist will know that God is truly served by him.”

But the real question is; is it even possible to build grand churches anymore? Governmental regulations have placed many restrictions on how to build, our people are constantly populating and the depopulating areas, we are less connected and donate less. With fewer priests we build bigger when we do build and with an eye toward practicality and speed. And though many people say they want a real Church building, is it more of a wish than a possibility? Except in some rare instances are we incapable of building anything but theaters and big box store buildings? Must we come to accustom ourselves plain, nondescript, symbolphobic, utilitarian structures, doing to architecture what the “Glory and Praise” hymnal did to music?

Gah . . .

Perhaps I was born too late.

But then again, perhaps I am cutting edge.

There's always hope.


Anonymous said...

My parish's church building looks kinda like a big Pizza Hut. But, it's not as bad as St. Pascal's. Their church looks like Darth Vader's head. Perhaps I.M.Pei got his inspiration for the Rock Hall eyesore from it. Hmm....Maybe the Rock Hall was originally a Catholic Church design.

Fr. V said...


THAT will have me chuckling all day.

Anonymous said...

Darth Vader's head! I'll be laughing all night!

Odysseus said...

No, we won't be building cathedrals anymore, not on a regular basis (though that has nothing to do with making CRAP like so many "church buildings" are.)

A chapel can be modest and beautiful. I attend the TLM in a tiny mission chapel, formerly abandoned, that can't hold more than 60-70 people. It is small but clearly Catholic.

As for cathedrals, we do not have Catholic communities anymore. In the big Eastern cities (Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, etc) I suspect that we have Catholic
"populations" rather than Catholic communities. By this I mean that many people are Catholic but they no longer know each other and no longer participate in "parish life" together. They just zoom in for mass now and then. I think you have to have a fairly large and fairly "tight" group of people to dream, build and maintain a place like a cathedral.

I don't mean this as a slur against anyone. It is just a development of modern society, transportation, etc. Time will tell what aspects of our old culture will shed and what new ones (like this blog) arise.

Maybe, someday, people will say, "You know, we don't make Catholic blogs like we used to.

And there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Anonymous said...

...and someday, maybe, we'll get simple, yet faith inspiring, community-building church buildings that are full of symbolism and art and reverant relevance and which express outwardly that which is transforming us interiorly.

i believe it is all G-d's ... we truly are mere stewards, and at the same time i don't believe that he who spends the most will achieve the most in the design and construction of our houses of faith and worship.

just don't use Fr Richard Vosko as a design consultant.

Fr. V ... are you familiar enough with his work to commment - or maybe your opinion is different than mine?

Leticia said...

I know what you mean, Father. We attended Mass in that dismal edifice, and couldn't believe how much more inspiring the local McDonald's was, where we ate breakfast afterwards. At least it had a nice view of the lake!
Take heart, however, here is an example of architecture done right, as St. Anthony's HS on Long Island is constructing a chapel in the school courtyard which is a replica of a 12th century church found in New York's cloister museum.