While touring a number of 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 crafted, looks fairly comical. While the elaborate iconography in these splendid old churches makes Julia Child’s table seem less intrusive or offensive, that’s not the case in many new Catholic churches built since the close of Vatican II—a Council called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 to renew and invigorate the Church.
Vatican II unleashed a virtual windstorm that not only affected how Catholics worship (less smells and bells, more utilitarian-style services), but the buildings they worship in. That windstorm produced a fair amount of architectural self-destruction. 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,” the catalyst for the change 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 this document was “cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, implying approval from Rome.” But the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was cited in the draft statement as the reason for the ‘wreck-o-vation,’ did not call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic church architecture. The U.S. Bishops apparently had another agenda: the reshaping of Catholic churches into more relevant, people-oriented worship spaces.
JULIA CHILD'S TABLE
This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars with images of saints and angels; 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 resembling MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes replaced by Baptist-style wooden crosses or geometric plus signs; the traditional baptismal transformed into a hot tub. Older churches, including many cathedrals, were stripped bare as high altars were removed and dismantled, and historic frescoes and icons whitewashed.
In the end, the new churches and “renovated” cathedrals had the look of conference halls or inter denominational chapels. Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the architectural iconoclasts.
But like every fad or fashion of the moment, the cold, Spartan “new” church look eventually ran its course. After 40 years of sacred bareness, the Catholic art and architecture community has finally come around to assessing the damage.
“In the Protestant tradition,” says Duncan G. Stroik of South Bend, Indiana, one of the nation’s foremost architects specializing in traditional Catholic Church architecture, “the people have embraced modernism. They’ve given up on art and architecture as being essential to worship or to their theology. Take the new mega church. They are designed to be very upscale shopping malls on the outside; inside they are auditoriums. They’re comfortable, but there’s no art or architecture there. But go to the pastor’s house and you’ll see that the pastor tends to live in traditional big houses. People expect a pastor to live in a big house with art and a little bit of architecture. So there’s a disconnect between the pastor’s personal life and worship life in the Protestant tradition.”
Stroik, who teaches classical architecture at Notre Dame, says he first began noticing a problem in Catholic Church architecture about 20 years ago. “While there was a movement in the USA and the world for a return to tradition in architecture, the Catholic Church seemed behind the times. At the time I was reflecting on that, and thought, ‘Wow, other types of buildings are being revived in the traditional or classical way, but not so much the churches.’ So I started to teach that kind of architecture, and I started to practice it. I’ve seen a lot of other architects pursue the same thing in the last 20 years.
“If you look at new churches being built today,” Stroik adds, “the expressed goal of the pastor and the building committee tends to want to do something more beautiful, more traditional. That’s where the tide has turned in terms of intention.”
Stroik believes that Catholic Church architecture is at a halfway point. “It’s an interesting time. People have not fully embraced tradition; they want the aesthetics that details tradition.”
Too many Catholics, Stroik says, see the church design of the ‘60s, 70s and 80s as “the common wisdom and forget the holistic wisdom of traditional church architecture of the last 1800 years of Catholicism.”
The idea that a modernist thrust stage must be built for the altar area is a problem when it comes to tradition, Stroik says. “They feel very vacuous, but a lot of pastors and liturgists have bought into the idea that you need more of a thrust stage for the altar,” he said. The thrust stage, of course, is more of an entertainment-style concept, or the liturgy as show. The thrust stage in many parishes has become a magnet for choir chairs (a choir should be in the back of the church, Stroik believes) musical instruments and sound stage equipment, elements that transform “Julia Child’s table,” —unlike the marble high altar of old-- into jut another piece of functional furniture in a secularized space.
Although early liturgical movements in the United States in the ‘20s and ‘30s made the crucifix a prominent feature in Catholic churches, even in those early years, the American Catholic altar was relatively unencumbered with other images. The combination of altar, tabernacle and crucifix, minus saints and angels, stood in stark contrast to the interior of most European churches. The oversimplification, Stroik says, was a precursor to modernism. “In America they were already stripping away, so if you simplify even more, then what do you have? You have just the altar. Get rid of the tabernacle or put it in the back corner, and even get rid of the crucifix, and maybe you wind up with a plain cross….”
Invasion of the iconoclasts
After Vatican II, the building of ‘simpler’ minimalist churches became the norm for many parish planning committees and architects throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Beautiful older churches with historical accruements and features were also modified to align them with the so called “spirit of the Council.”
New Hope’s Saint Martin of Tours church had its interior renovated along the lines of the post Vatican II ‘conference hall’ church. It replaced an older (traditional) interior unchanged since the church was dedicated in 1885.
“When the new church interior was built in the 1960s, it was very plain,” recalls Father Fred Kindon, pastor of Saint Martin’s. “About four years ago we brought from the older church the old high altar, a wood caved George Nakashima piece. We also brought over the old statues from the original interior because there were really no statues at all in the new one. It was a very plain on the ground sanctuary. We raised the sanctuary up and up, put in a beautiful wood floor, and put in the old Nakashima altar. We installed the old glass stained windows from the old church. What we did was combine traditional aspects of the old church into the new church.”
