A Case for Diversity in the Design of Catholic Churches

Cover a case for diversity in the design of catholic churches 2010 symposium

A Case for Diversity in the Design of Catholic Churches

The Catholic Church possesses a rich tradition of artistic beauty. From east to west flow many artistic traditions, styles, and points of emphasis based on diverse cultural values, traditions and backgrounds within the global Catholic Church. But the goal of achieving Beauty, of radiating “the transcendent beauty of the Triune God”1, is a constant. From a Catholic perspective rooted in the aesthetic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, liturgical art and architecture for the Church should strive to reflect this Beauty, to manifest the magnificence and glory of God’s creation, and of God Himself, who is “the transcendent Artist,…Supersubstantial Beauty, beauty beyond beauty ”2. And according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sacred art achieves this Beauty “when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying…the transcendent mystery of God,” while drawing “man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God”3. From this standpoint, all architects, artists, and musicians serving the Church are called to manifest this transcendent Beauty in their creative work.

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II invites “all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty”4…”to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age”; to create “works of art to shed light upon (humanity’s) path and its destiny.”5 According to St. Thomas, Beauty requires ‘radiance’ (claritas), ‘harmony’ (consonantia or ‘due proportion’), and ‘wholeness’ (integritas), but the chief requirement is ‘radiance,’ and “the radiance of beauty is the splendor of form,”6 “when the essence of a thing shines clearly through its outward appearance”7. Since each Catholic church building is “a sign of the pilgrim Church on earth [reflecting] the Church dwelling in heaven,”8 suitable for “sacred celebrations, dignified, and evincing a noble beauty,… [and] a symbol of heavenly realities,”9 to achieve this Beauty, designs for Catholic churches “must manifest a sense of the Heavenly Banquet, for the Sacred Liturgy is a foretaste of the Heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the Heavenly Jerusalem,”10 a “window to eternity and a glimpse of what God calls us to be.”11 But just as the Beauty of God is inexhaustible, there is an “infinite Ocean of Beauty,”12 and each culture within the Church has found its own waters to explore within this Ocean, some more, some less. This cultural diversity is also found within the Catholic population in the United States, which is evident in the wide range of designs for Catholic churches in this country.

Our architecture firm specializes in exclusively serving churches, and our recent work is a reflection of this search for Beauty within the Catholic population, including a classical design of an oratory for an Opus Dei center in Darien, Illinois; a contemporary design for a chapel in a Catholic college preparatory school in Niles, Illinois; an eclectic design of a new cathedral for a new Syro Malabar Diocese based in Chicago; a Byzantine style church for an Eastern rite parish in Lincolnshire, Illinois; and a large scale contemporary design for what will be the world’s tallest Catholic shrine and pilgrimage site in Buffalo, New York. Each of these design strives to achieve transcendent Beauty, but with a form of such Beauty that is unique and appropriate to each of the communities being served, which radiates the essence of their specific Catholic identity through the outward appearance of its design. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God “wants the beauty and perfection of the Church to merge from the array of…the diversity of grace (that He) pours out on men.”13Based on these five projects, which are representative of the broad range of church designs in the United States, I propose that no single architectural style can be identified as the ‘ideal’; rather, that the beauty and perfection of the Church should merge from a diverse array of designs for Catholic churches.

Darien Center Oratory, Darien, Illinois, and the St. Josemaria Chapel, Niles, Illinois

The designs for the Darien Center Oratory and the St. Josemaria Chapel have much in common: both are in suburban Chicago and are operated by members of Opus Dei; both seat less than 100 people, serve (or will serve) as a place of prayer within a larger facility, and, most importantly, both answer the Church’s call to place a strong emphasis on the visibility, centrality and primacy of the Holy Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life.”14 But while the similarities are many, these chapels had different sight and budgetary constraints and were designed for different end users, so their designs naturally represent differing stylistic approaches to achieving Beauty.

