Monday, September 26, 2005

Renovation Consternation

Our Catholic parish will be 125 years old next year, and our church building will be 100 years old not long after. This Romanesque House of God towers over a small Indiana farmland town of about 2000 mostly Protestant inhabitants. It is where several generations have gathered for Masses, weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

While the exterior of the church looks much the same as it did in 1910, the interior has been renovated 3 times. From a very plain original sanctuary to an exquisitely detailed style of the 1930's, to a simplified but still beautiful design in the 1950's, the church was unmistakably Catholic with its iconography and elegance.

After Vatican II, many churches underwent redesign to reflect liturgical changes enacted by the council. In our church, a new sanctuary was married to the old nave. It was hardly a match made in heaven. The old walls were demolished and replaced with a new arched sanctuary covered with small stones embedded in concrete, a short-lived but popular fad of the 1970's. The beautiful old tabernacle became a wooden breadbox, unadorned and humble. Statues remained, but were painted a sandstone color. Instead of resting on marble stands, they were now supported on homemade boxes covered in cheap paneling.

I don't remember any particular distaste for the new design in 1974. The Catholic Church was going through a drastic change at that time and the new sanctuary was just a small part of it. Most of us seemed to take it in stride although I'm sure many hated to the see the old furnishings go. I remember a very devout Lutheran relative coming to a family funeral not long after the renovation. She gasped when she saw what we had done. "YOU'VE RUINED YOUR CHURCH," she later told my mother. Many years later, I began to think she was right.

Although the new design served the new liturgy well, subtle changes began to occur within the parish community. The old-timers could not help but notice a diminished reverence for the Blessed Sacrament among parishioners. Quiet prayer was overshadowed by socializing in the pews. Even the Altar servers seldom genuflected in front of the tabernacle. While many reasons may have contributed to this shift, the subdued design of the sanctuary sent a message to everyone who entered the church. What we once thought worthy of the finest decor was now relegated to simplicity. The tabernacle no longer commanded attention.

The modern sanctuary in contrast to the Romanesque nave formed a line of demarcation. The old did not blend with the new. Those who had lived through both eras began to long for the beauty and reverence of the old architecture. Now in a new century, the time has come to renovate again, not to return to the Tridentine days, but rather to harmonize the new with old; to bring back the reverence while maintaining the current liturgical norms; to marry our history with our present.

Undertaking such a project is a monumental task. While renovations prior the one in 1974 involved mostly new paint and furnishings, the current problem involves mismatched architecture requiring demolition and major reconstruction. An architect proficient in maintaining sacred spaces would have to be hired. This project would be expensive and a challenge to complete.

Several complications exist now that did not exist in the 1970's. Parish Councils carry much more power than they did back then. In fact, many parishes did not have councils in those days. If the pastor wanted something done, he did it. Our parish now has a finance committee in addition to the council. They could also impact the project. The number of parishioners has decreased since the 70's placing the financial burden on fewer shoulders.

With the pending anniversaries approaching, our parish council formed a committee to study the renovation. Members of that committee toured several churches that had undergone similar renovations. Pictures were displayed in the church vestibule for viewing. Later, I was asked to attend a meeting by one of the committee members. Also in attendance were our pastor, three members of the committee, at least one of which sat on the council, and another guest parishioner who owned a lumber company.

The committee members expressed their current ideas on the renovation and asked for our input. I was encouraged by their direction. They wanted to return make our sanctuary architecturally compatible with the nave, something I strongly favor. They wanted to restore the beauty and reverence which we have lacked for several decades. While a few of their ideas alarmed me, such as adding ceiling fans and angling the front pews, my overall impression was favorable. It seemed as though everyone, including our pastor, was essentially on the same page. I wouldn't find out until later that we weren't all reading the same book.

I was invited to continue providing input for the project. Despite some uncertainty of my role in all of this, I was interested in the opportunity of gently steering the committee in what I considered to be the proper direction. Early on, most everyone agreed we needed an architect, and I was asked to explore some possibilities.

While searching for information on the internet, I came across an article published by Our Sunday Visitor which told how students from the School of Architecture at a well-known Catholic University occasionally design projects for parishes that cannot otherwise afford to hire an architect. The students work under the direction of a Professor who is famous for his interest in Sacred Architecture. He is a good Catholic, well-versed in post-conciliar Vatican documents. He has published many articles on preserving sacred architecture destroyed by the modernist influence of the 1970's. The article mentioned projects all over the United States in which he was involved.

This professor became a person of interest for several reasons, not the least of which was the possibility of getting professional assistance from his students for free! Secondly, he was located just a few miles away. Perhaps most interesting to me was his expression of dismay at the modernist influences of the 1970's which gave us designs such as the one we are wishing to restore.

With the committee's permission, I contacted him by email, and we later spoke by telephone. After explaining our situation and what we wanted to do, the professor indicated this would probably not be something his students would do. Their projects were more inclined to be new construction. He also told me our project, based on my description, could cost a half-million dollars or more. When I told him that our weekly collection averages about two thousand dollars, he said, "ouch." He said the architect's fee alone could cost fifty thousand. It was my turn to say "ouch."

Before ending our conversation, I asked if he ever did consulting work. Would he be willing to come out and look at our project, give us some advice, and answer our questions? He said replied in the affirmative for a fee of five hundred dollars, and I passed that message on to the committee.