St. Martin’s in the 1960s had plain white walls with a sanctuary on the ground. “If you were a short person you couldn’t even see the altar,” Father Kindon says, “so we raised it. Now the church has 4 statues in the sanctuary. In the 1960s they had moved the tabernacle off to the side, but we followed Cardinal Rigali’s request that the tabernacle should be in the center by the main altar.”
Fr. Kindon’s says that the church is now much more traditional than it was although “it’s not super traditional.”
In Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, Holy Name of Jesus Parish at 701 E. Gaul Street had its church wrecked by a Dominican friar between the years 1971 and 1973.
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’s architectural makeover in the 1970s was the brainchild of Father Edward L. Martin, O.P., who 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 Groarke 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 Groarke 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). In many modern Catholic churches today there’s no delineation of the sanctuary: an altar rail used to signify that one was entering a place of special reverence. Today, with the reform of the (Vatican II) reform in full swing, side altars and altar rails are back in style, especially since Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum, which makes it easier for parishes to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). With the TLM, where communion in hand would not be acceptable, there would have to be an altar rail of some sort. The priest would also need to face the tabernacle, not the people, so side altars—which have not been converted into tables-- would be a necessity.
Stroik’s firm has designed beautiful modern Catholic churches that make it obvious that one can be modern and still be traditional. “More and more bishops and cardinal are supportive of the altar rail,’ Stroik told me. “As an architect I like it because it’s a delineation of the sanctuary. It makes it clear that this is a holy place, not just another place to wander through.”
The Stroik-designed Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Wisconsin has numerous side altars. “People appreciate them visually or devotionally,” he says. “I designed them so that you can celebrate Mass on all of them, and this demand has started to come in.”
While the feeling of coldness that has marked Catholic Church architecture since the 1960s may be coming to an end, there’s still a sizeable contingent of believers who opt for 1st century cave dwelling simplicity. In the chapel of Paoli’s Daylesford Abbey, for instance, the monks pray at a small table with two candles framed by an over hanging plus sign. While a plus sign in the world of geometry may be the cat’s meow, in a church it tends to invoke a kind of forced simplicity, a self conscious minimalism in which the worshipper constantly gets the message that less is more. (As Robert Venturi likes to say, “Less is a bore.”)
A Bare Bones Table at Daylesford Abbey
But even ‘bare bones’ spaces like Daylesford Abbey, as much as they resemble bank vaults or gymnasiums, can be aesthetically and devotionally rescued by adding a few icons.
“In more minimalist churches, icons have a certain sensibility that seem to go with the design,” Stroik says. Eastern art in western churches have also become quite commonplace. “In America, you wouldn’t have seen that 50 years ago. It’s a relative recent development in American Christianity. Icons have become very much a part of the style of (western) Catholicism.”
One of the saddest stories of post Vatican II church destruction has been the saga of St. Leo’s in the Tacony section of Philadelphia.
The new pastor of St. Leo’s, Father Seeney, said he was in a state of shock when he first entered the church six months ago. “When you looked at the church on the outside, it’s such an old church, and then when you went inside, it was stripped of all its beauty,” he told me. “The sanctuary had very little in it; it was almost bare. The side altars and statues were all taken out. There were only two statues in the entire church when I got there.”
But the ugliest thing of all was the new altar, something that parishioners referred to as a horseshoe shaped ironing board.
The iconoclasts got to the church in the 1960s, right after Vatican II, Father Seeney says. They took out the big marble altar along with the domed pulpit and all the statues. “They put the statues in the school where they soon fell into despair. They removed the large sanctuary lamp and replaced it with a small, non-descript lamp. The altar rail disappeared—nobody knows where it went.”
When Fr. Seeney came to St. Leo’s in June 2009 he knew he had to do something. He says he threw out the ironing board altar and replaced it with a marble high altar blessed by St. John Neumann. The new altar was far from an ironing board. In fact, Father Seeney told me that it took 18 men to carry the altar in from the street. He also had a statue of St. Leo commissioned from Spain—there had never been an image of St. Leo in the church—complete with an old papal Tierra, the crown that popes wore before Vatican II relegated them to the Vatican Museum. Fr. Seeney says he’d also like to replace the altar rail but the way that the altar area has been built (the thrust stage again), “makes that impossible.”
“The church went from being a meeting hall to a cathedral in a couple of months,” he said. The happy event coincided with the parish’s 150th anniversary.” Fr. Seeney’s still has his eyes set on a large traditional sanctuary lamp he’d like to put that in place of the minimalist ‘stand alone’ pole that’s in the church today.
But the iconoclasts, if anything, were thorough. They even whitewashed St. Leo’s colorful ceiling frescos and murals. “My goal is to repaint them,” Father Seeney said.
Who knows what the “experts” were thinking when they ransacked and destroyed so many scared spaces. One thing’s certain: the tide has turned, and change is coming.
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