To walk into a Catholic church is to step into a house of God — and this is true whether the building in question is a 250-year-old structure or one that was dedicated earlier this year. 

A Catholic church is the place where Catholics, who are called to be the “living stones” of the Church (see 1 Pt 2:4-5), encounter Christ, who is the “cornerstone” (Eph 2:20–22) of our faith, and the bricks and mortar of the church building serve to remind us of this. (Text continues below)

Which church do you like the best? Leave a comment below!
St. Pius the Tenth St. Mary's
St. Pius the 10th St. Mary's
Our Lady of Peace Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Peace Our Lady of Lourdes
Holy Spirit
Holy Spirit

Transcendent qualities 

Duncan Stroik, a professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and founder of the Institute of Sacred Architecture, told Our Sunday Visitor that a church building is “an opportunity to be a light, a beacon to the world” and also a home to all the faithful, which serves to educate them about their faith.  

“It should be a place that not only feels like home, but teaches them through the architecture,” said Stroik, who is also editor of the biannual journal Sacred Architecture. “Perhaps most importantly, there’s the ancient idea of the church as a house of God — that it should reflect God’s truth and God’s presence — and therefore that would imply that we would do something of the highest standards, the most beautiful, the finest, as we build something in his honor.” 

According to Stroik, two particular aspects must be stressed within a church to communicate that it is an earthly dwelling place of Christ’s presence. “There should be transcendence, and that means verticality,” he said. “It means that when you go into a church — but even from the exterior — that you have a sense that it’s something more than a tent or functional building, it’s more than an auditorium. It’s a place of worship, so it should raise our minds. 

“The other thing that we really have missed in the last 50 years, although we’re starting to see a return to it, is the sense that the church should also reflect pilgrimage. The architecture should express procession and journey — that our lives are a journey, the Church is on a journey, that we’re heading toward the promised land, toward heaven, and our architecture should express that. We haven’t arrived yet. We’re on our way.” 

Microcosm of heaven 

The Church has issued few rules regarding the aesthetics of a church, which allows the architect a certain amount of creative freedom within the liturgical framework, according to Stroik. 

“The Church has written about liturgy, and when it writes about the liturgy it will insert something about the altar or the bishop’s throne — it’s about the details. It will not give you a prescription or proscription about how to do architecture, and that’s fine, because along with Scripture and Church teaching, there’s tradition. And in architecture we have a great tradition we can learn from — 1,800 years of Catholic architecture,” Stroik told OSV. “There’s certainly not one way to do it. In the Catholic tradition, there’s a great variety, and that’s very nice, but it also means you have to learn a little bit about the tradition.”  

Denis McNamara, author of “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy” (Hillenbrand Books, $50), agreed. What Church documents, and the texts from the Second Vatican Council, in particular, have to say about architecture is “rather limited,” he told OSV. 

Those documents say that “a church should have a noble beauty, and that they should be composed of signs and symbols of heavenly reality, which is very traditional language saying that a church should be this kind of microcosm of heaven,” McNamara said. 

What does that look like? The church as an image of heaven on earth “has very practical applications,” said McNamara, who is also assistant director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. “If the altar is understood, not just as a dining room table of the earthly community but a sacramental image of the heavenly banqueting feast that’s awaiting us at the end of time in heaven, it’s going to be radiant and glorified and made of marble and have insets of mosaics and gold and so on. That notion that we should perceive the perfected heavenly reality of our future rather than merely remember the earthly reality that has passed is very much forgotten.  

“I would say that is the No. 1 consideration, that what we’re doing in building — the imagery, the altar, the music, the way people relate with each other — allows us to participate in our own glorious future and therefore make us more comfortable when we get there into this heavenly reality.” 

The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), says in regard to building churches: “Let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful” (No. 124). Catholics are called to participate fully in the Mass, and the architecture of a church can either assist or hinder in bringing about this kind of participation in worship. 

“Active participation doesn’t mean merely standing up, sitting down, kneeling, singing, speaking, although that’s part of it. It’s how can we participate now by way of a foretaste in our own heavenly future, so that we become heavenly,” said McNamara. 

“A runner who wants to become a great runner must run in order to become a runner. An earthly person who wants to become heavenly must do heav-enly things here, and architecture is part of that process.” 

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV assistant editor. Visit www.sacredarchitecture.org for more information.

New Catholic churches built despite economic recession

The past year has seen a nationwide financial crisis and multiple church closings, so why have some parishes decided to build? 

 As the number of Catholic churches in the United States dwindles because of consolidations and financial burdens, it might be surprising to know that the recession has not halted the construction of some new churches, and an even greater number of parishes are in the planning stages of drawing up blueprints.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because for some parishes the recession is the ideal time to break ground on construction. Prices are lower, and sometimes parishioners are simply more generous in contributing to a building campaign because they recognize the need for a new church and resolve to finance it regardless of the state of the economy.