A short time later, a meeting was scheduled with a representative of our Bishop, a diocesan priest who must approve any renovation done to the church. Father Marty began by commenting on a list of ideas proposed by our committee. He said the altar should be smaller, "not coffin shaped" was the way he put it, open on the bottom to resemble a table rather than an altar. He suggested removal of the stone facade presently around the Sanctuary to be replaced by an apse similar to the original, but with a wider opening. The shape should match the arch of the original ceiling and windows. Before doing so, however, both he and our pastor emphasized the importance of getting all parishioners on board, especially those who may have been involved in selecting or donating the stone walls in the 1970's. I said I did not know of anyone who liked the present facade, but Father said he did, naming one of our oldest parishioners.

Probably the most controversial change suggested would be to move the tabernacle to the side. Gasp. Moving the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament away from the focal point is one of the signs often associated with the liberal parish. Father Marty listed several reasons for doing this. First, it would allow the tabernacle to be brought forward for a more intimate place for adoration. Second, he said it would eliminate some of the confusion Catholics have by having the Real Presence in two places during the Mass. And third, the Bishop does not like saying Mass with his back to the tabernacle.

The more conservative Catholics are suspicious of anyone who tries to push Jesus out of the Sanctuary. Ironically, both priests worried about offending someone who may not want to replace the ugly stone walls, but showed little concern for those who think the Blessed Sacrament should be the central focus. While I personally believe the tabernacle should be centrally located, the discussion did give me new insight into the polarization which divides many Catholics today.

During my phone conversation with the professor, he asked me what diocese we were in. When I told him, he sighed and said, "You may run into conflicts." He was concerned about us having a modern bishop who does not hesitate to impose contemporary ideas on old Sacred Architecture. When we mentioned the professor's name to Father Marty, he also voiced apprehension saying this professor has his own "agenda". Those mutual expressions of reservation proved to be harbingers.

In the days that followed, one of the committee members told me Father was in favor of having the professor come here for a consultation. Not wishing to take it upon myself to initiate a visit that would cost the parish five hundred dollars, I asked Father directly whether this is what he wanted me to do. He replied that a five hundred dollar stipend is very reasonable for something like this and I should extend the invitation. So I did.

The professor agreed to visit on a Tuesday afternoon and the committee decided to meet the previous Tuesday evening to prepare our questions. In order that everyone involved would be familiar with this man's work, I printed copies of several published articles which he had written, and I distributed them at the meeting. That turned out to be a mistake.

The next day, a letter from our pastor was left in my mailbox by one of the committee members. Father had read the articles and took exception to some of the professor's comments. He accused the professor of holding a "hierarchical" view. By "hierarchical", I believe Father meant a view directed vertically (focused upon God) verses horizontally (focused upon the Church community).

I based that assumption on a statement Father made in a handout distributed in August of 2004 when parishioners were invited to view proposals for an access ramp. He said the following: "Evidently the many stairs that led up to the Church proper reflected the poor theological mindset of that day, that is, God is 'up there' in the Heavens or riding mysteriously on some cloud and everything and everyone else was below. Recall the picture that depicted the hierarchical arrangement of Heaven & Earth in the older Bibles? As people finally ascended the stairs and entered the Church building they were drawn to that concept with the adorned ceiling that displayed such artistry and celebrated the Tridentine style of worship as to where the focus was magically and mysteriously 'up there'. The Communion Rail and Choir Loft both served to enhance such a concept." (my emphasis added)

As I pointed out last August, there are at least 42 New Testament references to God being "up there" in the heavens. (See my blog entry of August 29, 2004, Bringing Up Father) Many of these references came from Jesus Himself. Was His "hierarchical" view reflecting a "poor theological mindset"? I don’t think so.

Father's letter also stated that publications in which the professor's articles appeared were not all reputable sources. Among those he mentioned were Inside the Vatican, Catholic Dossier, EWTN, and Adoremus Bulletin. According to Father these sources "defend a certain Tridentine kind of mentality rather than a Catholic or universal kind of spirituality on worship and theology", and criticized the professor for using the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Canon Law "like a Bible thumper would use the Bible trying to defend a position". He was exceptionally critical of the word "Traditional" as though it were interchangeable with "Tridentine". He said, as pastor, he would put a stop to any renovation attempt that went in this direction and also said he was reluctant to spend parish money on this architect.

I had to take exception to Father's assessment. All of the sources mentioned who published this professor are solid Catholic sources, especially where fidelity to Church teaching is concerned. He seemed to be confusing architecture with liturgy. Restoring Romanesque architecture does not mean returning to Tridentine liturgy. I wrote a three page reply to his letter in which I noted many of these facts. I sent a copy to Father and the other committee members. With only the Labor Day weekend separating my response from the professor's scheduled visit, I had no choice but to notify him that we would have to cancel.

Much to my surprise, Father and one of the committee members drove to the university the following week to interview the professor and suddenly, the visit was rescheduled. We met last week and had a wonderful experience. The professor loves the Church and sacred architecture. Does he have his own agenda? Certainly. He wants to create beautiful holy spaces to exalt the honor and glory of God. Will it happen in our parish? Stay tuned.