“How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless, and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.” —Pope Francis, Address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See
What is the architectural corollary of Saint Francis of Assisi’s “holy poverty”? Is it the shantytowns of the third world or the stylish minimalism of first-world condominiums? When we build churches, schools, and soup kitchens, should they be cheap or at least look cheap? Not if the Franciscans of the past built them. In fact, history teaches how we should build through the example of the great philanthropists, religious orders, bishops, and saints. From the geometrical harmony of the Servites’ Foundling Hospital in Florence to Saint John Bosco’s house for boys in Torino, there is a type of Catholic building that is built to last with a sense of beauty. Some would question why we should spend great sums of money on architecture, when what the poor really need are buildings that meet their functional needs. And yet, following Mother Theresa and other great saints, to serve the poor means serving not only their material needs but their spiritual needs as well. Good architecture does both: it provides buildings and rooms for people to live in, study in, and work in while doing it in a way that can inspire.
Do the poor need beauty? Yes, maybe even more than other people do. The poor need beauty to ennoble them, to raise them up out of the morass of this fallen world. For many, their existing surroundings may not inspire them, so beautiful, durable architecture can have a salutary effect. We see the desire for beauty and tradition expressed in the parishes and schools built by poor immigrants in previous centuries. Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness. It is true that the rich and the middle class can afford many distractions: artwork, books, museums, travel, and entertainment where they oftentimes come in contact with beauty, serenity, and even the divine. Yet for those less well-off, where do they find the richness of culture and the majesty of nature but in the dome of a cathedral or the stained glass of a church?
Some years ago, my students designed and built a house for Habitat for Humanity. One of the leaders of the organization visited the house and was shocked to see brickwork below the front porch (matching the older houses in the neighborhood). “You can’t make this house nicer than the other Habitat homes—you will make the other owners jealous.” In his view, the poor deserved only the lowest common denominator. The house was meant not so much to beautify or dignify the occupants but only to provide for their material needs. In a small way I would like to think these students were unwittingly imitating Dorothy Day, who once gave a diamond ring to a bag lady. Upon being questioned by a Catholic Worker staff member on whether it would have been better to sell the ring and use the money for the poor, Dorothy said, “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
Do the poor need a different or lesser architecture than other Americans? They too can feel the solidity of brickwork, the generosity of a porch, the human scale of baseboard and cornice, and the quality of natural materials. Likewise, they too are affected by mechanistic façades and oppressive interiors that do not elevate the spirit. When we welcome them to the homeless shelter, the school, the soup kitchen, the medical clinic, the pregnancy center, or the unwed mothers’ home, we welcome them to our house. Nothing less than the best is acceptable. We roll out the red carpet for them, since we believe “as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in number 25 (2014) of Sacred Architecture Journal and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is St. John Bosco’s Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians in Turin along with buildings that housed the Salesian Order and related associations and charities.