May 15, 2009

Rebuilding for the Twenty-First Century

Online Edition: May 2009

Vol. XV, No. 3

Rebuilding for the Twenty-First Century

After a devastating fire, a parish recovers continuity with its past, hope for future

by William Buckingham

On the evening of June 9, 2005, a seven-alarm fire swept through the Church of the Sacred Heart in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Sacred Heart Parish serves a neighborhood called “The Landing”, which straddles the line between Weymouth, a town of 54,000 people just south of Boston, and the neighboring town of Braintree.

The pastor, parochial vicar, and a number of parishioners who live nearby stood behind the fire lines, watching as the flames consumed their beloved church. By dawn, only the outer brick walls and the iron roof trusses were left standing. The only good news was that the firefighters had been able to keep the fire from spreading to the adjacent rectory and school.

In addition to reducing the interior of the church to rubble, the fire had destroyed a notable group of stained glass windows and the historic Jesse Woodberry & Co. tracker organ, built in 1889.

The parishioners of Sacred Heart, accustomed to worshipping in an ornate Victorian interior, found themselves gathering for Mass in a bare, windowless school auditorium. In a neighborhood center previously anchored by two church towers, only one tower remained.

Sacred Heart Church had stood on Washington Street, a major thoroughfare, since 1876. Built during the pastorate of Father Hugh P. Smyth, it was designed by Patrick C. Keely of Brooklyn, New York. During a career that extended from 1846 to his death in 1895, Keely designed several hundred Catholic churches, including more than twenty in eastern Massachusetts alone.

Decision to Rebuild

At the time of the fire, the Archdiocese of Boston, in which Weymouth falls, was in the midst of a painful parish reconfiguration process, which involved the closing of more than sixty churches. This retrenchment was driven by three forces: the movement of Catholics from cities to suburbs and exurbs, depopulating many urban and ethnic parishes; the retirement of many parish priests, leaving too few recently ordained clergy to fill all the vacancies; and the clergy sex-abuse scandal, causing many Catholics to curtail their financial support of the Church. Under these circumstances, the rebuilding of Sacred Heart Church, and indeed the continued existence of the parish, were by no means assured.

Within days of the fire, however, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, promised Father Daniel Riley, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, that the church would be rebuilt and that the cost of rebuilding would be borne by the archdiocese and its insurers. Once the decision to rebuild was made, the parish moved quickly to demolish the unstable masonry walls of the old church, clear the site, and interview architects to design a new church.

The parish’s building committee chose The S/L/A/M Collaborative as architects for the rebuilding based on our firm’s broad experience in traditional church architecture, including sympathetic restorations of two churches designed by Patrick Keely.

Although both are Gothic in style, the two restored churches are examples of the extremes in Keely’s oeuvre: the monumental stone Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston and the modest wood-frame St. Paul’s Church in Hingham, a coastal town just south of Weymouth.

In both cases, restoration entailed stripping away previous efforts at “modernization”, reinstating colorful painted decoration, and designing new liturgical furnishings in accord with the buildings’ original style. The designers’ first-hand knowledge of Keely’s work was certainly helpful as we faced a new challenge: to build a brand-new Victorian Gothic church from the ground up, subject to the all the constraints of present-day building codes, construction methods, and budgets.

The Gothic Revival Style

Like the decision to rebuild, the choice of an architectural style for the new church was not a foregone conclusion. The Gothic Revival in architecture was launched by writers and artists of an antiquarian bent in eighteenth-century England. Initially, the revived “Gothick” style was a light-hearted affair, appearing most often in interior decoration and garden pavilions. By the early nineteenth century, the Gothic mode, still rather thin and papery by later standards, had spread to houses, colleges, and churches.

In the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the Gothic Revival became more earnest and literal, a serious rival to the Classical style for civic and commercial buildings. The quintessentially Victorian version of the Gothic style, in which medieval motifs and details were freely adapted to suit nineteenth-century needs and machine-age technology, flourished from roughly 1850 to 1890. As the Victorian era drew to a close, a younger generation of architects and critics, seeking to capture the hand-crafted look and the time-worn feel of medieval buildings, embraced a new version of revived Gothic.

On their lips, “Victorian” became a byword for bad taste. The twentieth-century partisans of modernism in architecture were equally dismissive of Victorian architecture. In recent years, however, attitudes toward the Gothic Revival and Victorian architecture in general have mellowed considerably. Numerous public buildings and private houses surviving from that era have been conscientiously restored, and neo-Victorian structures now comprise part of the real estate developer’s stock in trade.

In this changed cultural climate, it was possible for the parish’s building committee and their architects to begin with the premise that the new church would be similar in style and character to the old. At the most basic level, this meant that the new Sacred Heart Church would “look like a church”. The same cannot be said of a good many churches built during the past half century.