The Darien Center is a new two-story residence for male members of the Opus Dei that will serve as a center of spiritual formation for both members and non-members. Reverence for the Holy Eucharistic is central to the identity of Opus Dei and was the guiding principle in the design of the oratory, an 800 s.f., 50-seat place of prayer within the residence, where Mass will be celebrated daily, Eucharistic Exposition will take place weekly, and evenings of reflection will occur monthly. After exploring multiple design options for the oratory, a traditional design with a vaulted ceiling oriented toward the Sanctuary was selected. With its two-story volume, the classical approach provided a rational means of creating a strong sense of formality, intimacy, human scale, and cohesive beauty in an otherwise awkwardly proportioned space.15 The Doric order was implemented because of its simple elegance and masculinity, which reflect the culture of the end users. The pilasters divide the Nave into four bays and support a continuous entablature that provides a spring line for the vaulted ceiling and a means of concealing mechanical diffusers and recessed cove lighting that will light the vaulted blue ceiling. The vault over the Nave terminates above the Sanctuary, where a central arch and vaulted apse, framed by pilasters paired with projecting Solomonic columns, accentuate the hierarchy of the Sanctuary and visually direct one’s eye toward the altar with its gold tabernacle, marble reredos and painted replica of Bartolome’ Esteban Murillo’s Holy Family. The design of the proposed tabernacle, by Granda Liturgical Arts, was inspired by Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome, and also features Solomonic columns supporting an ornamental dome, further unifying the design of the oratory. Engaged Solomonic columns support a triumphal arch over the altar and tabernacle, and arched niches located on each side of the altar provide a fitting location for sacred images. Additional niches are located within each bay of the Nave, containing additional sacred images and the Stations of the Cross, and along the back wall, framing interior stained glass windows.

Interior View of Chapel NaveThe St. Josemaria Chapel was commissioned for Northridge Preparatory School,16 a Catholic school for boys, grades 6 through 12, and was designed with a very limited construction budget within the space of two former 1000 s.f. classrooms with only 9’-6” of vertical clearance below the structure above. With the physical and budgetary limitations of the project, and with consideration of the younger culture of the primary users of this chapel, a simpler design aesthetic was appropriate for this chapel; however, the primary goal was the same, to create a beautiful chapel that emphasizes the Holy Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life.”17 This was achieved by designing horizontal ceiling planes with cove lights over the aisles and vaulted ceiling planes over the pews with a large central reveal which extends the full length of the Nave and opens into the Apse of the Sanctuary, where the Eucharist is reserved in the Tabernacle (the same Tempietto-inspired tabernacle that is proposed for the Darien oratory). Where Doric pilasters were used to create bays at the Darien Oratory, vertical reveals were used in this design to create a more subtle effect of ‘bays,’ which frame new stained glass windows on one side of the Nave and the Stations of the Cross on the other. Continuous horizontal reveals in the perimeter walls and doors of the chapel provide a simple means of embellishing the minimalist design while also directing the eye to the Eucharist in the Tabernacle. A suspended wood slat canopy provides visual cadence over the altar of sacrifice while also directing the eye toward the Tabernacle with its parallel wood members. The design of the altar again features Solomonic columns, but a contemporary derivation in this instance with the use of spiraling reveals in the wood columns. A decorative iron gate visually frames the Apse and provides required security for the Tabernacle, which is further accentuated by a painted replica of Rafael’s Sistine Madonna and Child, that, similar to the Murillo Holy Family, provides a devotional backdrop. An additional element of beauty in the Apse is a decorative wood corona which is suspended above the Tabernacle. Designed as two concentric circles joined together by cross-beams in the shape of a Greek cross, this detail is both rich in Christian symbolism and in continuity with the tradition of accenting the Blessed Sacrament with a canopy or baldachino. Its placement adds much to defining this space as sacred. The outside of the corona is decorated with the simple Latin phrase “Amo Te”, repeated three times, encouraging all who pray there to tell the Lord “I love you.” Both the Darien Center Oratory and the St. Josemaria Chapel strive to achieve transcendent Beauty by manifesting the centrality and sacredness of the Holy Eucharist, but each does so with a different aesthetic approach that reflects the culture of each of the communities being served.

