Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 7: October 1999
Ever Ancient – Ever New
New Missouri Church Builds on Tradition
Father Alex Anderson, the eager, articulate pastor of Most Sacred Heart parish in Eureka, Missouri, is behind schedule. The groundbreaking for the new church he’s building in Eureka (near Saint Louis) has been delayed because the building inspector has never heard of a sacrarium, the special drain for the water used to purify the sacred vessels used at Mass. Canon law requires that it lead directly into the earth. At the architect’s suggestion, the inspector calls back to his office for further consultation.
Such minor frustrations are a normal part of the building process. But Father Anderson is happy to talk about the new church.
The English Tudor Gothic cruciform church will feature a wealth of new art, much contributed by the talents of parishioners, and integrated with rescued furnishings and relics from Saint Louis’s past.
The parish of the Most Sacred Heart, founded in 1889, moved to its current location in 1948, when its present cement-block church was built. Since then, the suburb of Eureka has boomed in population and become the home of a major regional amusement park, Six Flags Saint Louis. When Father Anderson arrived in 1992, the need for a larger church was plain. The parish of 900 had outgrown the 300-seat building.
Although some wanted to start work on the new church right away, the need for an addition to the school was more pressing. The architect who worked on the school addition, Darren Stross of the Saint Charles, Missouri firm of LePique and Orne, also wound up completing the plans for the church. (Another architect consulted was not chosen because he insisted that "Vatican II" required a fan-shaped church, and refused to build to any other design.)
EACW? Not an issue
The deliberation process began when Father Anderson sent members of the construction committee a copy of the May/June 1997 Catholic Dossier, with an article by Helen Hull Hitchcock entitled "The New Barbarians: Cactus in the Chancel". The committee members were not influenced by Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, a 1978 statement of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy commonly used to govern decisions about church renovation or new construction. (A new statement on church architecture which will replace EACW is being drafted, and may be presented to the bishops for debate and vote as early as November.)
While the usual give-and-take adjustments had to be made over practical and aesthetic issues encountered along the way, the process was, according to Father Anderson, refreshingly free of the ideological conflict that has bedeviled so many church constructions and renovations in recent years. All voices in the parish process agreed that they wanted "a church that looked like a church", and Mr. Stross was presented with a clear consensus.
Tabernacle: "visible to all"
When he made the initial request for approval to the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, Father Anderson received a letter from the Archdiocesan Office of Worship, which said, in part, that
Archbishop Rigali has expressed a number of his own preferences, namely: the altar table should be rectangular in shape and placed in the center of the sanctuary area; the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament should be visible to all in the church; a shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary should have due prominence; and pews are preferred to chairs.
The emphasis on the visibility of the tabernacle fits in with Archbishop Rigali’s high-priority campaign to promote Eucharistic Adoration in St. Louis (see "St. Louis Archbishop Promotes Eucharistic Adoration", AB Vol. 3, No. 9; December 1997 / January 1998).
Although initial bids for the new church came in at a million dollars over estimates, the fund-raising campaign raised half a million dollars more than anticipated. The archdiocese chipped in with a quarter-million dollar grant, but apart from that, all of the $3.2 million budget was raised from the parish. Two-thirds of the parishioners contributed.
Still, the parish will carry a $1.7 million debt from the building project "which insures that I’ll be around for quite awhile," jokes Father Anderson.
Plan reflects Sacred Heart symbolism
The church will be built in a modified cruciform shape, and the altar will be located at the crossing of the transept, with pews down the aisle of the nave and in both transepts. According to Mr. Stross, half of the seating will be no further than nine rows from the altar.
The baptismal font will be in a niche at the back of the sanctuary, with the "Adoration chapel" (tabernacle niche) on the other side.
The architect said that Most Sacred Heart is "the first church in close to a decade" that his firm has helped design in which the baptismal font has been anywhere other than at the entrance. Father Anderson says that this placement fits into a coherent spatial symbolism consonant with the Preface of the Mass of the Sacred Heart.
A large new stained-glass window behind the altar one of eight new windows commissioned will be a bust portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, framed by a crown of thorns with a ribbon emblazoned with the words of the Preface, "From His wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the Church".
The baptismal font represents the water; the tabernacle represents the blood. (When the archbishop asked whether there was going to be a separate Adoration chapel, Father Anderson replied the whole church would be the Adoration Chapel.) The tabernacle will be a tower type, housed under a Byzantine-style bronze baldacchino.
Rescued pieces reflect Saint Louis history
The Church of the Most Sacred Heart will feature a creative blending of new art with rescued pieces from older churches. An 11-piece marble Crucifixion scene from Saint Liborius, a former 19th-century German church in north Saint Louis, will be mounted on a pylon behind the altar. Three bells rescued from Saint Agnes Church will be hung in the square tower.
In addition to the Crucifixion scene, there will be six statues of saints, including Saint Anthony and Saint Michael slaying the dragon.
Wood-carved bas-relief Stations of the Cross come from Saint Joseph’s Home for Boys, where Father Anderson served as chaplain. The open-beamed, tongue-and-groove ceiling, with wainscoting throughout, will be illuminated by fourteen restored brass chandeliers from Saint Liborius. One-foot-square black and white ceramic tiles will form a checkerboard pattern on the floor.
The church will feature a choir loft with space for an organ, although it will be a while before the parish can afford one. For now, removable pews have been installed in the loft, and the choir will be located in the right transept.
Parishioners contribute many talents
Father Anderson was also able to draw on the talents of many of his parishioners.
The tabernacle, the twelve carved wooden angels which will surround the altar, and the scrimshaw designs on their "ivory" shields representing the Twelve Apostles are all being made by parishioners. Terra-cotta panels with raised figures of the Four Evangelists, to be installed on the pulpit, are being fashioned by yet another parishioner.
Even the new stained glass windows are being created "in-house". Saint Louis is famous for the quantity and quality of the stained glass (called "art glass" locally) found in its churches and World’s Fair-era houses. Art Glass Unlimited, the family firm doing the windows for Most Sacred Heart’s new church, has operated in Saint Louis for almost a hundred years. The firm’s designer on the project is also a parishioner of Most Sacred Heart.
The stained glass windows will have eight scenes from the Life of Christ, and images of Saint Louis, Saint Francis, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, Mother Phillippine Duchesne, and Saint Liborius. "People couldn’t believe that you could even order this kind of [stained-glass] work today", says Father Anderson.
Parishioners of Most Sacred Heart await the dedication of their new church, scheduled to be completed within a year.
David Aaron Murray is Managing Editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and lives in St. Louis.
Copyright David Aaron Murray and Adoremus Bulletin, 1999-2006