Feb 15, 2011

Restoring Beauty to Our Churches

Online Edition:
February 2011, Vol. XVI, No. 10

Restoring Beauty to Our Churches: A Success Story
How Holy Ghost parish achieved a sacred space for worship

by Fr. Jay A. Finelli

It is easy for those of us who love the Sacred Liturgy to become bitter at the vandalism that was visited upon many churches after Vatican II in the name of liturgical renewal. In many places the pastors had the maintenance men take statues to the dump, altar rails and confessionals were ripped out and the beautiful high altars saw the sledge hammer.

In 2002 I was appointed to my first pastorate. The first time I entered the church, my heart dropped. I felt as if I were entering a modern Pentecostal church. Thank God my predecessor had already begun a transformation by removing the Blessed Sacrament from a cupboard hidden in the center of the sanctuary wall, and placed statues back into the sanctuary.

The main focus of the church was the choir, which was to the right of the sanctuary, but so close that it appeared the priest was part of the choir. The sanctuary was carpeted — and the faded carpet was stained and peppered with burn marks. The altar itself seemed lost in the sanctuary since the carpet was a close match in color. I waited a full two years (following conventional wisdom) before making any changes.

Music a priority

My first step began with the music. Although the music director was very talented and the choir highly successful, our music was not truly Catholic. Our church had a typical electronic keyboard set for piano. My goal was to move toward a more traditional, more sacred, more distinctively Catholic music program that included some Latin. (Any priest who wishes make changes to follow the Church’s desire for sacred music must expect strong resistance, if not outright hostility. Both followed! But with constancy and firm resolution, all will work out in time.)
At the same time, the choir was moved to its rightful place at the back of the church, and the “cry room” was moved to the front, so that our children could see the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Change — gradual but steady

Almost immediately, someone donated hardwood for the sanctuary floor. A small group of us laid the hardwood down on one Saturday. Shortly after, one happy parishioner donated a brand new Rogers organ.

Along the way, some small steps helped tremendously. There had been a pew and chairs placed along the back wall where people enter the church. It was a place of constant talking and distractions during Mass. When this seating was removed, another battle ensued. Shortly thereafter, someone donated a traditional-style confessional that replaced the pew perfectly.

My next step was to give the Blessed Sacrament a much more suitable place of repose. I designed a ciborium (or baldachin) over the tabernacle in the style of the one at St. John Lateran in Rome. We are blessed to have a professional woodworker in the parish. The new altar of repose became a true centerpiece of our church.

A short time after the new sanctuary floor was in place, we placed four short pieces of altar rail by the candle stands. This highlighted the sanctuary as the place of sacred action. A life-size crucifix was added behind the sanctuary, emphasizing the sacrificial aspect of the Mass.

The baptistry was resituated on the right of the sanctuary. When the choir was in front, the font had been placed against the wall to keep it out of the choir’s way during Mass, which meant that it had to be moved for baptisms. The area around the font was set off with parquet wood flooring and a small spotlight in the ceiling.

The sanctuary wall had been lined with oak slats running horizontally and shelf mounts in between the slats for placing of Christmas plants. One parishioner donated beautiful oak panels stained a dark walnut to match the altar of repose. The panels were bordered at the top with gilded quatrefoils. Later, I designed a matching pulpit, and smaller stands for the statues on the back wall.

Floors, walls…

When I arrived at the parish, the walls were covered with wallpaper that was dirty and peeling, which had to be removed. At first we painted the walls white; but this seemed cold and un-inspiring. So I did some research on faux painting. After some months of practice in the rectory basement, I decided to paint the inside of the church to resemble marble blocks. So I assembled a team for this job, which took about four months. When the faux stone walls were completed, we painted the ceiling a light sky blue.

A few months later a parishioner donated ceramic tile for the aisles of the church. In a little more than a month, about ten of us had ripped up the old carpets, stripped the floors and laid all the tile. Another parishioner donated a new altar rail, which took us about two months to gild.

Along with the aforementioned structural changes, new altar appointments — matching antependium, tabernacle veil and pulpit hangings — were added. The altar has the “Benedictine style” arrangement of a central crucifix flanked by six candles.

Sacred space for Catholic worship

People who have not seen the church in a few years are amazed at the beauty, and others who have never been to our church fall in love with its sacredness. Everything that was achieved in this church was done through generous gifts and the hard work of volunteers, including myself.

Our experience at Holy Ghost parish shows that any church building that lacks a central focus on sacredness can be improved — with a lot of prayer, a little imagination, and lot of hard work.


Father Finelli is pastor of Church of the Holy Ghost, Tiverton, Rhode Island. Parish web site: holyghostcc.org.

Photos of the Renovation can be found on the Parish website’s photo gallery

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Fr. Jay A. Finelli