In a recent Crisis essay, I indicated that the recovery of tradition, reverence and symbolism in sacred architecture is not limited only to newly built churches, but that it has also been on the increase in existing church renovations in recent years.
Some of the most jarring evidence of internal unsettledness in the Church over the past century has been the drastic physical alteration of older church interiors, often to a point of becoming unrecognizable as what they once were. Such alterations were enforced based on the assumption that the buildings, along with the liturgy and other sacraments inside them, needed to cede to the thinking of the times in order to remain relevant with modern Catholics.
Had this been a truly successful endeavor—or even a correct initial assumption on which to base such an endeavor—we should be able to observe, after all these years, that the majority of lay people actually want their churches to look and feel like casual living rooms or concert halls. Yet, according to Fr. Jamie Hottovy of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, a growing body of evidence would seem to suggest exactly the opposite.
A priest with a background in architecture, Fr. Hottovy is part of a team that advises on church renovations throughout the diocese. He finds that more often than not, parishioners have not so much embraced modernism as tolerated it over the years because they’ve felt that they had no choice. “When they’re shown what their church could look like, the enthusiasm and response is amazing,” he says. “Every renovation has very intentional theological and symbolic weight to it, and people have been hungering for that.”
The point is not only to have a church that looks nice, but that communicates and teaches the truths of the faith to a world bombarded by competing messaging. “We live in the most visually stimulated culture the world has ever seen,” he says. “We as a Church have to have a valid and compelling visual language. To recapture that is needed now more than ever.”
At present, there are approximately twenty-five churches in the Diocese of Lincoln that have been affected by this new approach. It should be noted that the efforts have not been part of a deliberate top-down campaign, but rather, have spread organically at the grassroots level with organized guidance and support from the diocese.
The formula is straightforward, notes Fr. Hottovy: as more and more faithful see what has been done, they want the same in their own parish. And thanks to a succession of supportive leadership there—Bishop Emeritus Fabian Bruskewitz and now Bishop James Conley—as well as the younger generations being very responsive and enthusiastic, he doesn’t detect an end in sight. “There’s definitely a momentum, and I see it continuing.”
What is happening in Nebraska is somewhat unique due to being formally encouraged and fostered by the diocese, and is therefore an operational model worthy of serious and prayerful consideration by bishops everywhere. However, right order is already being restored to existing churches elsewhere on more localized initiatives.
Tradition Crafted Anew through a Collaborative Process
St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, completed a multi-year renovation late last year. The pastor, Fr. Greg Markey, states quite plainly the singular reason the project was undertaken. “The purpose is to properly communicate God’s holiness through beauty, very much in line with the vision of Pope Benedict XVI,” he says.
Built in the 1870s, St. Mary’s was one of the most beautifully adorned churches in Connecticut by the early twentieth century. In 1961, however, a subtractive renovation radically altered the interior. Walls and ceilings were covered, the marble sanctuary was carpeted, and the altars were decapitated.
From the beginning of his pastorate at St. Mary’s in 2003, Fr. Markey has striven to develop a caliber of liturgical celebration and music truly worthy of the sacred mysteries that unfold during the Mass. By 2009, it had become apparent that the physical appearance of the church was the final factor in the equation.
So, work was initiated under the direction of architect Duncan G. Stroik. First, the sanctuary was renovated to accommodate the proper celebration of Mass in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. The freestanding altar was removed, as all Masses at St. Mary’s are once again celebrated at the original high altar ad orientem—that is, with priest and people facing east in unison. A marble altar rail, elevated pulpit, and side altars were also put back.
In the second phase, an exquisite paint scheme throughout the church was executed by the John Canning Studios with meticulous detail and precision, and the third phase introduced the visual focus of the project: a dignified main altar reredos containing a thirteen-foot-tall mural of the Assumption by renowned classical painter, Leonard Porter. A rood beam was also introduced above the sanctuary, which bears an original crucifixion scene by Peter Kelley, a professional sculptor who is also a St. Mary’s parishioner. This realizes Fr. Markey’s desire that the Exaltation of the Holy Cross be front and center without competing with the reredos.
The process that moved the Assumption mural from a vision to the finished work is something rarely encountered today, but makes for a unique masterpiece that belongs only where it is. “A large classical painting as part of an altar is something you don’t find very often in American churches,” says Fr. Markey. He recalls Mr. Porter spending an entire afternoon alone in the church just contemplating and getting a feel for the colors, the lighting quality, and the overall ambience, in order to let these things inform what his painting would become.
Forest Walton, the project architect for Mr. Stroik, observes that “…the vision of the patron and client, Fr. Markey, as well as the thoughts and collaboration of architect and artist and consideration of the actual space within the church, all contributed to the final result—the aesthetic reality of Leonard’s painting.” He adds that to simply salvage and repurpose an existing work “would not allow for this truly dynamic collaboration between patron, artist, and architect to create a masterpiece fitting for the space it is in, while at the same time transcending these factors to lift minds and hearts to the eternal.”
