Designing a Church for the Poor

[Saint] Peter teaches us to look to the poor through the eyes of faith and to give them that which is most precious: the power of the name of Jesus. This is what he did with the paralytic; he gave him what he had, which was Jesus.  ∼ Pope Francis, Angelus June 29, 2014, Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

We all know that the poor need food and clothing, decent education and good jobs. But what about their spiritual and cultural needs? Can a church building serve the poor spiritually through the material? It is an expensive proposition, but I would suggest the answer is yes. Which leads us to the question, how to design a church for the poor?

First, consider what a church for the poor is not: it is not a church for ascetic monks, who take a vow of poverty, spend their days in prayer, and prefer the simple beauty of the cloister to the richness and chaos of the world. On the contrary, a church for the poor should be seen as a place for full-blooded laypeople who need to be drawn into the building through material and tactile means. It is a respite from the world that offers a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem to those living in Nineveh.

A church for the poor does not have paintings of abstract or ugly figures but is full of beautiful images of holy men and women who overcame their sinfulness to draw close to God. Even more important, a church for the poor shows the poor their mother who comforts and their God who forgives. A church for the poor is full of signs, symbols, and sacraments: outward signs of inward grace. It cannot be a place where the sacrament of salvation is hidden away, for it should be raised up like Christ on the cross offering his body for our healing.

A house for the poor should not be a modernist structure inspired by the machine, for the poor are surrounded and even enslaved by the machine and the technological. It is rather a building inspired by the human body, the New Adam, and the richness of his creation. Those whose lives may touch on angst and suffering do not need a contorted building exhibiting disharmony and atonality. Instead they need an architecture of healing, which through proportions, materials and spiritual light brings joy to the heart. A church that is welcoming to those in the state of poverty should not be a theatre church where the visitor is forced to be on stage. Their dignity is respected by allowing them to sit where they want, even if that means in the back or in a side chapel. The lighting cannot be so bright that one’s deficiencies are revealed to others; there should be a place for prayerful shadow.

A church for the poor is not hidden away in the suburbs or on a highway where it may never be seen and is difficult to get to. It should be placed where the poor are—near the poor villages or the destitute city neighborhoods and in prominent places like downtowns or city parks where the poor sometimes travel. A church for the poor does not close its school just because it is under-enrolled or in financial difficulty. Caritas understands that service to those in need is not optional, nor is it meant to be cheap and easy. In the same way, dioceses should seek creative ways for inner city parishes to remain open even when finances would argue otherwise. One thinks of Our Lady of the Angels and its school, located in a tough Chicago neighborhood reopened by Cardinal George and Franciscan Bob Lombardo after being closed for fifteen years.

A church for the poor should not look impoverished. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money are always welcome to enter. The poor may not often visit the art museum, the symphony hall, or the stately hotel. However, a worthy church can give the poor the experience of art, fine music, and nobility that the rich and middle class are happy to pay for. And in this way the Church acknowledges that high culture should be even for those who have nothing. Bishop Suger probably had it right when he rebuilt Saint Denis and invested in beautiful vessels, altars, and statues to draw the gaze of the common folk towards the mysteries of the faith.

A church for the poor is not only for the poor, it is for all—both rich and poor, proud and humble. Are there iconographical elements that might draw the needy and inspire others to give? Perhaps images of poverty in the lives of holy saints such as Francis, Dominic, Mother Teresa, and many others. Along with these, a church for the poor should have murals, stained glass, and side altars portraying the centrality of poverty in the life of Christ: The king is born in a stable, and his family must immigrate to a foreign land to survive. He displays compassion for the poor, the leper, the widow, and the mother. He raises the dead. He lives as a mendicant, reliant on the generosity of others for food and lodging (from both priests and tax collectors). He introduces many parables—like the widow’s mite or the prodigal son—that speak powerfully to all those in hunger and poverty.

But can the poor or the uneducated understand these images or appreciate beauty? When the poor see beauty they see God. Why? Because “beauty” is God’s middle name.

What building can better point the poor towards Christ than a church: a house of God that welcomes them, embraces them, and lifts them up.

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in Aleteia September 15, 2014 and the current issue of Sacred Architecture (vol. 26) and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary” painted by Edmund Blair Leighton.

Duncan G. Stroik


Duncan G. Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame where he helped implement a new curriculum in classical architecture in 1990. He played a central role in the revival of interest in sacred architecture that led to the formation of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and the journal Sacred Architecture, of which he is editor. He is the author, most recently, of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal (2012).

  • fredx2

    Darn. I thought this was going to be about creating a church that serves the poor. Not about designing the buildings.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      If you know anything about Duncan Stroik, you’re going to know that this is what he does — designs beautiful churches. And I can attest that the poor do appreciate them. He designed the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse for then-Bishop Raymond Burke, which critics claimed was a white elephant and a memorial to himself. Now, crowds of Hispanics come and take advantage of the spiritual opportunity afforded them by this place of beauty and grace.