Mar Thoma Shleeha Cathedral, Bellwood, Illinois

“The Syro-Malabar Church is an Apostolic Church which traces its origin to the Apostolate of St. Thomas, who, according to the tradition, landed at Cranganore in 52 AD and founded seven Christian communities (in India)…It is one of the 22 Oriental Churches in Catholic Communion with its own particular characteristics expressed in worship, spirituality, theology and disciplinary laws.”18 The community was originally known in India as the St. Thomas Christians, and their identity and liturgy evolved over the centuries, including a process of Latinization after the arrival of the Portuguese in India in the 16th Century, until the 19th Century when it was designated by the Roman Curia as the Syro-Malabar Church. In 2001, Pope John Paul II established the St. Thomas Syro Malabar Catholic Diocese in Chicago for the 100,000 members of this Catholic community living in North America, and the construction of the Mar Thoma Shleeha Cathedral in suburban Chicago was completed for the new diocese in 2008. The 43,000 s.f. building includes a 1200 seat church, daily chapel and Eucharistic chapel on the first floor, balcony seating and diocesan offices on the second floor, and a multi-purpose gathering space on the lower level. During the design phase, aside from incorporating traditional liturgical elements and arrangements that achieved their programmatic goals and reflected their particular liturgy, the building committee expressed a desire for the cathedral to have certain elements that represented their origins in India and their identity as Syro Malabar Catholics, but within a comprehensive design that also reflected the Western identity of the new diocese and their communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The resulting design is therefore a somewhat eclectic building, contemporary in some respects, traditional in others. It strives to capture the essence of this particular Syro Malabar church through its outward appearance, to achieve a beauty that is unique to this Catholic community.
Exterior Elevation

The exterior of the cathedral features a rusticated masonry base, which provides a sense of solidity and permanence, a red brick façade with tall arched windows and limestone surrounds, and a continuous brick cornice. The body of the church features a large octagonal pitched roof that culminates in a bell shaped dome centered over the Sanctuary, reminiscent of the church’s architecture in India. The dome is capped with a stylized cross that is symbolic of the Syro Malabar Church. Octagonal corner bays on the front façade express the presence of the daily chapel and Eucharistic chapel on the interior and are accentuated by pitched metal roofs and cupolas with small versions of the bell shaped dome. A large stairway leads to a baroque inspired main entrance portico which incorporates circular stone medallions with symbols of the Catholic faith and brick corner piers supporting a brick entablature and stone cornice. The second level of the portico integrates radial brick walls to direct one’s attention to the focal point under the central vaulted niche, a custom designed statue of “Jesus the Good Shepherd,” which provides a welcoming reminder of Jesus’ love for all people and of the local Bishop’s role as the ‘shepherd’ of this diocese. Paired stone columns support a triumphal arch which leads to three sets of ornamental wood doors that were hand carved in India with floral patterns representative of the Syro Malabar culture.