For some, there’s also the notion that the economy is cyclical, and if a parish starts requesting proposals and making initial contact with architects and building contractors while the economy is struggling, they will be prepared to start building as soon as it picks up again.

Whatever the case may be, some new churches are cropping up to accommodate the influx of parishioners resulting from growing communities or merged parishes. Featured below are a handful of the new churches that have completed construction and dedicated their churches within the past year.

St. Pius the Tenth

Location: Greensboro, N.C. 

Seating capacity: 1,000-1,100 

Cost: $6.6 million

Features: Sicilian marble altar; large wooden crosses carved from oak trees cut down when land was cleared for the building; century-old stained-glass windows and antique marble fixtures purchased from other closed parishes.

Sunday Masses at St. Pius the Tenth in Greensboro, N.C., had been standing room only for a number of years when the parish finally decided it was time to start thinking of ways to raise the endowment to build a brand new church. The campaign pledge drive, called “Making a Place at the Table,” appealed to its parishioners who were dedicated to raising the necessary funds. In a parish of nearly 1,150 households, more than 800 pledges were made, and the default rate was less than 1 percent. 

“What we had was a lot of people coming together to do this in a medium-sized parish,” said Msgr. Anthony Marcaccio, the pastor at St. Pius the Tenth. “I credit the people’s commitment to the completion of this work that I really think the Lord began. We had a lot of prayer. We had kids who would give gifts from their confirmation money, and we had kids give pledges with money that they had received as gifts from their first Communion. We’ve had some great stories.” 

The parish was also able to maintain focused on its mission throughout the process of building. In 2009 it received an international Catholic stewardship award for its outreach efforts in serving over 80 ministries. 

“Our idea was to make a place at the table where all could be fed and loved, and to create not just more space but a place for the encounter with Christ,” said Msgr. Marcaccio. “I think there is something very special about the environment, but it really looks it’s best when it’s filled with people.”

Our Lady Queen of Peace 

Location: Grafton, Ohio 

Seating capacity: 420 with ability to eventually expand to 750 

Cost: $3.2 million

Features: New sandstone altar was cut from the local quarries; stained-glass windows from the former Assumption of Mary Church; a life-size crucifix that was carved by a parishioner in the late 1950s; high-pitched ceilings with wooden arches that contain the lights; prominent 65 foot tower which people pass through to enter the main assembly of the church. The baptismal font is located in this tower.

In the Diocese of Cleveland, where earlier this year plans were announced to close 29 parishes, a new church has opened in Grafton. Our Lady Queen of Peace was established in 2006 after the merging of two parishes — Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary. But shortly after being brought together, they discovered a need for more space to accommodate their 860 families. Construction began in April 2009, and this past spring they celebrated their first Mass in the new church.

Father John Seabold, pastor at Our Lady Queen of Peace described the church as a “blending of the old into the new.”

He said parishioners, even those who were not in favor of the initial plans, have grown to appreciate the new church, which incorporates characteristics from each of the former church buildings.

Because of financial cutbacks and the economy, some of the original plans had to be altered, but the design of the building is such that it will allow for the expansion of the sides of the church and the addition of pews as needed in the future.

St. Mary’s Church 

Location: Norton, Mass. 

Seating capacity: 560

Cost: $3.7 million

Features: In the interior there are open beams showing in the ceiling, giving the building a rustic appearance; the church is topped by a lantern that allows light to enter the center of the building from above; altar is made of Vermont granite.

St. Mary’s in Norton, Mass., broke ground on a new church in September 2008 after outgrowing its former home. “Our original church was no longer a building that could serve the needs of this community given its size,” said pastor Father Marc Tremblay. “It only could seat 200 persons and had no facilities.”

So, the parish began its capital campaign to raise funds, and this past April unveiled its new church in a dedication ceremony. Many of the elements used in the architectural design, such as the spire atop the building, were taken from closed Catholic churches. The idea was to incorporate some traditional pieces into the contemporary style of the church. “The previous church had a lovely stained-glass rose window of the Madonna and child, which was made a centerpiece of the new sanctuary and the image for the campaign,” said Father Tremblay. “This image was used to give the people a sense of continuity between the old and new churches.”

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish 

Location: Slidell, La. 

Seating capacity: 900 

Cost: $5 million

Features: Bell tower; pipe organ; Romanesque style with contemporary interior; some of the stained-glass windows reused from the old church.

It was crisis that led Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Slidell, La., to rebuild its church.

“In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina came roaring in and totally destroyed our campus,” said Frank Donaldson, a parishioner of 16 years at Our Lady of Lourdes. “The church roof imploded, and we were left with nothing but a school cafeteria, where we worshiped for the past five years.” Donaldson, who delivered the opening address at the dedication of the new church this past May, said that their pastor, Msgr. Frank Lipps and other parish leaders had been intent on “receiving as much input as possible” from parishioners about how to rebuild. Town hall meetings, surveys and input sessions were held with hundreds of parishioners offering their ideas.