In some cases, architects and their clients valued originality and self-expression more highly than beauty or Catholic tradition. They proceeded to design and build eccentric, eye-catching churches, whose unintended resemblance to tepees or turtles has given rise to some irreverent nicknames.

Another group of designers and patrons believed that the Church could communicate more effectively with a thoroughly secularized society by adopting secular architectural forms. They produced bland, self-effacing churches, which can be distinguished from schools or clubhouses only by the signs out front.

The pastor of Sacred Heart once served in a new church of this deliberately un-ecclesiastical sort, and his terse verdict was “wonderful people, not-so-wonderful church”. At Sacred Heart, Masses celebrated in the school auditorium made both priests and people aware that the ideal setting for Catholic worship involves a good deal more than adequate sightlines and tolerable acoustics. Members of the building committee, whose memories of the vanished Victorian church were still vivid, voiced their hopes that the new church would recapture some of its visual richness and devotional atmosphere.

Achieving Visual Richness

Beyond its explicitly ecclesiastical character, the exterior of the new Sacred Heart Church resembles its predecessor in more specific ways. The central feature of Patrick Keely’s design for the street façade of the old church was a square bell tower, topped by a simple pyramidal spire and flanked by two lower wings containing stairways. A similar tower with flanking wings characterizes the façade of the new church.

In the new version, boldly projecting buttresses carry the structural lines of the tower down to a broad terrace raised several feet above the sidewalk. This terrace, reached by a gentle ramp on one side and granite steps on the other, serves as a transitional space between the busy street outside and the sacred space within. Three doorways with pointed arches lead from the terrace into the narthex.

In the tympanum (the space between the horizontal lintel and the arch above) over the central door is a relief sculpture depicting Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque’s vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Garry Sharp’s sculpture is cast in reconstituted stone; the same material is used for window sills, copings, lintels, and other trim.

The predominant exterior material, however, is red brick, just as it was in the old church. The “waterstruck” bricks used at Sacred Heart were made in Vermont from local clay. Formed in old-fashioned wooden molds, these bricks have a rich texture and subtle color variations that modern extruded bricks cannot match. Following Keely’s usual practice, we chose a contrasting color for the brick arches: they are built of buff-colored bricks from North Carolina. Finally, the granite cornerstone from the old church is set into the brick retaining wall next to the sidewalk, establishing a more literal link with the past.

In plan, the old church was a descendant of the Roman basilicas: a long rectangle, divided by columns into a higher nave in the center with lower aisles to either side. Both nave and aisles were filled with benches in parallel rows, all focused on the altar, which stood in an apse (a semi-polygonal recess) at the eastern end. A balcony for the choir and organ extended along the opposite, western wall.

The plan of the new church, which was worked out in conjunction with Father Brian Mahoney, Co-Director of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship and Spiritual Life, maintains the basilica’s characteristic division into nave and side aisles, but the central nave is wider, and there is no fixed seating in the side aisles.

Moreover, the new nave is shorter (three bays instead of seven) and transepts, or wings, which are as wide and as high as the nave, extend to the north and south. The addition of transepts transforms the plan from a rectangle to a cross. The altar stands in the crossing, where the nave and transepts intersect. It shares an elevated platform (or bema) with the ambo (or pulpit) and the celebrant’s chair. It extends into the nave, or main body of the church.

The congregational seating, laid out in a fan shape, surrounds the altar area on three sides. This arrangement brings even the most distant of the 580 seats to within 75 feet of the altar. In the south transept, provision has been made for the choir, organ, piano, and other musical instruments. A small balcony, projecting from the east wall, accommodates the pipes of the hybrid (pipe and electronic) organ.

Thus the layout of the rebuilt church retains traditional elements such as the cruciform plan, nave arcades, and eastern apse; though the altar is on the projecting bema, rather than within the apse (or chancel) as in many historic churches. The bema, where the principal action of the liturgy takes place, is raised on several steps for a practical reason, to aid in making the words and actions of the liturgy audible and visible to the people in the pews, and for a symbolic reason, to define a special place for the priest and assisting ministers of the Mass. (The altar area can also be reached via a ramp, which is not visible in the photographs.)

A tall pointed arch separates the altar area from the apse, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The gilded bronze tabernacle, which was rescued from the ruins of the old church, has been restored and set into a new marble “sacrament house”. The altar and the sacrament house for the tabernacle were designed by the architects and fabricated in Italy from Calcatta and Breccia Pernice marbles. Although their overall design is new, the carved ornament is modeled on Patrick Keely’s designs for the altar and reredos in the previous church.

