When it comes to the design and architecture of a sacred space for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy there should always be considerable amount of time, consideration and prayer that is incorporated into making the decision. Additionally, if the Church is being “retro” renovated, perhaps to provide for an oversight in the building process, or modernization of an antiquated structure, or for that matter, the redesign of an overly modern space into something more traditional priests and people need to pay particular attention and respect to the architectural details and the proper context in which the Church was originally designed.

It has recently been noted in the secular press, (The News Journal of Wilmington) that Saint Cornelius Church in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania is undergoing a “liturgical” makeover. What that means is that this church, designed and built in the early 1990’s, is receiving a transformation of sorts into a pre-Vatican II church.  This is a change from its intended modern industrial design that was conceived by the original architect and parishioners when the building was constructed. In its inception, Saint Cornelius Church in Chadds Ford was perhaps one of the finest examples of liturgical design that was heralded by the Second Vatican Council, and by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. The church reflected the needs of a living and growing parish community. There was a large baptismal font, a singular stone altar for the Eucharistic celebration, a chapel of the Blessed Sacrament completely apart from the active space of liturgical worship and a large area of plain white walls intended to focus the attention on the altar, around which the entire assembly was gathered. 

Recently in the past few years, the space proper to the celebration of the Eucharist has received a refit, complete with catalogue ordered statues of Mary and Joseph, a raised platform to elevate the sanctuary, a dislocated and reworked tabernacle, a series of wooden partitions behind the altar and faux marble painting throughout the structure. A faux Florentine style crucifix has replaced a very well-detailed representation of Christ on the Cross, and local Philadelphia and American Saints are portrayed each in their own panel as additional distractions in a rather busy and now cluttered sanctuary.

When the Church was designed by Philadelphia architect George Yu, the space was intentionally designed to avoid visual noise around the Eucharistic Altar of Sacrifice. It is a magnificent stone altar that sat prominently in the sanctuary and clearly was the focus of all sacred celebrations. The presidents’ chair was also placed on the same axis as the altar and the baptismal font and there was a clear indication that the Sacraments of Initiation placed at the entrance of the Church lead us to participation in the Eucharistic Celebration, with the Celebrant, the presiding minister directing the entire liturgy. The space was quiet, void of too much furniture or statues or images. The clear indication of the space reflected the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, two manners in which Christ Jesus reveals himself in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. One aspect of the Church that was unique was the lack of a physical tabernacle in the large body of the Church. The Blessed Sacrament was reserved in an atrium like area in a tabernacle that was starkly placed on a column. The area of reservation was accessible even if there was a Mass going on in the Church, people could spend meditative time with the Eucharistic Lord, without attending the celebration of the Eucharist. The space was clearly designed to accentuate the ancient tradition of the Church of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in an area for private prayer as well as a repository for the Eucharistic species, as well as Viaticum.

Today the Church has the tabernacle placed in the center of the sanctuary. The altar is surrounded with a raised floor, images of saints and statues have been introduced into the liturgical space and the entire Church has been redesigned to reflect a Catholic Church of long ago. Respect for the intrinsic design and function of the original structure has quite literally been lost…if not destroyed or to say the least vandalized by pastoral intentions to “warm” up the space.

The points that really need a consideration are these: Should a parish community be allowed to redesign or retro fit its liturgical space without the counsel and direction of qualified architects, designers and artists? Should sacred space be determined by at the discretion of the pastor? What objective norms are used to determine this renovation?Is there professional planning and design involved? What was or how was the space designed to function?
Of course, since 1991 this Church has seen quite a few changes to the liturgy. Even the American Conference of Bishops has expressed opposing points of view among themselves regarding the position and placement of the tabernacle in the Church.  Traditionalists (namely architectural) have opposed Modernists (sometimes reactionary) throughout the history of ecclesial design and implementation. However the real matter here is not one that concerns itself with traditional verses modernistic, but rather a question of artistic design and functional integrity for our most sacred of spaces, our Catholic Churches. My biggest concern is not simply that the liturgical space has been altered or amended. My greatest concern is by what objective and normative architectural, artistic and liturgical guidelines have these changes been made? What would stop a parish pastor from making more changes again in 15 years? Perhaps we could lower the ceilings and Astroturf the sanctuary in 2020 if the latest pastor really feels this necessary!

Catholic parishioners need to pay careful attention to the activities that are going on in their parishes. While the bishop is the chief liturgical agent in a diocese, with the local parish pastor as his representative, parishioners should not just blindly let liturgical renovations happen without serious discussion and debate about the intended results. What I precisely mean by this is that while the bishop and priests of the parish are the theological and liturgical end points that decide the project under our Code of Canon law, parishioners need to acquaint themselves with the nature and scope of the project.

Factors that additionally need to be considered include the choice of artisans and craftsmen that are engaged to complete this renovation. If there are local craftsmen and artisans that are able to provide the parish community with quality artistic presentations, they really should be considered.In our local area as well, there are numerous talented and trained artists and craftsmen that could provide idea-services to renovate a parish church. However I do believe that the integrity of a building’s design should be respected and preserved. For example, one would hope the columns of Bernini at Saint Peters in Rome, would not be replaced with arbitrary columns of concrete. It is the same way in a parish church, the design and architecture needs to work properly with the function of the celebration. If indeed there needs to be an inclusion of something missing (for example a centrally located tabernacle), that project should really be completed with the highest consideration and respect for the original design of the Church. Just plopping a tabernacle into the central praxis of the church is not the best esthetical practice. Nor would it help the situation to just randomly pick a tabernacle from stock, when a uniquely modern design was needed for the liturgical space. It would be akin to placing a Victorian sofa in a home surrounded with Chippendale chairs! The two just don’t work together.

Finally, as always, we need to utilize the best design and materials that a parish can afford when they renovate, redesign or replace a sacred space. After all, we are talking about our liturgical expressions of prayer and sacraments destined to glorify almighty God. Only after careful prayer, planning and exceptional implementation should we be satisfied with offering our highest praise to God in our just as exceptional sacred spaces. 

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that writes on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes daily at: http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com & http://catholicsacredarts.com & http://pewsitter.com He writes about Irish Catholic experiences  at http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com Nothing Left Unsaid!” is his daily column @ http://catholicnewsagency.com Comments are always welcome @ hugh.mcnichol@trinettc.com

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