Invest in Catholic Youth: Build Beautiful School Chapels

  Intellege ut credas; crede ut intellegas  (In order to believe you must understand. In order to understand you must believe.)  —St. Augustine

A priest once told me that the best place to teach students the faith is in a church. For it is in a church that they can see a physical expression of Christianity, of the sacraments, and Christ present in the Eucharist. For many, the Mass, Eucharistic adoration, confession, and devotions such as the Stations of the Cross are rightly seen as an integral part of a Catholic education. Having a school next to a parish church makes this a natural. But move the school to another location and it becomes much more difficult to form the children in the Church.

Judging by developments during the last few decades, the Catholic high school seems to be another matter. Often fed by a number of parochial schools, it is placed in a neutral location on a piece of property large enough for athletic fields and parking. Since it is not near a parish church, daily liturgy, if it exists, takes place in a converted classroom and once a month in the gym.  Under this scenario, a wooden table, a cross, and a podium set on risers have to compete with athletic banners and the paraphernalia of school spirit. Unfortunately, the sets for the spring musical often have more style than the setting for the all-school liturgy.  But what can we do? Building a chapel large enough for the whole school is out of the question; it is just too expensive. And if we had a chapel, would not its location preclude the construction of the auditorium, the second gym, and game day parking?

Yet it wasn’t always so.  In many American cities and towns Catholic high schools were sited within walking distance of parish churches. I think of West Catholic High school in Philadelphia where my father went to school.  Both all-school masses and important academic para-liturgical functions were held in a nearby parish church.  At other prep schools run by religious orders, the gym may have been rudimentary but the chapel was almost always large and glorious. I think of the “chapels” of Gonzaga in DC, St. Ignatius in Chicago, and St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia with their majestic façades, towers, and transcendent interiors which were as large as parish churches. Why shouldn’t our new high schools have the same?

What about those secondary schools that have no chapel? They should invest in the faith not only by hiring top Catholic faculty, but also by hiring talented architects to design a worthy sanctuary. A movable and raised platform with stairs to set it apart, a rail, a beautiful altar and ambo with carved wood or faux-marbling, an altarpiece or crucifix  behind, and a tabernacle. Most importantly, this movable sanctuary should be formed like a proper apse, with walls and even a ceiling. This could all be built out of lightweight but strong material, or possibly done with fabric, while the flooring should be wood or marble tile. A movable baldacchino or tester would be especially helpful to focus on the altar within such a large room. The goal should be to create a sense of the sacred within the gym or auditorium, and to assist teenage hearts and minds to ascend toward the heavens.

If we are serious about Catholic education then why let our high-schoolers take a four year vacation from chapel? Providing a worthy place of prayer in our secondary schools demonstrates the importance we place on faith and the sacraments. One way to assist in Pope John Paul II’s call for an integration of faith and reason is to construct a sacred place within our schools. Of course, this may mean reorienting our building priorities and our budgets. Beautiful chapels are an expensive investment to make in the lives of our children. However, if we are concerned at all about the future of the Church, can we really afford not to make it?

This editorial first appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Sacred Architecture and is reprinted with permission of the author. (Photo credit: Church of the Gesu, serving Saint Joseph Preparatory School, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Michael L. Dorn.)

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).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I sometimes attend the mass at 8,30 in the Sainte-Chapelle, for workers in the Palais de Justice in Paris and for those having business in the courts,

    I took a friend once. We were the first to arrive. It was a beautiful sunny May morning and the light streaming through the windows cast a delicate pastel rainbow on the pale stone floor.

    His impression? “Gosh,” he exclaimed, it’s chilly in here.”

  • WRBaker

    Having a chapel on-campus and rarely using it is also a travesty.
    A local Catholic high school has a very small chapel (without kneelers) and cannot seat more than a class of students at one time and it’s rarely used to the point where (when I first arrived on campus) I asked if Jesus was in the tabernacle, not seeing a lit candle anywhere. Receiving a blank look in reply spoke volumes. The Holy Water fonts were empty, as well, but consistent with having such a wonderful little chapel that, as I quickly found out, ranked well below the “social justice” program.

    • GaudeteMan

      Many so-called Catholic hospitals used to have some of the same beautiful chapels but they were leveled in favor of adding more beds and Jesus is now often relegated to tiny rooms in hard to find places in hospital basements.

  • hombre111

    Author makes a good point.

  • GaudeteMan

    The importance of having a sacred space so described above is essential but only part of the equation. A holy and reverent priest is the key. We live in rural America where over a century ago groups of Catholic, German immigrants gave their lifeblood to the construction of some of the most beautiful Churches that you can find, now hidden away in small farming towns. But the pulpits are occupied by less than orthodox priests and the pews are pretty much empty. We drive to a Catholic church over an hour away to find ‘sound doctrine’ and spare our impressionable children the sight of altar girls chewing gum and wearing flip flops. The booming protestant churches in the neighboring towns are frequented by families that bear many of the surnames as those that built these same Catholic churches long ago. A holy, zealous and faithful priest can make converts with or without a splendid church but a magnificent chapel is definitely a bonus.

  • tom

    Well said. I like the young Catholics in Buffalo, N.Y. who have a cellphone-arranged Mass-gathering at a different neglected parish, monthly. It’s called a MASSMOB. They target an open, but troubled, parish and hundreds show up for Mass, greatly enhancing the offerings and instilling a lively social presence. While chapels in schools are great, inter-parish participation is just as important so that more than “parochial” activity brings Catholics more into the public square, while complying with their religious duty. It’s FUN, too.