    • Vinny

      It is about creating a church that serves the poor from the perspective of giving glory to God through the arts. That is one major focus of worship that was seriously and wrongly downplayed after Vatican II. Being in right physical mindset is the first step toward better experiencing the holy and spiritual.

    • Daren

      I simply do not see the dichotomy that you seem to be implying.There are many ways to serve the poor. One of which is to not assume that only rich people deserve beautiful settings for worship.

    • R. K. Ich

      “creating a church that serves the poor…”

      Sacred space well-designed, well-decorated, and well-endowed serves all people. It is true these things are destined for destruction, but that doesn’t make them unimportant or trivial.

      • Mara319

        Agree. And that should include vestments, liturgical vessels and altar accoutrements.

        When the Lord comes on His Second Coming, He’ll be wearing a cappa magna.

        Revelation 19:13-14: “And he was clothed with
        a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the
        armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine
        linen, white and clean.”

  • Deborah

    Thank you for this beautifully written and meaningful article.
    For me, the places of encounter with God are with the poor and with beauty. You said it well: “Beauty is God’s middle name.”
    When I was a little girl, my family went bankrupt. We had to move from our lovely home to
    a dingy cold water flat; we had become poor. But for me, a small child, my parish church became the special place of beauty, wonder—and encounter with the Holy.
    In the sanctuary were inscribed, in letters of gold, the words from the psalm: “O Lord, I love the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth.” Since the church was dedicated to Our Lady, the stained glass windows told the story or her life in dazzling color and image. Every detail, from the carved wood panels and silent statues to the marble altar rail was carefully crafted.
    It was beauty that opened my door to the sacred.
    I’m saddened when I enter some of the sterile churches that were the result of a mis-interpretation of Vatican II. Yet, I am encouraged with your efforts and those of others to restore this beauty to our churches. In a sense, we all are poor in one way or another. We need beauty to bring closer to the Source of all beauty. Again, thank you!

    • R. K. Ich

      “misinterpretation of Vatican II…”

      That language is too charitable if not naive. It is rather a flagrant abuse, Vatican II being a convenient pretext.

      I see pictures and videos of what was wrought as a result; have traveled this great land of ours and have seen beautiful houses of worship debased and sullied by the spirit of modernity. The crop of so-called churches that sprang up between the 60’s and 80’s are an assault on the intelligence, the imagination, and the spirit and eyes of man.

      The iconoclasm by the zeal of heretics of history is nearly excusable; what happened in the wake of Vatican II was outright cancerous.

      • Mickey’O

        Here! Here!

  • St JD George

    I often hear this from the secular class about how much money is tied up in beautiful cathedrals that would have been better spent on serving the needs of the poor as if it were an either or proposition, which it’s not. A beautiful church stirs one’s emotions and helps bring them closer to God emotionally through reflection and reverence. However, as we all know ultimately the church is not defined by it’s buildings but instead by it’s people doing God’s mission and in that regard it should always facilitate that primacy of purpose.

  • Kathryn Coe

    don’t forget heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. The main reason I read so much as a child in Texas was that the library was air-conditioned, which was something my family could not afford. People might duck into the church just to get warm and wind up staying…

  • Paul

    A church for the poor is one that recognizes the spiritual impoverishment in all men regardless of materialistic wealth & social status. A church for the poor is not about style but about spiritual substance – a successful church building is the physical embodiment of the words and teachings of Christ, perhaps the task is too great for Man alone.
    There is no church building to date that adequately expressed the depth & the wisdom of Christ’s teachings nor the sacrifice that Christ made.

    • R. K. Ich

      “Not about style but spiritual substance…”

      One lie says form can substitute for substance; the other lie is that substance needs no form.

  • joeyjoejoe

    “A church for the poor does not close its school just because it is under-enrolled or in financial difficulty. Caritas understands that service to those in need is not optional, nor is it meant to be cheap and easy. In the same way, dioceses should seek creative ways for inner city parishes to remain open even when finances would argue otherwise…

    A church for the poor should not look impoverished. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money are always welcome to enter.”

    Ah, a church for the poor should break the laws of physics and economics, then. No money, but maintain schools without them. No money, but don’t look impoverished.

    Perhaps magic will pay the bills.


    • Yes, of a form. The magic of generosity, the realization that the fewer paintings you have in your home, the more stained glass you need in your church.

    • Mara319

      Or bring back nuns who take seriously their vows of chastity, obedience – and yes, poverty – and let them teach schoolchildren the true Faith; instead of escorting clients into abortuaries for a Planned Parenthood stipend.

  • Kevin

    John the Baptist Church in Manhattan Next to Madison Square Garden is such a church. Beautiful shrine of Saint Padre Pio and great prayer programs as well as a welcoming fellowship.

    • In Manhattan, where the cost of living is triple where it is most other places on the planet? I submit there are no poor in Manhattan. If there are, they don’t need a church, they need a plane ticket to the midwest where the jobs are.

      • AugustineThomas

        Poor of spirit perhaps?