First and Second Floor PlanView of Nave and Sanctuary

The interior of the cathedral features a large Narthex leading to a column-free Nave in the church, designed in an octagonal arrangement around a multi-tiered octagonal Sanctuary platform. The lowest tier contains a central Bema where the Gospel is proclaimed, secondary lecterns, and the Baptismal font. The second tier includes the Cathedra, or Bishop’s chair, on one side and the altar servers’ and presider’s chair on the opposite side. The third tier features the large hand carved altar of sacrifice, and the fourth and final tier contains the tabernacle, which is enclosed by a wooden baldachino adorned with gold Corinthian corner columns supporting angels and a gold version of the same bell shaped dome, thus giving the Blessed Sacrament the highest honor called for in the Church’s regulations pertaining to the Holy Eucharist. This progression from the Nave to the tabernacle provides a heightened sense of the Sacred, which is even further enhanced by a Sanctuary curtain veil, suspended from the dome, which closes during the Offertory Rite when the presiding priest and altar servers prepare the altar and elements of bread and wine, and opens at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This Sanctuary veil, and its theatrical use during the sacred liturgy, is unique within the Catholic Church, but is a great example of how the Syro Malabar Church has extended and transformed the sanctuary veil of the Jewish tradition. Additional elements that were incorporated into the design include custom stained glass windows from India with images of Catholic saints associated with the Syro Malabar Church and a large dove in the central rose window representing the Holy Spirit, custom wood pews with hand carved end panels, granite flooring from India, dynamic color LED lighting (with rotating colors) which projects on the inside of the dome and in the tall recessed archways on each side of the rose window, and exterior color strip lighting that highlights the main exterior features of the Cathedral at night. While some of the elements and features of the cathedral may appear foreign to most of us, they are part of the Syro Malabar Church’s culture and represent their approach to achieving transcendent Beauty in the design of their cathedral.

Ascension of Our Lord Church, Lincolnshire, Illinois

The Ascension of Our Lord Church is representative of a Byzantine rite church. While this project is for a Greek Orthodox community, their liturgical and stylistic approaches to achieving beauty are very similar to those of a Byzantine Catholic community. “The Ascension of Our Lord Greek Orthodox Church was founded to create a Holy Sanctuary, a ‘Heaven on Earth’, for the faithful of the greater Lincolnshire area (suburban Chicago) and for all who are seeking answers, comfort and understanding in their life’s journey as Orthodox Christians. The goal of Ascension church, as in all Orthodox Churches, is to become an integral component to the lives of its parishioners to ensure that as one body we remain Christ centered.” 19While there are numerous examples of contemporary Byzantine churches which attempt to achieve similar goals in a non-traditional approach, the Ascension community was very clear at the beginning of the design process that they wanted a traditional Byzantine style church, and they provided numerous resources and photographs of churches in Greece and in the Unites States that they thought best captured the essence of the Byzantine architecture they were seeking. The proposed parish complex is 39,000 s.f., and includes a 9400 s.f., 450 seat church, administrative wing, multi-purpose gymnasium/Parish Life Center, and Greek school education wing. However, the design of the church itself was the starting point, beginning with the dome, the most important element in a Byzantine church, and geometric relationships from traditional Byzantine architecture were used in developing the design of the octagonal dome and its relationship to the rest of church building. Smaller versions of the dome were designed for the roof of the Baptistry and bell tower, which provide visual interest and balance on the front façade while conveying the significance of what takes place on the interior (especially the Baptistry). The exterior design provides a sense of permanence and durability with a brick façade and clay tile roofing and fea¬tures an inviting entrance portico with Byzantine style stone columns, arches and carved circular medallions. A variety of Byzantine style arched windows with circular glass rondels and stone surrounds provide the desired amount of natural light for the church and are accentuated by inset brick arches. The entire interior of the church will feature vaulted ceilings which will serve as a canvas for traditional Byzantine icons that will depict the vision of ‘Heaven on Earth’, where images of Christ, the angels and the saints will remind the community “…of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the liturgy.”20 Another distinguishing element in every Byzantine church is the Iconostasis, which separates the Nave from the Sanctuary, and symbolizes the “…veil in the Temple separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. The icons hanging on the icon screen, rather than blocking our view into heaven, have been described as windows into heaven.”21 Access into the Sanctuary is limited to ordained clergy and altar servers, and inside is the Altar Table, where the Tabernacle and Gospel Book are located, and where the Eucharistic Liturgy is celebrated. While traditional in form and appearance, the design for the church will employ conventional building systems, construction materials and methods (i.e. cavity wall construction), and additional elements such as rain water harvesting that will help the church be ‘good stewards’ of their resources and achieve Gold LEED Certification. Other non-traditional elements include the integration of the Baptistry with the structure of the church building, which will allow for overflow seating in the Baptistry during larger church liturgies. The community also wanted minimal obstructions of sight lines from the seating areas in the Nave, so all of the traditional interior columns were removed except for those necessary to structurally support the dome and to maintain the continuous barrel vaults that intersect at the dome. When constructed, the church will achieve Beauty as it strives to manifest ‘Heaven on Earth’ through its form, materials, proportions, and liturgical art.

