Remnants of a Bygone Era

posted by Michael Raia

Entry portal at St. Joseph Cathedral, Colombus, OH.  source

Entry portal at St. Joseph Cathedral, Colombus, OH. source

Is it possible to construct a beautiful traditional church in these times?

People in areas that are relatively absent of historic church architecture often ask me if it's possible to design churches in the architectural traditions that endured until the mid 1900s – romanesque, gothic, classical, and the many variations and combinations thereof.  Many parts of the country are dotted with magnificent old churches that continue to be sources of inspiration and devotion for countless Christians, but in other areas where the Church is relatively young and is rapidly growing, this heritage seems little more than a distant memory. Trends in many of these areas are seeing a resurgence of popularity for traditional cathedral, monastery, shrine, and parish churches, but as any of the pastors associated with these projects would tell you, it is no easy task. Furthermore, from a critic's perspective,the design quality of these projects varies. There lies ahead a long road to reclaiming a culture that was essential to the flourishing of the rich architectural tradition of the Catholic Church; the decline of which in our lifetime has left the Church changed in so many ways.

Building a traditional church today will require education and formation for all involved to move beyond under-informed, simplistic, and emotional preferences that often drive so many of our personal opinions on church architecture.

Below we will discuss a few reasons why building beautiful traditionally-designed buildings today remains a monumental challenge for those of us seeking to do so.

Church steeples tower over the 1915 Boston skyline.  source

Church steeples tower over the 1915 Boston skyline. source

Society has radically changed.

Consider the shifts that we have witnessed in the last few decades. Public practice and even tolerance of religion continues to wane. Accordingly, cathedral spires no longer dominate city skylines. The veiling of downtown cathedrals behind a curtain of steel and glass skyscrapers reflects and parallels faith taking a backseat in our culture. Where religious practice was once the centerpiece – even if only an outward observance – it is no longer a priority for the majority of citizens. Many of the impressive churches built in the late 1800s and early 1900s required the comparable funds required to build several hundred homes. This reflected the sacrificial giving of every member of a parish community, whether in the big city or even in the smallest towns. Today, depending on parish size, that number is more like 10 - 20 homes for an average-sized church. Many massive neighborhood churches recorded membership of only several hundred, or maybe over a thousand families. Churches a fraction of the quality and scale are being built for suburban parishes boasting membership of thousands of families. Furthermore, our homes boast finer materials, ornamentation, and art than many of the churches being built in our time. Where our priorities lie, there our wallets follow. 

St. Columbanus, South Side Chicago, c. 1923.  source

St. Columbanus, South Side Chicago, c. 1923. source

Parish communities have dramatically changed.

The landscape of the typical urban or suburban parish has changed dramatically. A hundred years ago, cities were made up of neighborhoods dotted with parishes boasting magnificent churches little more than throwing distance apart. Despite boasting gorgeous and often massive churches, these parishes were smaller than those thriving today, but were much better supported by the loyal parishioners. In cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and St. Louis, the heavily Catholic immigrant populations of Irish, Italians, Germans, Czechs, and Poles that contributed to the rapid growth – the majority being ardent in the practice of their faith – no longer represent the typical demographic of parish life. Neighborhoods are more diverse culturally and in terms of faith practice. Additionally, fewer people feel a loyalty to their local parish. Many of us will choose to attend a parish based on the pastor or the music program, sometimes preferring to "church hop" between multiple parishes. As a result, the identity of a parish and the associated feeling of responsibility for financial support is weaker than it used to be.  

Architecture has significantly changed.

And not just stylistically. The modern era saw great improvements in the potential to build bigger, higher, and faster. Materials are quickly mass-produced. Craftsmanship is not what it used to be. Labor is expensive, and in some parts of the country today, hard to come by at all, regardless of quality. The decline in trades has seen, in large part, the disappearance of artisan trades such as hand-carving. The resurgence of stained glass has been a standout. Master stone masons and carpenters would often come from within the parishes they served, and seeing carved stone and wood was a common occurrence in all sorts of public buildings and even homes. These skill sets are rare today because the nature of construction has changed and much of the old knowledge lost. Where these trades can be found, they are often expensive and time-consuming. Many Cathedrals took decades to build. Most construction timelines account for a church to be completed, on average, in about a year or year and a half from groundbreaking. This pace rarely allows for the same attention in detail to be given as it once was, not only in homes but in other public and private buildings as well. 

St. Mary of the Angels, Chicago during construction in 1911 (left) and in the 1940s (right). Photos from  John Chuckman .

St. Mary of the Angels, Chicago during construction in 1911 (left) and in the 1940s (right). Photos from John Chuckman.

Other modern practical considerations have changed.

Building codes require larger corridors and doorways, elevators, and ramps for accessibility and egress. Extensive fire sprinkler systems are required in many new church buildings. The height of steeples is often restricted by local ordinances. Emphasis on clarity of speech in the spoken word has added acoustical requirements that pose challenges for designers and musicians. Many restrictions and requirements exist now that did not impede the growth of the magnificent structures from the last two centuries that stand as monuments to the Catholic faith in America. 

What does it take today?

There are quite a few articles that cite the resurgence of traditional architecture in recent years, such as Denis McNamara's A Decade of New Classicism: The Flowering of Traditional Church Architecture published in Sacred Architecture Journal, Michael DeSanctis's Upon This Foundation in America MagazineNew Traditional Churches in America Magazine and Michael Tamara's A New Direction in Church Design published in Crisis Magazine. The success of some of the examples discussed in these articles varies quite a bit. It seems that some of the primary questions underlie the degree to which each is successful: What is our modern Catholic identity? How do we afford to build churches that are beautiful and lasting? How do we adapt traditional design styles to new construction methods and building standards? To successfully build a traditional church today requires a tremendous effort and commitment to answering these questions well. There is certainly much standing in the way of such a task, ranging from theoretical to practical. Debates about liturgical practice continue as the Church strives to continue to implement the teachings of the Council. Negative sentiments about traditional liturgy, music, art, and architecture from older generations linger. Many church architects continue to push the boundaries of design with new materials and varied amounts of liturgical formation. Construction prices continue to climb.

To overcome these obstacles requires a great deal of patience and communication from those leading the building project. More than anything, building a traditional church today will require education and formation for all involved to move beyond under-informed, simplistic, and emotional preferences that often drive so many of our personal opinions on church architecture. A parish that is well-versed in the theology of a church building will understand the vital impact it will have on the liturgy, and as a result, on the Christian life. The absolute starting place for that process is understanding the nature of sacraments and sacraments as making visible the invisible. As such, a church building can make tangible and present the invisible realities that compose our faith. A parish that has been taught to understand and pray this way will enthusiastically contribute in every way to making a beautiful church a reality in spite of the obstacles. It is this type of integration of the priorities of worship and daily living that inspired our ancestors to line the cityscape horizons of America's great metropolises with the magnificent churches we revere. It is through the work of the New Evangelization that we can bring about an era of renewed worship and renewed dedication to allowing the beauty and richness of our faith to be seen and celebrated by all.