Architectural Signs of Hope

It’s a New Year, and we all want to begin with a sense of hope. Some are hopeful because of a new president; others are terrified. Such is the imperfect and ultimately unsatisfying nature of politics. Politics is far from unimportant, but to expect it to give us lasting satisfaction is like wanting your sand castle to last beyond the next tide. It won’t.

Are there signs of hope in something more lasting? I think so, and you could have found it last week on this page. No, not in something I wrote (get serious!), but in a link you may have missed.

If you’re like me (and God help you if you are) and don’t look at all the ads and links here at The Catholic Thing (and shame on you if you don’t), then you might not have noticed the item at the lower left entitled “Sacred Spaces,” where recently you would have found a link entitled “Before and After: 13 Beautiful Sanctuary Renovations Worth Celebrating.” If you click on “Sacred Spaces” now, it will take you to the archive. Or just click here.

If you didn’t look at these images before, please do yourself a favor and do so now. These church renovations show us signs of renewal and hope after decades spent under the oppression of Modernist architectural ideology – a tyrannical regime that, contrary to views that blame everything bad on the Second Vatican Council, goes back to the early 1950s.

In the intervening years, not only have many drab, bloodless churches been built; worse yet, hundreds of splendid older churches were denuded of their original beauty, destroyed in a modernist burst of iconoclasm that sought to turn every Catholic sanctuary into a copy of the white-washed, modernist, living-room, “church-lite” interiors exhibited in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1963), that Modernist blueprint for Catholic church deconstruction whose dictates and style recommendations, although never officially approved by the U.S. bishops, were enforced on every parish in the United States with Stalinist rigor.

What these church renovations show, however, is that we are finally benefitting from some serious pushback against the Modernist architectural tyranny of the last fifty years. Relish the improvements. Note the beauty. Get a clear idea of what can be done. Then when your pastor proposes renovating your church, let no one tell you that churches like these can’t be produced anymore. You will still find priests and “liturgical specialists” who insist on modernism. Defy them. Show them these pictures and say: “No money unless you build this.” We won’t get beautiful churches again until more Catholics demand them.

As you scan the pictures, note two categories of building. The first were likely very beautiful when they were built, but were ravaged by the iconoclasm of the 1960s and 1970s. Only now are they being restored to their former grandeur. A typical example is No. 4: Holy Name Church in Brooklyn, NY. A quick review of the “parish history” section of the parish website shows that the original interior was spectacular.

St. Mary’s: Fennimore, WI, renovated by Conrad Schmitt Studios
St. Mary’s: Fennimore, WI, renovated by Conrad Schmitt Studios

What transformed that beautiful church interior into the “before” image so desperately in need of updating? The parish website reports matter-of-factly “the church interior was updated and remodeled to allow for liturgical reforms proscribed [sic] by the Vatican II Council.” The spelling error is telling. This destruction was never “prescribed” (demanded) by the Council; it was, rather, “proscribed” (forbidden). And yet these changes were forced on unwilling congregations in the name of the Council anyway. Other churches that seem to fall into this same category – beauty restored – are: (#6) St. Mary’s in Fennimore, WI; (#7) St. Mary’s in Durand, IL; and (#10) St. Coleman in Washington, Ohio.

The other category of renovation was done on churches that were the horrible products of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I’ve often wondered whether such buildings were so drab and ugly that they are beyond fixing. The genius of certain architects has, happily, shown me wrong.

Look, for example, at my friend Duncan Stroik’s amazing renovation of the formerly drab, terrible St. Theresa’s in Sugarland, Texas. Then see what miracles were done with these other churches one might have thought could never have amounted to anything: (#2) St. Louis; (#3) St. Peter the Apostle; (#7) Holy Trinity; (#9) St. Bede; and (#13) the chapel of Monastery of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Prof. Stroik would be very unhappy with me, however, if I did not make another appeal. He sometimes complains that some people seem to think that beautiful churches can only come through renovation. But you can also build beautiful new churches. This is much easier than trying to renovate one of those ugly 1950s brick boxes. Why settle for ugly? There’s no need.

But you must find an architect with talent. Many parishes use architects who have built nothing but ugly churches, or architects who specialize in office buildings and shopping malls, which is why so many churches look like office buildings and shopping malls.

There are architects trained to build beautiful churches. The website at the link above mentions two of the best: the aforementioned Stroik and James McCrery. There are others, most of them trained at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. Find one. Demand better. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council will smile on you from heaven.

And when someone tells you, “But those churches are more expensive to build,” you tell them: (a) beauty is worth it; (b) God is worth it; and (c) we can either spend X amount of money to build something that will be ugly now and utterly dated in twenty years, or we can spend a bit more and have a beautiful building that will last, like the medieval churches in Europe have, for 500 years or more. Amortizing the mortgage out that far gives a much different picture.

Invest in things that will last, both physical and spiritual. Stop depressing people with Modernist ideology. Lift their spirits, instead, with beauty.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.