    • WSquared

      I think we can do both, Tom. Such an effort needs to be coordinated, though.

      Having beautiful chapels in our schools does remind us of what we– and/or any MASSMOB– is supposed to be sharing.

  • brians

    Good as far as it goes, but until we as parents can count on the diocese to hire faithful Catholics as teachers and administrators, it’s a moot point. We have secularists educate our kids and wonder why they bail out at 19 years old. If we put our kids in a Catholic school, shouldn’t we be able to expect historical, orthodox Christian teaching? A beautiful chapel is great, but if faith is undermined in 5 or 6 classes a day, I say first things first.

    • WSquared

      The caption under the picture, Brian, would suggest going back to the very basics of “first things first.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis reiterated St. Augustine in Lumen Fidei.

      Understanding is the wages of faith. And belief is a response to a call that comes from the outside. Faith comes from encounter with Christ. It also involves letting Him be Himself. Historical, orthodox Christian teaching can’t be cut off from its source, the Eucharist. Also, Catholicism is the religion of the Incarnation. Verbal instruction can and should reflect the Word Made Flesh, but it still has to be properly rooted in it.

      A beautiful chapel can still stand as testimony and a quiet but powerful rebuke to the 5 or 6 classes a day that undermine the faith. Where Mass is held in a room somewhere or once a month in the gym, no such testimony or rebuke exists. And anyway, a school can start small in the meantime: to do what it can to set aside a place made beautiful for daily Mass at least until it can invest in something better.

  • droolbritannia

    I’ve been in a number of high schools in what used to be eastern Germany (now Poland), where the gymnasium is built on the top floor of the classroom building (yeah, you can hear the basketballs bouncing in the classrooms below, but for some reason to the Germans the top floor made sense – perhaps because in the old pictures, they are doing calisthenics and gymnastics; boilers and cafeteria are in the basements). Makes me wonder why a new gymnasium could not be built underground or almost underground with a second-story chapel above it. If the gym were above-ground with the chapel above, and the roof of the church were peaked, it would look like a typical, full-size church, though inside it would not be as lofty. Windows for the lower-level gym could sync with windows – possibly gothic and stained – upstairs, so from the outside it looks like a church, not a chapel on top of a gym.

    It could also be possible to build a ‘bell-tower’ that housed a stairwell and elevator for access. Further, if the design were careful or the gym was built on a slope, the chapel could be entered on the same level as classrooms (either ground-floor or second-floor) so that the entrance to the chapel was prominent to students and staff, making drop-in visits easy.

    It doesn’t seem an insoluble or a necessarily prohibitively expensive proposition – if the will is there.

  • WSquared

    They should invest in the faith not only by hiring top Catholic
    faculty, but also by hiring talented architects to design a worthy

    …and if the Catholic high school in question has anything resembling woodshop or art classes, see if there is a way to get the students involved, too, within practicable limits, of course, and at the very least engage them re what’s going on. It could be a way to actively catechize them about goodness, truth, and beauty, and the care and discipline needed to produce something that worthily reflects the spiritual reality of the liturgy. There’s a lot to be learned and taught about humility, diligence, and excellence here. Love in the truest sense of the word requires those things. Moreover, those lessons carry over into every other area of life, certainly (but not restricted to) academics.

    A group of talented parishioners who knew how to do woodworking gifted an altar rail to the priest of a modern box-like parish (that parish now has parishioners who kneel to receive the Eucharist at all Masses– EF and OF. It also has a beautifully crafted wooden high altar). Another such parish let some art students paint more traditional art on the walls that better reflects what we profess to believe.

    Yes, these things take time and patience, but that’s the whole point. They should also be the fruit of much prayer. Moreover, we keep hearing and talking about “the new evangelization.” Well, if some students were to reflectively blog about endeavors such as these, that’s a way in which a school could contribute to that sort of effort while allowing itself to be evangelized. I suspect that a lot of it will be about learning how to connect the dots of the faith so that it’s an actively chosen and lived faith, as well as an integrated Catholic life knit together by learning to be receptive to grace in the every day. A lot of the time, parishioners will comment on how the homilies at Mass should connect the readings at Mass to their daily lives. Well, we also learn how these things are related and relevant through doing, and not just within the four walls of any parish. There’s room here for young Catholics and their teachers to see any number of Church documents– from Sacrosanctum Concilium to Deus Caritas Est to Inter Mirifica come alive.

    And as Catholics, we’re meant to pray with everything we are, everything we’ve got, and with everything we’ve been given. Gives new meaning to “offer it up,” no?

  • Charlie

    Just wondering, but what chapel is that in the title picture?

    • Crisiseditor

      Your answer is in the editorial note at the end of the article, in italics.

  • Philip Mooney

    I am the Headteacher of an 800 pupil Catholic High School in the UK. The first £100,000 of “buildings” money that came my way 6 years ago was spent on a 95 seat chapel. It’s the best investment I have made to date; although we still have to use our Sports Hall for Whole School Liturgy, the Chapel pays out to pupils and staff every single day. It is a place of absolute calm in the middle of what sometimes feels like a frenetic world outside.