        • I would admit that would be in abundance in Manhattan. As well as in Washington DC, and many places up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States

      • Objectivetruth

        Obviously, you don’t get to Manhattan much.

        The “poor” are everywhere. Both materially and spiritually. You just have to have the eyes to see them.

        Blessed Mother Teresa was walking down an alleyway in Calcutta one morning. It was the height of her popularity, so she was accompanied by several foreign journalists. As they walked, the journalists were engaged in an intense conversation of what to do with the world’s poor. Soon, they realized that Blessed Teresa was no longer accompanying them. They looked over their shoulder, and noticed Mother kneeling over a sick man lieing in the gutter in the alley, tending to him. While the journalists were engaged in what to do about the impoverished, only Blessed Teresa of Calcutta had seen the poor wretch lieing in the gutter that they almost literally walked over.

        • Then what they need is a plane ticket to somewhere that food can be gleaned because it still grows.

          Cities in general are rotten places to be poor. Farms need the labor more.

  • Broken

    Yes, how about a church for us all, rich and poor alike…..and then if priests bother to offer the Sacraments frequently and preach solid doctrine and dogma, souls will be saved.

  • littleeif

    “But can the poor or the uneducated understand these images or appreciate beauty? When the poor see beauty they see God. Why? Because “beauty” is God’s middle name.

    What building can better point the poor towards Christ than a church: a house of God that welcomes them, embraces them, and lifts them up.”

    And here is what so often bothers me about my faith as it is actually celebrated: why doesn’t this read “us”. As in “welcomes us, embraces us, and lifts us up”? Because we, of course, are not the poor. They are.

    I lived in an inner city neighborhood a ten minute drive from a premier Catholic High School. In-parish rate: $4000 per year at the time; out of parish $8000. We were out of parish there, but in parish at an inner city high school a thirty minute drive away.Conversely, a suburban neighborhood a half hour away was in parish at the premier school. But take heart, the students from that high school came to my neighborhood and planted flowers in a traffic island as an outreach to the poor.

    Sometimes it is really hard to see ourselves.

    • Rosey

      As a monetarily poor parent with a bright child that I did not want to send to that inner-city school, I was met with open arms and near 100% financial assistance from that nice suburban Catholic School. Now had that not existed, what option would my child, now an amazing young woman dedicated to serving others at a critical time in their lives (she’s an RNBSN in an ICU) have?
      And you can bet she was probably representative of someone among those planting the flowers. Sometimes looks are deceiving. She looked the same in her uniform as all the other girls getting out of school each day–maybe the car she got into wasn’t as late model, but she, in the true Catholic spirit, was treated the same by peers, parents (and yes, some were uber wealthy but trust me they gave back–look what their sharing gave my child, and many children, the beauty and blessing of a Catholic education) and most importantly treated the same by her teachers.
      And lastly, this amazing education she received cost 1/5 of what the state spends on the same grade level, inner-city or not. That’s some ROI. I’d much rather allow those with money to donate and do direct good, as in tuition assistance for private schools, than to fall for all this “redistributism” bs

      • littleeif

        So I sent my children to that inner city parochial school. If you couldn’t pay cash for the tuition to the premier suburban school they sent you to a bank for a loan and I didn’t want to risk becoming a judgement debtor. Turns out the faith was much more central to the educational effort, including a living example of what it means to be poor. Tuition collection was relaxed and every effort was made to include any child who desired a Catholic education. My kids all went on to achieve undergraduate degrees from a Catholic college and then advanced degrees, and are to the best of their ability practicing their faith. But they planted no flowers in poor neighborhoods unless they were in our yard!

        I moved some years ago to the suburb, but I continue to return to the old parish. The church isn’t air conditioned. There is no orchestra as in the suburban parish five minutes away. Plaster hangs from the wall in places. Our pastor is actually way past retirement age and his liturgy certainly involves nothing ostentatious. But the faith is very much alive there and I am more comfortable.

        And I am not making a point about Catholic education or what you have artfully termed “redistributism bs”. I am more making a point about self deception – that to target things at “the poor” is not the same as embracing poverty or even merely embracing someone poor.

  • Melchior

    Yes! Go see the gloriously beautiful Cathedral of San Jose, CA and how putting the chairs “in the round” has modified that beauty!

  • It would be great if Churches for the poor could all be like this. But many cannot afford it. Certainly not in poorer provinces of my country, the Philippines. There was a major earthquake last year that destroyed centuries old Churches in Bohol. They were beautiful! But now, they have been reduced to rubble. Some of them can never be rebuilt. Their parishioners cannot afford it. They love their faith! But now they have to worship in tents.

    What struck me though, during a visit before the earthquake. There was a particularely poor parish. The pews were worn out and falling apart. The floors were dirty, the walls were bare concrete. Yet the sanctuary was and altar were beatiful! Precious stones and images of our Lord and Mama Mary. I admired how much they valued their faith! Most of the parishioners live in huts or small houses. Yet, they gave what they could so that God could have only the best.