The Arch of Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the International Shrine of the Holy Innocents, Buffalo, New York

The Arch of Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the International Shrine of the Holy Innocents represents an unprecedented attempt to achieve what Pope John Paul called a “new epiphany of beauty.”22 This project, “undertaken in a spirit of profound devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and with the deepest sorrow, and a fervent desire to make reparation, for the grave sin of worldwide abortion….[strives to]…advance the Culture of Life’s inevitable triumph over the false, materialistic philosophies of this age…By serving thus as a global signal call to conversion and repentance, the Arch of Triumph and the Holy Innocents Shrine will invaluably contribute to the “New Springtime” of the Church, ardently hailed by Pope John Paul II, while also marking and symbolizing the entry of the Church and the world into a new period of history.”23

“The monumental, triumphal arch is an ancient architectural device, frequently used in Roman times (e.g., the arches of Augustus, Titus, Septimius Severus, Constantine), and used by the French to commemorate Napoleon’s victories (L’Arc de Triomphe). The Gateway Arch, the national public monument in St. Louis, Missouri, is a triumphal arch, commemorating America’s fulfillment of its “manifest destiny” to expand westward to the Pacific. Thus an arch need not commemorate only military triumphs, although there was a military aspect to America’s westward expansion. Nor is a “military” aspect lacking in the Church’s passage from Church Militant in the present age, to Church Triumphant in the age to come…Indeed, there exists no other architectural construct besides the monumental arch, which is associated specifically with triumphal historic occurrences. It would therefore seem more than acceptable and appropriate, but even necessary and inevitable that the grandest triumphal arch ever constructed be built to commemorate the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is the glorious triumph also of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and of His Holy Cross.”24

“The architectural goal, if impossible to realize fully, is to create a truly fitting tribute to the Queen of Queens, commemorating the Triumph of Her Immaculate Heart predicted by Herself at Fatima in 1917, which is believed to be already in our midst by faith, and will be fully realized with the coming inception of the Reign of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and the Era of Peace Mary predicted also at Fatima…Measuring 700 feet to the top of the golden cross that will surmount it (seven being the mystical number of perfection), the Arch of Triumph will be truly a world-class shrine, attracting annually millions of both Christian pilgrims and ordinary tourists from around the world. It will replace the (630 foot tall) Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, as the world’s tallest monument.”25

The design for this project is in its infancy, and the challenges are obviously many, especially when there is no closer precedent than the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Arguably, the only wellspring of inspiration for such a unique design is a philosophy of beauty rooted in faith, the Church’s teachings and in the aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas. The current design strives to achieve beauty by embracing contemporary design and technology, giving them a sacred meaning, and marrying them with sacred form and imagery, similar to how the early Christian Church adopted and transformed the pagan basilicas of the Roman culture into the early Christian churches. Attempts to achieve St. Thomas’ ‘splendor of form’ include the use of the Golden Section to proportion the height and width of the arch; an arch form that is feminine in appearance while resembling, in an understated but recognizable way, the letter ‘M’; and a crown at the top of the arch that recalls the golden crown with the twelve stars of the Woman Clothed with the Sun from Revelations,26 and will contain an observation deck and the Chapel of Triumph under the dome. The exterior surfaces will be embellished with recognizable Catholic symbols, including the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the intersection of the cross within the arch, and traditional design elements will be incorporated such as the large semi-enclosed forecourt that recalls St. Peter’s Square, with its religious statues, stone balustrades, and Doric column groupings with entablatures featuring engraved titles of Mary. Traditional designs of the interiors for the Shrine and chapels, including large replicas of various traditional paintings (which will be visible on the exterior through the sloped glass roof of the shrine) will further reflect a respect for the artisitic heritage of the Church. The design continues to develop and evolve as it strives to convey the essence of this vision through the outward appearance of the architecture.

