Church Buildings — Monuments with Mixed Messages
Feb 15, 2006

Church Buildings — Monuments with Mixed Messages

Online Edition:
February 2006
Vol. XI, No. 10

Church Buildings — Monuments with Mixed Messages

Design for Monastery Chapel, Clear Creek, Oklahoma, by Thomas Gordon Smith

by The Rev. John A. Valencheck

If you should happen to move to my town and needed to find a bank into which you could deposit your money, you might look into the one that is right down the street. Though it is a fine institution, it is not much of bank as far as bank buildings go.

In fact, banking appears to be a rather minor aspect of what you might do in the building. Entering in the main door, if you would turn left, you could make a deposit or withdraw some of your money, and if you turned to the right, you could purchase toilet paper, or aspirin, or any number of other products. This is because the bank is located within a drug store.

There was a time when walking into a bank was an impressive affair. The building, which contained the safe where your money was securely kept, often had grand pillars like a Greek or Roman temple, which defied anyone committing a sacrilege against the solemn proceedings taking place within its stately walls. The lobby often soared two or three stories and was graced with brass chandeliers and wood paneling. The counter ran across one wall like an altar rail, where somber employees handled your affairs with all the care of a sacred rite.

I will admit that I miss that. Though I am sure there is nothing less effective about depositing my meager paycheck at the drug store, it somehow seems that they take my money less seriously. It is like the pilot of the plane who wears a Bugs Bunny tie or the surgeon who wears a baseball cap for an appointment — they may be very professional people who will do a good job, but I get the idea that they are not taking things as seriously as I would like. That is how I feel about my money being deposited at the drug store.

What happened to our great monuments to currency? It is not, I think, that it just became too expensive to invest in such buildings. We still build certain buildings quite elegantly and on grand scales. So what happened?

If you enter an old part of town built any time before the last century, the grandest, most elegant building was the church. People sacrificed to create grand edifices, which proclaimed to all who saw them that this was what was important to them, they are here to stay, and they wanted you to know it.

In those days, libraries, courthouses, train stations, city halls, educational facilities; all monuments to public industry and self-reliance similarly awed and assured us by their grandness and works of art. Movie theaters were once palaces. Banks reassured us of their reliability by the importance of their architecture.

Today, our new “temples” are associated with the medical industry. In Cleveland, University Hospital and Cleveland Clinic seem to compete with each other like opposing religions to establish the greatest monuments to medical care possible. Beautiful structures are constantly popping up and gracing the skyline, each containing wonderful public spaces sporting fabulous and original works of art by leading artisans. Even corner drug stores are creating more interesting structures — all brick, with more than the usual number of architectural flourishes.

Church buildings banalized

Sadly there are not many people conveying such enthusiasm over modern church buildings. Though some spaces may be nice, practical, and comfortable, our contemporary church buildings are hardly monuments that say, “what happens here is the most important thing to this community”.

I have yet to come across more than a couple of churches built in the last four decades or so that I would recommend that anyone stop and see just for the sheer experience of being enraptured by how some community decided to express — through human creations of the beautiful — the glory, the wonder, and the sumptuousness of their faith.

In fact, many spaces often do not even work well for all that the Roman Rite demands. They are often not constructed for music, the art tends to be ordered out of catalogs, and if one were to rip the cross and the sign off of the building, it could be mistaken for any number of other types of public buildings. Enter through the front door and turn right, we will have Mass, turn left, and you could buy your toilet paper or aspirin.

Now, there are some understandable reasons for this. For example, we are a constantly shifting population. Schools and other demands are becoming a greater burden on parish financial resources. Also, we want our buildings finished yesterday; we are not interested in a project that may take two or three generations to complete. But these are obstacles that we must work hard to overcome to the best of our ability because there are important repercussions.