More than 95 percent of the parish families participated in the campaign, and hundreds of people spread the word about the parish’s mission, making it a community effort. “Together we have built our place of worship for families of today and for many future generations,” said Donaldson in his dedication address. “Yes, it is good to finally be home.”

Holy Spirit Church 

Location: Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

Seating capacity: 1,000 

Cost: $14.6 million 

Features: Huge cruciform on top; stained-glass windows that are 23-feet high, 8-feet wide on each of the four ends of the building.

Why did Holy Spirit Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., decide to build a new church? They simply “needed more space,” according to pastor Father Jerry Deasy. Construction began in January 2008, and its dedication Mass was held in May of last year. Funds to build the church came from a general parishwide campaign and private donors. Many artifacts from the old church were used in the new building, especially in the church’s new day chapel. In the large interior gathering area stands a marble statue of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, a tribute to Holy Spirit’s mother church in the Diocese of Birmingham, John the Baptist in Tuscaloosa, whose parishioners pitched in to help build the new Holy Spirit Church.

Re-Engaging With Beauty and Tradition (sidebar)

In his book “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy” (Hillenbrand Books, $50), author Denis McNamara tackles some commonly asked questions about sacred architecture, including why the art seemed to suffer in the years after the Second Vatican Council. Here’s an excerpt: 

Question: Why did we build so many ugly churches after the Second Vatican Council? Why did we take out the marble high altars from older churches and paint over the murals? 

Answer: In the early and mid-20th century, the culture still had a great trust in modernity and its notions of progress. The Church, too, desired to prove that the Faith could find expression in our own day as it had in other times, and was particularly eager to be a leaven for the world after two world wars, the Holocaust, the Great Depression and the use of nuclear weapons. While the Church sought to be an antidote to the destruction of the early 20th century, many strains of the art world moved toward a nihilistic or mechanistic understanding of technology as the answer to modern problems. In the elite circles of architectural philosophy and practice, the machine and the factory (and their materials of glass, steel and concrete) became the model for new buildings. Though this mechanistic understanding of buildings was often foreign to sacramental theology, building a church that embraced the modern world was often seen as a good by individual pastors and bishops. Only later did people start to see that some of the principles of modernism needed to be rethought for ecclesiastical use. We are now living in that postmodern time when many churches are re-engaging with beauty and tradition once again. 

Interestingly, after the Second Vatican Council, a strain of theology emerged in the Church that redefined churches as “meeting houses” and found its inspiration in the so-called house churches of the time of the apostles. Although this sort of uncritical antiquarianism had been widely condemned by Church authorities over the centuries, including Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei [a 1947 encyclical on sacred liturgy] , many Catholic theologians nonetheless argued that a church building had no import other than as a place of comfortable hospitality, a “skin for liturgical action,” which “need not look like anything else past or present.” Though highly influential in the late 1970s through the 1990s (and even today in some circles), this is no longer the prevailing notion of church architecture. In the late 1960s and forward, then, many people who accepted this redefinition of the church as a meeting house for the community’s sacred meal then saw old altars, altarpieces, statues and murals as relics of the “old” way of understanding the Church. In order to best express the new notion of a church as meeting house, they removed and destroyed many precious artifacts. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Church has come to understand better the Second Vatican Council as a call for reform within a hermeneutic of continuity rather than rupture, and people are learning to see the value of many traditional forms in the Church once again. However, it should be noted that an uncritical look at the past should be discouraged. There were, in fact, many reforms that were needed before the council, and careful theological examination is required in “restoring” old forms in order to avoid simply repeating preconciliar excesses.

Sacred Time and Space (sidebar)

This past April, the Catholic University of America hosted its first symposium on sacred architecture in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame, sponsored by the Partnership for Catholic Sacred Architecture. Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, spoke to the attendees in a keynote address, saying: 

“The mystery which we gather to reflect upon today is at once timely and timeless. Timely, because as Aimé-Georges Martimort has noted, ‘In our day the faithful have greater difficulty in achieving prayerful recollection and a sense of God’s presence.’ At the roots of this difficulty is a crisis, a contemporary crisis that surrounds the sacred. 

“Our topic is also timeless, because God never ceases to call man to himself. … In the revelation of the divine economy of salvation, God never neglects time and space. As the eternal, invisible and infinite God, whose dwelling place is in heaven, reveals himself, he allows and encourages mortal, visible and finite human beings to call upon his name. As he makes known the hidden purpose of his will, he summons us to a sacred space in an acceptable time.”

Papal quote

“This is the deepest purpose of this sacred building’s existence: The church exists so that in it we may encounter Christ, Son of the living God. God has a face. God has a name. In Christ, God was made flesh and gave himself to us in the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist.”  — Pope Benedict XVI , in a June 2006 address to patrons gathered in Rome on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Vatican museums