He attributes the success of the project to the vision, rigor, and determination of the client. “Fr. Markey is that patron who recognizes the virtues of striving for perfection. Because of this, the fruits of his vision will now be shared by all for years to come.”
Tradition Reintroduced around a Period Masterpiece
A few years ago, when Fr. James Cunningham arrived in his new assignment at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Brooklyn, New York, he found himself being asked by many of his new parishioners to please “do something” about their church. This may sound like an unusual request, but the recent history of the building tells why.
Dating from the late nineteenth century, Holy Name of Jesus has been a familiar anchor in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn for generations. Although humble in size and outward appearance, the church boasted an exquisitely decorated interior. Expansive scenes from the life of Christ adorned the sanctuary walls, serving as the backdrop for elaborate altarpieces.
In 1980, though, all of that—quite literally every last bit—abruptly disappeared. The sanctuary was gutted and painted over, and a single crucifix high on a blank flat wall was all that remained as a backdrop. Where the original altar had been were now seven identical tall, hollow drywall objects, covered in the same trim color that carried through the whole church—a “Pepto-Bismol pink.” “Everybody in the parish just referred to them as the ‘upside down hockey sticks,’” recalls an amused Fr. Cunningham. “The tabernacle was put over in a corner in this awkward sort of structure, and the baptismal font looked like a wok.”
Despite the presumed best intentions behind the idea at the time, it is difficult to see it as anything short of a near-wholesale fit of iconoclasm. Parishioners had wanted it remedied for the thirty years they had endured it, and with the church occasionally used for diocesan functions, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio also expressed his desire to see something done.
As providence would have it, Fr. Cunningham learned of a “homeless” masterpiece that was sitting in four hundred seventy-three pieces in a diocesan warehouse: an altar designed by nineteenth century American architect James Renwick, Jr. Among other things, Renwick is famous for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.
Originally intended as a side altar in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it turned out to be too big, and so was installed in the newly built St. Vincent de Paul Church in Brooklyn as the main altar. When that church had to close due to extensive structural problems, the altars were disassembled, catalogued, and stored.
In 2013, Holy Name launched a capital campaign, and Baker Liturgical Art was selected to oversee the project. The campaign took on a life of its own, beyond anything Fr. Cunningham had imagined. “The people gave until it hurt because they were all able to see what it would look like,” he says. “In 1980, they were all surprised, and not in a good way. I used to open the church every few weeks [during the 2013-14 renovation] to enable them to take a look at the process and see what was happening.”
This past spring, after months of work, the church was rededicated with the majestic Renwick altar as the focal point, and with the parishioners overcome by joy and excitement for the future. And numbers don’t lie. According to Fr. Cunningham, an average of two new families per month would register with the parish before, compared to twenty-eight that have been gained just since this past June. There were five weddings last year at Holy Name, and this year there are thirty-five that have happened or are scheduled. And several hundred people filled the pews for the first Solemn High Mass in the church in half a century, celebrated on the “new” high altar.
Ordinary Parishes Thinking Extraordinarily
St. Mary’s and Holy Name are not rich—they are both moderately sized and middle class parishes, and funds have been almost entirely in small donations. St. Mary’s was done on a very smart and lean budget, and Holy Name has raised an astounding two hundred fifty percent and counting of the maximum amount they were told was possible. This is a testament to the power of pastoral vision, strong lay faith, and desire to have a sacred home that glorifies God while welcoming and teaching people.
Responding to a common refrain that projects like these are unnecessarily extravagant, and that the money would be better spent on helping the poor, Fr. Hottovy notes that all of the parishes with which he’s worked are very active in social outreach, and that Catholics often forget that we are a people not of either or, but of both and. “The Church has always been responsive and caring for the poor,” he says. “That does not diminish, and the poor are welcome. The church is built for them, for them to be able to enter into the beauty that they might not otherwise have access to.”
For many people, the first step in discovering or rediscovering the faith is simply setting foot in a church. Fr. Cunningham relates that before, there was nothing about Holy Name that would resonate with passersby. Now, however, he leaves the doors open daily until evening, and there is a steady stream of people coming in to pray or just to look around throughout the day. “I said, ‘You have a beautiful church here now. Don’t lock it up.’”
What all of this should say is that a truly successful undertaking does not have to be sold to the faithful, because they overwhelmingly want it from the start. This runs counter to past decades, when small elite groups typically dictated to the masses that the imminent violence to their cherished spiritual homes was good and necessary.
Thanks to a newer generation of faithful priests like Fathers Hottovy, Markey, and Cunningham, reversing the damage caused by that misguided approach is accomplished in a much more gradual, transparent and pastorally sensitive manner. These are ordinary parishes that had the vision and determination to do something extraordinary, and if they can do it, others surely can too.