Silencing the artistic voice

To begin, there is a reason that there is not a great amount of religious art being produced today. The Church as a whole is failing in its role as patroness of the arts. He who pays the fiddler picks the tune, as it were. So since it is the medical industry that invests great sums of money to have works of art produced for their buildings, artists are not going to create a Madonna and Child or a Resurrection scene. In fact, works produced for medical buildings will probably be completely devoid of religious content in order not to offend anyone. So our artisans will be honing their skills on secular art. They need to feed themselves, after all. That they are not immersing themselves in the sacred and helping us to envision our faith in our cultural context is our own fault — and our generation will have to go without an artistic voice or expression as fertile and prolific as past generations or even as the secular world has.

Architecture too has consequences. A local college located in a downtown area attempted to make their buildings more person-friendly by creating a type of oasis surrounding their buildings. Once inside the building’s courtyard, one felt protected from the city. It sounded like an enticing idea, but it backfired.

No longer did people feel comfortable walking off of the street into the buildings. Attendance at public showings dropped dramatically. The reason was that although the buildings and the areas around them were greatly improved for those already within, from the street one sensed that these buildings were barricaded, unfriendly, and would prefer that you remained outside.

Unintended messages

Church architecture can express subtle, unintended messages that can work against us also. For example, the common complaint that Catholics do not sing: might part of the problem be our buildings?

Music apparently was at a low priority when many recent churches were designed. Amazingly, there is often no place for the musicians. The designated area for singers is a section of pews that does not allow them to be heard properly. Acoustics are so horrendous that only a complicated and expensive sound system can pump the right amount of sound into the various sections of the nave.

Some buildings are so dead, sound-wise, that one’s voice seems to fall out of one’s mouth directly onto the floor. People may not consciously think, “I don’t feel like singing in this space”, but the effect is nonetheless discouraging. This can have a domino effect: the fewer people who sing, the fewer people who want to sing. In encouraging people to “full, conscious, and active participation” in their parts of the Mass, are we setting up environments that make this more difficult?

Churches mirror the community

The powerful symbolic value that our buildings have is underappreciated. It is true that a church building is not “the Church”, but for good or bad, buildings can go a long way in shaping who we are. They become mirrors of the worshipping community. This is why there are always people who are angered to tears when their church buildings are disturbed. Great care must be taken when we make “adjustments” to these symbols.

A common occurrence after the Second Vatican Council was the rearrangement of existing church spaces. Sometimes this was done well, but too often it was not. How many times have you entered a church, and even before you have dipped your finger into the Holy Water font to make the sign of the Cross, you look in vain for the tabernacle — or think, “the altar should be over there!”

This confusion happens when the ground plan of the church works against the structure of the building. Some people may not be fully conscious of the architectural disorientation, but to others there is a persistent feeling that something is very wrong.

By and large, shopping malls, banks, theaters, restaurants, and the like do a much better job of making their buildings comfortable, beautiful, harmonious, ergo friendly spaces, because they know that if they do not, they lose customers. The stakes are far higher for us when building or renovating our churches — because the message our church building conveys is far more important. When we lose people, we do not lose mere customers, we can lose souls for eternity.

As the theater saying goes, good scenery cannot make a bad play better, but it can enhance a good play dramatically. Having the right church building will not save a parish in which liturgy is done poorly or in which Christ is not properly proclaimed, but it can greatly enhance an already well-established Catholic community, and inspire authenticity in worship.

Beauty inspires — Truth

The stakes are high. And it will require risk-taking on the part of communities; the risk of hiring artists, the risk of investing in worthy buildings, the risk of reevaluating existing space.

The One, the true, the good, and the beautiful come hand-in-hand and they leave hand-in-hand. We cannot afford not to take advantage of the power of beauty to move men’s hearts.

Father John Valencheck is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland serving at the Church of Saint Clare in Lyndhurst, Ohio.

Thomas Gordon Smith is professor of architecture at Notre Dame University. Descriptions and illustrations of his work:


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Father John A. Valencheck