Put Them (Churches) Back the Way They Were

I am an adult convert to Catholicism, so I didn’t live through the iconoclastic destruction of beautiful churches that happened in the 1960s and 1970s. But the damage was obvious even to a secularist convert.  When I entered a Catholic church for the first time in the early 1980s after some friends invited me to go to Mass, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting – incense, I suppose, rows of priests in cassocks with funny hats, solemn gestures, statues of the saints, altars to Mary.  What I found was orange carpet in a building that looked like a tacky 1970s living room of the nouveau riche, except in place of a hot tub there was a baptismal font and instead of a centralized kitchen, there was something resembling an altar.  But the wooden beams were there and the peaked roof and the cushioned furniture.

And the music!  Dear Lord.  I had grown up as what we might call a “distant Methodist.”  Never comfortable in “church,” one of the things I disliked most was waiting for the congregation to get through all eight or ten verses of those long Methodist hymns.  It was absolutely excruciating to me as a child. But after my first visit to the local Catholic church, I turned to a friend and said, “Well, that was interesting.  But you guys need a decent Methodist hymnal.”  And this from a guy who had something like musical PTSD from my childhood experiences with the Methodist hymnal.  But there’s torment from boredom, and then there’s torture.

Be that as it may, as I was sitting in my lovely Dominican parish church the other day during Mass, thankful that it had escaped the relentless iconoclasm of the 1970s, I had this fantasy about an equal-and-opposite ecclesiastical “re-iconification” – a process of beautification by de-uglification.


I reflected on how many churches were denuded of their altars and altar rails and tabernacles and statuary – even the straight wooden pews were often thrown out in favor of church-in-the-round.  Beautiful churches were painted over with blank white-washed walls, carpeted, “modernized” with steel and glass, and plastered with those blocky figures on felt banners.  If the parish had money, some terrible piece of modernist art was jammed somewhere into the nave or hung up on a wall.  And then there was the empty space in the seating where the piano and the guitars and the microphones of the music ministry had to go while the perfectly good choir loft sat empty.

I thought about how all this iconoclasm had taken place in the space of just a few years.  Catholic congregations complained bitterly, begged, and pleaded, “Please don’t destroy my church,” but to no avail.  Everything had to go.  There was a book called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, and although it had never been approved by the bishops, it now seemed required that every Church in America look like the pictures in that book. In some cases, it wasn’t enough that an old stone altar was pulled out. Orders were given that the workers should literally smash it to pieces, lest the scorned and detested item ever return.  Congregations wept and pleaded, but they were told, “Things are different now.  You have to learn to embrace the new.” Church leaders brought in “experts” in “liturgical architecture” to explain why the look of the “old church” had to go, even though the Second Vatican Council had never said any such thing.

So, as my mind wandered, I wondered whether a group might get together and produce a new book titled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship II, with images from new churches designed by classical architects like Duncan Stroik, James McCrery, and others.  What if, then, there was a big movement to restore older churches to their original glory and re-make the 1970s churches?  The altars and altar rails would go back, the original paint would go over the whitewash, the modernist art would be thrown out, and all the hymnals would be changed overnight.  A new rule would dictate that no hymns or Mass parts would be used written between 1965 and 1985 – sorry, no exceptions – and chant would be proclaimed the standard.


Certain members of the congregation would cry, “We can’t have church without guitar music and ‘One Bread, One Body’.”  But they would be told, “You can’t keep holding on to the things of fifty or sixty years ago.  You have to learn to embrace the new.”  It would be hard on people, but “experts” would be hired at great expense to give lectures on why these changes were necessary.

Some bold, sensible bishop would then undo the ridiculous church-in-the round renovation of the Milwaukee Cathedral made by Rembert Weakland, the guy who paid nearly half-a-million dollars to buy off a homosexual partner.  Craftsmen would be hired to tear out that huge, metallic thorny crown, smash it to pieces, and then put the altar back up front where it belongs to set the whole church straight.  And then perhaps some other bold, sensible bishop would sell the ugly modernist monstrosity Roger Mahoney had built as a monument to his own ego in Los Angeles, give half the money to the poor, and with the rest, have a decent architect design a more modest cathedral of great beauty to grace the surroundings of one of the poorer neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

But now I was drifting off to La La Land, and I realized I needed to bring myself back to reality.  “Progressive” culture is a ratchet that moves in only one direction. Changes in one direction signal openness to change and newness – no matter how horrible or how long people have been doing the same old thing over and over again.  We’ve had “modernism” since 1920.  Renewal of the sort I’m talking about would be like – what?  Like opening up a window to let a fresh breeze blow in?  An aggiornamento for those stuck in the 1960s and 1970s.


*Images: These before-and-after photos are of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Peoria, IL, the result of a renovation undertaken by Murals by Jerico. It can be done!

You may also enjoy:

Shawn Tribe’s description of the St. Mark’s renovation in Liturgical Arts Journal

Brad Miner’s Iconoclasm and Unintended Consequences


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.