December 2010 – January 2011
Vol. XVI, No. 9
New Romanesque Church Planned for Virginia Parish
New St. John’s in Leesburg, Virginia Respects Central Mystery of the Faith
Architectural drawings © Franck & Lohsen Architects, Washington, DC. Published with permission.
by James P. Lucier
On October 2, under a beautiful and providential sky, St. John the Apostle Parish in Leesburg, Virginia, broke ground on its new French Gothic-inspired church and fellowship hall complex. As the Most Reverend Paul S. Loverde, Bishop of Arlington in Northern Virginia, sprinkled the holy ground, St. John’s schola sang a Latin Te Deum marking the culmination of years of effort by the parishioners to build a church large enough and worthy enough in which to worship. The building will seat a congregation of 1,100, and cost an expected $13 million.
“You need to have a building to have a living presence in the world”, said the bishop in his homily. “Go forth from the Real Presence so that you can become that living presence.”
There was an extraordinary run-up to this event. Fundraising for the new buildings began in the fall of 2008, just as the nation began to slip into the worst economic downturn since the great depression. Even as the economy tanked, as millions nationwide were out of work and losing their homes, and as local area businesses ground to a halt, St. John’s parishioners pledged $7 million over eight months, so inspired were they by the vision of a mini-Chartres rising on a low hill on the edge of Leesburg’s historic district. No millionaires were available to underwrite the construction. The average pledge was nearly $9,000.
How did this happen? “God never compels our love”, the Reverend John P. Mosimann, St. John’s pastor, told the assembled crowd. “He never twists our arm. But He responds when our love is freely given.”
Sometimes fundraising efforts are divisive, but this one seemed to bring together the parish on a spiritual level. A campaign of prayer was considered more important than the campaign for funds. At every Mass the congregation recited a specially composed prayer humbly begging for the success of the effort. A systematic solicitation of participation by prayer groups, school children, and ordinary parishioners recorded 1.86 million Hail Marys recited. As a result, the town’s notorious, obstacle-strewn process of obtaining engineering, architectural and historic district approvals — even detailed reviews of the number of trees that would be planted — seemed to melt away under Our Lady’s prodding.
Another reason for the success was the vision articulated by the appointment of a new, dedicated — and young — pastor, Father Mosimann. In meetings with parish leaders, it was decided that the new church must respect the central mystery of the faith — the Eucharist — and show the unity of the Crucifix, altar and tabernacle as the elements representing this mystery. The exterior of the new building, therefore, is cruciform, with a 130-foot tower and steeple, three front portals, a rose window, and a shorter tower linking to a separate fellowship hall with the same French gothic elements. Inside, attention is focused forward to the altar, located under a rood beam that bears images of the crucified Christ, the Blessed Mother, and Saint John the Apostle, the parish patron.
After interviewing a number of architects, the parish found what it wanted in the Washington, DC firm of Franck & Lohsen. Although the firm never had a commission in the Arlington diocese before, it has a reputation for classical design and has been responsible for important projects around the country, such as the Franciscan Friary and chapel at Hanceville, Alabama, adjacent to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels. Michael Franck and Art Lohsen accepted the challenge of St. John’s.
The two architects explained their thinking: “So as to accommodate the large congregation, it was necessary to break up the massing of the building both in plan and elevation”, they said. “This was achieved by the use of transepts, shrines, and the baptistery that are expressed on the exterior; and the towers, spires and a fellowship hall building to help mitigate the scale of the new church with the much smaller houses across the street”.
Another element underpinning the parish enthusiasm for the building program is the fact that it “looks like a church”. In other words, it reaches back into the long artistic and ecclesiastic tradition of Catholic worship to support the needs of modern Christians. Indeed, an earlier program to build a church stalled out after raising $4 million — far short of the needed goal. The plan of that building was oval, with seating that sloped down into a pit where the altar was located. The fundraising narrative described it as a “worship space”.
Franck & Lohsen raised a rhetorical question to a reporter: “Why shouldn’t it look like a church? Should it look like a gambling casino? It’s important for people who are going to church to experience something that is very different than their other experiences during the day, to transcend the immediate and to enter something that reaches upward toward the heavens. Contrasts of light and darkness, of low and high spaces, a hierarchy of spaces all help make this new church something different and unique”.
And Leesburg is a different and unique town. Founded in 1758 and named after Richard Henry Lee of Stratford Hall by his two sons, it is the county seat of Loudoun County, and boasts a fairly intact collection of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. The town is 35 miles west of Washington, DC. Up until the 1960s the size of the county’s population was virtually unchanged from the first census in 1796. Thirty years ago, it was still a quiet agricultural center where the biggest businesses were the stockyard and the feed mill, and the genteel tone was set by a score of 19th-century plantation houses, some of which are now held in public trust.
Then Dulles International Airport was built over the plantation of one of the Lee sons, and high-tech industry moved in. AOL and MCI flourished long enough to build up a high concentration of highly educated information technology engineers and other technical specialists. The global root server of the World Wide Web was established at an undisclosed location in the county. Hundreds of military and intelligence contract startups bloomed after 2001, as well as huge-but-nameless government agencies. A new and larger branch of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum was built next to Dulles. A center for medical research arose on the fields of Janelia Farm. Tens of thousands of houses were built on the green pastures. Loudoun County became the fastest-growing county in the nation.
St. John’s original church was built on the edge of town in 1878, when the parish had 80 members. By the 1960s Catholics remained sparse in the county, and the parish still registered only 200 families. Now the number of families has passed 2,500 and is heading toward 3,000. A decade ago, the diocese bought Oakcrest Manor, a large estate across the street from the original church, and built a modest-size education building with a 500-seat hall, where five Masses on weekends and a Spanish Mass are still inadequate to prevent the need for people standing around the walls. The manor, parts of which are believed to date back to 1790, sits in its own landscaped parkland filled with century-old trees. The new church faces on the north side of the protected parkland, incorporating it as its “front lawn”.
The 1878 “Little Church” was a humble wooden building built by local carpenters in the days before electricity came to town. In 1936, it was completely transformed by a wealthy parishioner into a version of a medieval French country church, with windows purportedly brought from France, half-timbered porches, statues based on the elongated proportions seen in the portals of Chartres Cathedral, images of the crucifixion attached to the rood beam, wrought steel chandeliers in the shape of royal French crowns, and French folk-art motifs stenciled on the beams and pews. The Little Church is still used for two packed daily Masses, weddings, perpetual adoration every Thursday, and Latin Mass in the extraordinary form on the first and third Sundays of the month.
“The architectural style of the existing historical church”, say Franck & Lohsen, made it “appropriate to recognize that established tradition in the design of the new church”. Moreover, they added, “this timeless way of building helps to ensure that the new church will not look dated in a few years, and it is therefore both beautiful and sustainable”.
James P. Lucier is a journalist, editor and policy analyst who has been a member of St. John’s parish for 43 years. (A version of this account appeared on the New Liturgical Movement web site.)