In accordance with the parish’s request, the baptismal font stands near the raised altar area, rather than near the west door. In contrast to the red and white marbles used for the altar and sacrament house, the baptismal font is made of green speckled granite. The chunky, geometric forms of the basin and pedestal were inspired by the font designs of William Butterfield, an English church architect and a pioneer of the Victorian Gothic style.

The upper basin is large enough to allow for the full immersion of infants. In order to accommodate the baptism of adults and to allow for a flowing stream of water, the architects have added a lower, mosaic-lined pool, fed from the upper basin by a lion’s-head spout.

We designed the organ balcony, narthex partition, and niches for statues of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart of Jesus to resemble miniature Gothic buildings, complete with columns, arches, gables, and finials.

In designing the pews and other oak furnishings, such as the ambo, chairs, credence, and music stand, the architects followed a variety of Victorian precedents. A Gothic-style crucifix is suspended from the chancel arch, and images of Saint Joseph and Saint Patrick, both wood carvings from the Tyrol, stand in niches at the west end of the side aisles.

The unusual Stations of the Cross consist of white bas-relief scenes mounted on panels of Travertino Noce marble. They came from another church designed by Patrick Keely, the recently closed St. Augustine’s in South Boston, Massachusetts, whose interior closely resembled that of the old Sacred Heart Church. The light fixtures, embellished with intricate Gothic tracery and heart-shaped red glass pendants, came from another church dedicated to the Sacred Heart, a French personal parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

New Structural Elements

The lath and plaster ceilings of the old Sacred Heart Church mimicked the shapes — but not the substance — of Gothic stone vaults; concealed iron trusses actually carried the rafters and roof boarding. Similar non-structural vaulting appears in the new church, where gypsum board conceals steel beams and braces.

The building committee chose hidden steelwork rather than “honest” exposed timber trusses for two reasons: the fictive vaults recall the Keely church, and they permit the entire load-bearing structure to be built of non-combustible materials. Considering the fate of the old church, who would choose otherwise?

The vault ribs, along with the columns, capitals, and arches of the nave arcade, are molded from fiber-reinforced gypsum. The decorative painting of walls and ceilings at Sacred Heart is, by Victorian standards, quite restrained. In the nave, the octagonal column shafts are painted to resemble the Travertino Noce marble that is found in the Stations of the Cross.

Throughout the nave, crossing, and transepts, a bold chevron pattern is stenciled on the vault ribs. This pattern was inspired by the work of Albertus Pictor (“Albert the Painter”) in the well-preserved medieval church at Kumla, in Sweden.

In the side aisles and the apse, the vaults, which are without ribs, are sprinkled with gold stars on a blue-green background. Only in the apse are the walls also decorated. A sequence of three different stenciled patterns is employed: an ashlar or “brick” pattern near the floor, an overall brocade pattern above, and an array of crosses and crowns near the ceiling.

The Glory of Stained Glass

The real glory of the new church, however, is the stained glass windows. None of them is new. In accordance with a far-sighted policy of the Archdiocese of Boston, the stained glass windows from closed churches are photographed in situ, carefully removed, and stored for re-use in new or renovated churches. Thanks to this program, Sacred Heart Parish was able to acquire windows of outstanding quality from five different churches.

Father Harry Kaufman, at that time a Parochial Vicar at Sacred Heart, headed the committee that chose the windows. Since the windows were selected during the earliest stage of design, it was possible to re-install them in locations corresponding to their original placement.

In the apse are two small but exquisite windows from St. Joseph’s, a Polish parish in Lowell, Massachusetts, which depict Our Lord’s Nativity and Crucifixion. In the north transept a group of four windows — three lancets below and a large rose window above — represents the Ascension of Our Lord; a corresponding group in the south transept represents the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. These colorful, dramatic windows came from St. Peter’s Church, also in Lowell, a Victorian Gothic edifice of cathedral scale that was designed by Patrick Keely.

In the side aisles and transepts a series of ten round-arched windows illustrate scenes from the life of Jesus. These windows, with their intricate leading and enameling, came from the clerestory of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

At the west end of the nave, high above the main doors, is a third rose window, depicting Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, surrounded by colorful flowers and singing angels. This window, also from Blessed Sacrament Church, is the work of Charles Connick, twentieth-century Boston’s most distinguished stained glass artist. Smaller windows from Sacred Heart Church in Lawrence and St. Peter’s Church in Gloucester can be found in the Eucharistic Chapel and the Reconciliation Chapel.

By incorporating these historic windows in the new Sacred Heart Church, the archdiocese has not only recompensed the parishioners for the stained glass that they lost in the fire, but it has also honored the intent of the original donors, who gave the windows to their parish churches in the hope that they would serve as aids to worship for generations to come.