“The ambitions of this Project are surely great; but the utter worldliness and sordidness of modern public life demand great ambition, born of great inspiration, and fueled by that confidence and determination which prayerful contemplation of God’s works and of His Holy Word encourages, for their effective countering with weapons of the Spirit. For like all great Christian art and architecture throughout the world and in all times, the Arch of Mary’s glorious Triumph, and the Holy Innocents Shrine, are dedicated utterly to God as physical weapons in the spiritual battle for the souls of mankind.”27 As further inspiration for this project, and for the design of all Catholic churches, Mr. Behr states: “I’ve lately been thinking, how awesome the Arch will look against a starry night sky, its crystal cross shining atop gleaming, floodlit golden arcs like streams of grace & mercy pouring from the cross into the world’s darkness -a paean in architecture to Our Lady under her title, Star of the Sea. The Arch as a beacon of hope for a benighted world.”28


Depending on the cultural identity, site and budgetary constraints, and specific vision of each Catholic community seeking to build or renovate a Catholic church, the quest for achieving transcendent Beauty should be paramount and should reflect a “theological aesthetic” – a true understanding and respect for the Church’s teachings on Beauty and for the historic patrimony of its church architecture – while manifesting a sense of the ‘heavenly banquet’ and God’s ‘supersubstantial Beauty.’ But no architectural style has a monopoly on achieving such Beauty. As demonstrated, each Catholic community and each Catholic church project is unique. There are a variety of stylistic approaches used to create churches that are truly beautiful, and in some cases a contemporary design approach, rooted in a Catholic understanding of Beauty, is the most appropriate option. But these are issues which each community, and each church architect, needs to prayerfully discern so that the most appropriate approach is taken to achieve ‘radiance,’ ‘harmony,’ ‘wholeness,’ and, in the end, transcendent Beauty; for “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future… It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God, which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!’.”

David C. Kuhlman, AIA, Principal

1 The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, J. Saward, P. 22
2 Ibid. P.43
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2502
4 Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, No. 1
5 Ibid. No.14
6 The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, J. Saward, P. 43
7 Ibid. P.44
8 Rite of Dedication of a Church and Altar, 1.2
9 Ibid. 2.3
10 Sacrosanctum Concilium: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 8
11 Built of Living Stones, No. 15
12 Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, No. 27
13 The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, J. Saward, P. 61
14 Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1324
15 The shell of the oratory was designed by another architect as part of their design for the new building; thus, the size and internal volume for the oratory were predetermined
16 David Kuhlman designed this chapel as an architect with Nagle Hartray Architects, the Architect of Record for this project.
17 Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1324
18 Syro Malabar website
19 Owner Presentation at Parish ‘Town-Hall Meeting’, February 24, 2008.
20 Ecclesia, Greek Orhtodox Churches of the Chicago Metropolis, P. Fiorentinos, p. 27
21 Ibid. P. 24
22 Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, No. 1
23 Prospectus for the Arch of Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and International Shrine of the Holy Innocents (www.archoftriumph.org)
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Book of Revelations, 12:1
27 Prospectus for the Arch of Triumph
28 Email correspondence with Mr. Laurence D. Behr, Esq., Executive Director of the Association for the Arch of Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary & International Shrine of the Holy Innocents, who commissioned us to work with him on this project.
29 The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, J. Saward, P. 22
30 Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, No. 14