While on a tour of some Roman Catholic churches in Vienna recently, I was struck by the haphazard clash of styles: magnificent Romanesque- Gothic high altars, richly appointed with frescoes and images, with an oddly shaped table plunked down in front like something dropped from The Planet of the Apes: the oh-so-simple Vatican II altar table (aka Julia Child’s table). In such historic environments, the table, however expertly made, looks fairly comical. While the elaborate iconography in these splendid old churches makes Julia Child’s table seem less intrusive, that’s not the case in many new Catholic churches built since the close of Vatican II—a Council called by then Pope John XXIII to renew and invigorate the Church.
Vatican II unleashed a virtual windstorm that not only affected how Catholics worship, but the buildings they worshipped in. The root cause, according to Michael Rose, author of ‘Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again,” was a duplicitous 1978 draft statement by the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy, entitled ‘Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.’ Rose asserts that the document was “cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, implying approval from Rome.” The Vatican II document falsely used as the catalyst for such a “reformation,” Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not, however call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic Church architecture. The U.S. Bishops apparently had another agenda: the reshaping of Catholic churches into (so called) more relevant, people-oriented worship spaces.
This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars; carpeted rooms; plain glass stained windows; potted plants in place of traditional Catholic artwork; small and nondescript Stations of the Cross that disappear into the walls; churches in the round that resemble MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes replaced by Baptist-style wooden crosses or geometric plus signs; traditional baptismal transformed into hot tubs. Older churches, including many cathedrals, were renovated: high altars were removed and dismantled; historic frescoes and icons painted over.
In the end, many of the new churches and the “renovated” cathedrals had the look of conference halls or inter denominational chapels. Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the architectural iconoclasts.
Many Catholic churches in my Philadelphia neighborhood were altered after Vatican II. Fortunately, the three big churches on Allegheny Avenue—St. Adalbert’s, Nativity B.V.M., and Our Lady Help of Christians-- were not changed significantly. One church in Fishtown was particularly affected: Holy Name of Jesus Parish at 701 E. Gaul Street, officially founded in February 1905 in a three-story building on Frankford Avenue. Ground was broken for the present day church in the fall of 1921.
Holy Name of Jesus had an architectural makeover in 1973, when the then Dominican pastor (Father Edward L. Martin, O.P.) felt that many of the traditional trappings had to go. Like so many other pastors around the country, the good priest was a victim of the “simplifying” frenzy that followed the Council.
“They cut off the principal altar, the high altar. They put in a butcher block in the center of the church and a crucifix hanging from the ceiling. The Dominicans also took the whole altar rail out. The sanctuary was carpeted. This kind of carpeting buckles over time, so it was pretty much a mess in 1998 when a new pastor took over,” Holy Name pastor Father Francis P. Groarke told me by telephone.
The Dominicans, thankfully, did not remove the church’s side altars, and left the old wooden statues in place, a generous move considering the fate of other churches, where side altars wound up in piles on various city trash heaps. Also left untouched were devotional shrines to the Infant of Prague and Saint Jude.
“When the Dominicans left in 1998, they took everything, even the silverware,” Father Groake joked.
“The pastor who took over tried to restore the church to the way it was. He got rid of the butcher block. He had a platform built and he got an altar from a church that closed in Philadelphia in 1999. The high altar is once again visible,” Father Groake said, adding, “This pastor also had the tabernacle redone. The church was painted, and he got rid of that big hanging crucifix. Ceramic tile was added to the sanctuary, so it is pretty much a warm welcoming place now. The pastor was complimented an awful lot for what he did, although the church was not returned to the pre-1972 experience, when there was an altar rail. There’s no altar rail at Holy Name.”
Vatican II did not issue any edicts calling for the removal of church altar rails. What happened is that in many American churches this was done more or less by design consensus when communion-in-hand became a popular from of receiving the sacrament. The altar rail, traditionally, is the western version of the Eastern iconostasis (a screen of icons that frames the altar).
Holy Name was lucky that it did not go the way of Saint Leo’s parish in Tacony, where the high altar was replaced with something that Father Robert Seeney, pastor of the church, called a “wooden stand, not even a table, something that people compared to an ironing board.” The 1960s makeover also ripped out the side altars and nearly all the statues in the church. Parishioners were furious, but what could they do?
Fr. Seeney, who was made pastor of the parish in June 2009, began his own counter revolution: restoring the altars and the statues, and making the church “Catholic” again.
“The church went from being a meeting hall to a cathedral in a couple of months,” he told me.
But Father Seeney says he will never forget the sadness he felt when he was first assigned to the parish. “When you looked at the church on the outside, it’s such an old church, and then went you went inside, it was stripped of all its beauty.”
But not any more, Father.