Glorious renewal of God’s house
By Ann Carey
After decades of sparseness, new church construction and renovations reconnect with symbols and styles of the past
When the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965, a new liturgical movement swept the country that stressed the function of a church over its design. Accordingly, many of the churches built after Vatican II were auditorium-styled buildings with little to no sacred art, sparse sanctuaries and hidden tabernacles. Older churches were often reconfigured and stripped of their iconography, including mosaics and stained glass.
Today, a new movement is under way to make Catholic churches look more like sacred places. Many of the church buildings that had been stripped in the 1960s and 1970s are having religious articles and iconography restored in a manner that complements the new liturgical requirements.
For example, the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, Conn., was renovated in 1978, and most of its art and iconography was removed.
Architect Henry Menzies of New Rochelle, N.Y., was asked by Bishop William Lori to bring back some of the Gothic splendor of the original 1865 church, but in “a contemporary vernacular.” The updated and beautified cathedral was rededicated in December 2003, and this story is repeating itself across the country.
Additionally, some new churches are being built with many of the traditional elements of Catholic architecture, such as the 600-seat All Saints Church in Walton, Ky., designed by architect Duncan Stroik in a classic style that features a 102-foot-tall bell tower.
And the 500-seat St. Joseph Church in Dalton, Ga., designed by architect Thomas Gordon Smith, features pilasters and recessed arches reminiscent of early Christian and Renaissance churches. Both Stroik and Smith teach in the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and head their own architecture firms in South Bend, Ind.
Not just a building
A businessman who salvages items from closed or demolished churches told Our Sunday Visitor that 15 years ago, people did not want those items.
However, “tastes have changed,” said Rick Lair, owner of King Richard’s Religious Artifacts in Alpharetta, Ga. “Architects are designing new buildings where you feel like you’re in a church again.”
Lair estimates that 80 percent of the recued church items he handles go into new church construction. The other 20 percent go to renovations.
“We see all the time churches trying to rectify what was done in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” Lair said, “We see all the time historical buildings where either the priests or the parishes are upset because the church was cleaned out in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the interpretation of Vatican II.”
Why this change in attitude?
Father William Turner, a priest in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., who was doctorate degrees in cultural anthropology and theology, believes that liturgists of 30 years ago were well-intentioned in thinking that changing church buildings would enhance celebration of the liturgy.
“The problem with that is,” Father Turner said, “many Catholics see their church as sacred, as God’s house, and more than just a place for Sunday Mass.”
When their churches were stripped, people felt something was missing, he continued, and they were not satisfied by a liturgy that seemed people-centered. While the motivation of the liturgists may have been good – to bring people close together to celebrate their faith – the result alienated many Catholics, said Father Turner.
“The whole problem hasn’t been Vatican II or the reform. It’s how it has been implemented, how it’s been misdirected,” he said.
Connection with their heritage
Now, there is a movement for the people to “take back their parishes,” according to Father Turner, for the faithful want to see symbols of, and continuity with, the past. They want to see objects and signs that raise their hearts and mind to God.
Some parishioners have even presented their parishes with religious artifacts they recued and saved when their churches were stripped years ago.
“We went through all this experimentation – which was good – in the last 30 years,” Father Turner said, “but it must come to an end. The documents are very clear. The direction from Rome and the bishops is clear.”
Return of beauty
Indeed, recent Church documents back up priests and parishioners who want more beauty in their churches, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Built of Living Stones,” which was issued in 2000 and gives guidelines for church design and architecture in this country, to the General Instruction of the roman missal, which was issued in 2002 and covered the universal Church.
These and other liturgical documents do not call for return to pre-Vatican II days. But they do recognize that the rich heritage of Catholic sacred art and architecture is compatible with the updated rites of the Church, and the people in the pews are embracing that concept.
Architect James McCrery of Washing, D.C., whose firm is restoring a cathedral in South Dakota, has observed this openness from consultations with clients contemplating new churches and restorations.
“The people want richness; the want tradition; they want history and they want beauty,” he said. “And the way they say it is, they want their church to ‘look Catholic.’”