Restoring Continuity with the Past

Above all else the rebuilding of Sacred Heart church has been an act of restoration and healing. The parishioners can worship once again in a setting that is both functional and uplifting, and a void in the physical and social fabric of the neighborhood has been filled.

As one of the architects for the rebuilt church, I am also bold enough to claim that the Victorian Gothic design of the new building has made good the parish’s and the community’s loss more effectively than any Modern or Colonial design could have done. Our effort to express the new church’s historic roots is materially aided by the cornerstone and the tabernacle, salvaged from the old Sacred Heart Church, and by the stained glass, the light fixtures, and the Stations of the Cross, salvaged from other buildings that have been lost to the Church.

These surviving fragments constitute a powerful link to those who worshipped in earlier decades and in various parishes in the archdiocese. They endow the new church with a palpable sense of the many sacred rites performed, prayers addressed, and joys and sorrows felt in their previous settings.

Healing of another sort came about through the unwavering support that the Archbishop of Boston and his Chancellor expressed for the pastor and people of the Parish of the Sacred Heart in the days and months following the fire. Their reassuring words and concrete actions helped to dispel some of the lingering suspicion and distrust that have divided the leaders of the archdiocese from many members of their flock.

Building — or rebuilding — a church is also an act of hope. This was certainly the case in Weymouth in the 1870s, when the first Sacred Heart church was built. In that era, Catholics were a minority in New England, struggling to gain an economic toehold and regarded by their Protestant neighbors with considerable suspicion and hostility.

In the opening years of the twenty-first century, Catholics are by far the largest religious group in New England, but as Western culture slips into its “Post-Christian” phase, Catholicism is again under siege — and along with it the very idea of revealed religion. Although Christians in a North American suburb do not face the overt persecution of a Roman emperor or a Sudanese warlord, they do face, as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have both stressed, the more insidious perils of materialism and secularism.

In such a challenging situation, the Church needs to marshal all her resources, including architecture and the other visual arts. Architecture can echo the divinely created order of the cosmos; art can bring to mind the events of salvation history, the lives of the saints, and the heavenly worship that parallels and completes our earthly liturgies.

In 1947, Sir Ninian Comper, who began his career as a Gothic Revivalist and ended it as a pioneer of liturgical renewal, published an influential essay entitled “Of the Atmosphere of a Church”. “The note of a church should be”, he wrote, “not that of novelty, but of eternity. Like the liturgy celebrated within, the measure of its greatness will be the measure in which it succeeds in eliminating time and producing the atmosphere of heavenly worship.”

To transform something so earthbound as a building into what the rite of dedication of a church calls the “Gate of Heaven” is a task that no architect, however sensitive or highly skilled, can accomplish unaided. Designing and building a church that goes beyond the merely functional or merely fashionable also requires a consistent outpouring of support, understanding, and prayer from the parish, the diocese, and the community.

In the course of rebuilding the Church of the Sacred Heart, we incurred too many such debts to be able to acknowledge them all here. I have already mentioned Cardinal O’Malley, Father Riley, and Father Kaufman. Thanks are also due many members of the archdiocesan and parish staffs; to the loyal parishioners who kept on coming to Mass in that gloomy auditorium, served on the Building Committee, and gave generously to pay for items that insurance did not cover; and to the members of the Archives Society, who shared their treasure trove of documents and photographs of the old church with the architects.

And who could forget the children from the parish school, who donned their yellow hard hats to participate in the groundbreaking and in the erection of the steeple?

Beyond the parish boundaries, thanks are due to the pastors of neighboring parishes, who made their churches available for weddings and funerals, and to the town officials who handled the issues of zoning and permits fairly and expeditiously.

It is always an honor to be involved in building or renovating a church, but my colleagues and I feel particularly blessed to have been called to serve a parish community that, after experiencing such a devastating loss, faced the future with exemplary faith, courage, and cheerfulness. May the rebuilt church serve them and their successors for generations to come!


William Buckingham grew up in Great Falls, Montana. After graduating from Harvard College in 1966 and the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1970, he has practiced architecture in Boston for over three decades. Although modernism held undisputed sway during his years of architectural training, much of his subsequent educational and ecclesiastical work has been traditional in style. He has designed ten new churches, two chapels, and several parish centers, has done restorations or renovations of eight older church buildings and an extensive range of liturgical furnishings. His long involvement with the design of churches and their furnishings has led him to take a keen interest in liturgy, music, and ceremonial. From 1993 to 2003, he worked with Dennis Keefe and his firm, Keefe Associates Inc. Since 2003, he has been affiliated with the S/L/A/M Collaborative, a multi-disciplinary firm with offices in Glastonbury, Connecticut and Atlanta, Georgia as well as in Boston.



William Buckingham