Monday, March 07, 2005

Some Random Thoughts on Church Architecture
I mentioned in my "I'm Back" post that during my vacation to Williamsburg, VA I had the opportunity to visit two new churches, and that I would make some comments about the architecture. First allow me to make this caveat: I AM NOT AN ARCHITECT, Jim ( ala Dr. McCoy for all you Star Trek fans). My advance degrees are in Counseling Psychology and Theology. The Theology degrees give me some understanding of ecclesiology, which should be somewhat reflected in church architecture, as well as having me read some documents on the subject, so the following is my somewhat education but FAR from expert opinion. Agree or disagree with me as you want, as long as we keep it charitable.

The one parish I visited was St. Bede parish in Williamsburg, VA, and the other was Immaculate Conception BVM parish in Birdsboro, PA (where I picked up my priest friend). Both are not new parishes persay, rather both where parishes which outgrew their current facilities and built new ones. I think this is an important distinction because this means that each parish had a history, people in the past had donated funds and items for the original churches, so there was something of a legacy to perserve.

St. Bede's was still being worked on when my friend and I visited it, but they were clearly already using it for worship. The day we visited the big project was installing a very large organ. The church is designed in the round. Personally, I do not care for churches in the round, but I recognize that this is a traditional design for churches. From what I read, ideally in a church in the round the central focus of the design should be the Altar of sacrifice. When we first entered St. Bede's there was a large "gathering space" (I still prefer the term narthax) and off to the sides were a couple of hallways with offices (presumably for the parish). I even noticed a kitchen. On either side of the main doors into the church itself were some legacy artwork from the original church: one was a wood carving (I think they call it something like a redoube) with the Trinity and the BVM. It had a high Middle Ages/English design to it, and was very beautiful. Opposite to it was a large, iconish painting of the life of St. Bede; also very traditional and very beautiful. Then we entered the church. As should be the question whenever you enter a church, we both asked ourselves, "Where's Jesus?" In other words, "Where is the tabernacle?" Certainly our eyes did not quickly spy where they had taken our Lord. While the Altar was in the center of the circle, it was dwarfed by the HUGE organ they were installing. Clearly the central focus of this "worship space" was the music. While I love beautiful, liturgical music (and I am not sure that would be the type of music offered at St. Bede's) it is a creation of Man, the creature. We turned to our left, and there behind us to the left, in a room all to Himself, with a nice window to the church, was our Lord. If there was stain glass it was hardly memorable. The ceiling of the church seemed low, certainly no real vertical dimension to lift our spirits upwards towards heaven. While not the ugliest church that I have ever seen, it was just another very forgetable modern church that hardly inspired any sense of the sacred. With very little modification you could turn it into a lecture hall or performance hall. As we turned to leave we noticed the final "insult" -- a "feel good" incipid "Covenant" with the local Lutheran parish, basically pledging friendship and joint worship opportunities. Parishioners were encouraged to go to the "covenant" partner parish for some Sunday worship. No mention was given that it would not suffice for the Catholic's Sunday obligation. Disappointing is to state things very mildly.

At the end of the vacation, when I dropped my friend back at his parish, we went to the new parish complex that is being built. The school and the church are complete, and they are finishing the rectory and parish office. The parish is named Immaculate Conception BVM, and I am connecting a link to some photos of the church. In my humble opinion, simply put, this represents some of the best in contemporary church design. While it is true that the granite and marble masterpieces of the past are probably not possible for most parishes (both economically and practically because so much of the artisans needed no longer exist), it does not mean that just because you have to use more affordable and available materials that the church has to be ugly. Immaculate Conception BVM sits about 900, so it is big, but at the same time it does not feel as if people are sitting a far distance from the altar. It is a cruciform design (OK, I prefer that so it might have made me a bit more positively disposed). There is a good size narthax in the back. For first thing I noticed was that the church had some color. Too often, IMHO, modern churches have dark earthtones. While some may disagree with the choice of color (the walls of the main church were something of a peach color, though in two shades, and the tabernacle was in space with what I thought was a very nice dark red), I thought it was nice. The first thing you notice is the huge crucifix which is hanging right over the Altar of Sacrifice. It is very nice, though I think a tad too big -- reduce it 20% and I think it would still be significant but not over dominanting. Next you noticed the very nice baptismal fount at the back of the church. I did not get the full history of the fount, so I am not sure if it is new, used or from the original parish. It does have what seems to be part of an old altar rail around it. It is marble and very classic in design. A closer look at the Altar shows that it is designed in the same pattern as the baptismal fount. The church has nice wooden pews, on a tile floor. The ceiling is high. The stations of the Cross are mosaics, and I am told that they were originally in a church that was closed. The stain glass windows were from a closed parish in Philadelphia, and of a craftsmanship that is hard to find today. Since they wanted larger windows, the original stain glass windows are surrounded by what looks to be blown, white glass borders. In the four "corners" of the where the arms of the cruciform comes together they have alcoves for four statues of saints. I was informed that they are the same saints whose statues were in the original church, although the statues themselves are new. There are devotional candles infront of each alcove. There are two huge stained glass windows in the center part of the church (where the "arms" are), also classic designs from a closed parish in Philadelphia. Behind the main Altar there is a beautiful grill, behind which is a big tabernacle tower of marble with a lovely tabernacle. I am told that the tower and tabernacle was from, a site that "rescues" church art from churches that are closed, mostly from Europe. So while the main part of the church was of contemporary materials (the walls, floors, etc.) there was enough classic church art to tie the church to the tradition. The lighting is modern, but excellent; designed to call attention to the particular worship happening in the church. In other words there was a setting for "between Masses", another for "Weekday Masses", one for "Adoration" (almost all dark, with spots on the Altar where the Monsterance would be), and then very bright for Sundays and Solemnities. I was hugely impressed, and cannot wait for my friend to put even more photos of the church on the parish website. Truly a testament that modern churches can invoke a deep sense of the sacred was still being affordable.

No comments: