Vol. XVIII, No. 10
New Church Builds on Tradition, Signals Future
Saint John the Apostle Parish Blends Past with Prevent
Cruciform nave focuses on Sanctuary, altar, tabernacle ©Erik Bootsma 2013
by Erik Bootsma
Just beyond the quaint 19th-century houses and narrow streets in the historic center of Leesburg, Virginia, one can see a spire arise over the rooftops. Several blocks further on, across a broad park-like expanse of lawn, it becomes clear that this same spire tops a beautiful brick church perched on a little hillock, making a nearly picture-perfect scene.
This magnificent church, which just seems to fit this small colonial town, is not, as you might think, a century or more old; it’s brand new. The new church of St. John the Apostle Catholic parish in Leesburg is a triumph of beauty and tradition over the fads that have been sadly dominant over the past fifty years of church architecture.
When I hear that a new Catholic church is about to be built, my first reaction is often a feeling of pity for the poor people who are about to have an architectural disaster foisted upon them. Undoubtedly they have suffered for years in an aging church, which has been at various times leaky, creaky, cold in winter, and hot in summer, with barely enough room to seat their congregation.
They may have been worshiping in a “temporary” church, probably built as a gym or hall that may even function as a gym on the weekdays. Certainly we can all understand how happy someone would be to have bathrooms, a cry room, a place for coffee and donuts, and even a bit of room to breathe when coming to Mass.
Without fail, however, it seems new churches are liturgically, symbolically, and architecturally mediocre muddles of banal and uninspiring architecture all of which, according to their supposedly expert designers, is somehow required by the precepts of Vatican II, or the more broad “spirit of Vatican II.”
Sadly, most pastors and their building committees have been far too deferential to the opinions of architects who profess such expertise in Catholic architecture; or worse still, those who have never designed a church, let alone a Catholic one.
Thankfully, this is one problem that the new church of St. John the Apostle does not suffer from. Instead, the parish has built a beautiful, appropriate, and lasting testament of how to build a church fitting for the Catholic faith by knowing that tradition is critical to a successful and beautiful church, and choosing an architect who understood this well.
Unexpected growth led to new church plans
The town of Leesburg is not a place where one would expect to find such a magnificent traditional Catholic church. Named for ancestors of Robert E. Lee, this picturesque town, like much of Virginia, was Anglican to its core, and had very few Catholics until well into the end of the 19th century.
When a Catholic church was finally built in 1878, the structure was no more than a small chapel holding fifty or so souls. This little church served Catholics of this small town for almost a century, when in the 1980s, Leesburg began to experience rapid growth, driven by commuters from nearby Washington, DC. In this time, the expanding population as a whole combined with the influx of immigration from Catholic countries in Latin America to put a tremendous strain on the ability of the parish to hold enough Masses in its historic church.
So the parish began work on a master plan to expand the parish by building a new church along with a new parish center. This parish center, completed in 1992, was to serve as a temporary chapel while funds for a new permanent church were raised. Typical for churches designed in the “spirit of Vatican II,” the original design was a theater-type church in the round, with emphasis on community and placing people as close as possible to the “liturgical action.” Thankfully, the design remained only a plan, and for years the fundraising remained stagnant, as few parishioners were attracted to the design. This remained the case for more than a decade, until the appointment of Father John Mosimann as pastor at St. John.
Revival and renewal of beauty
During the first years of his tenure as pastor, Father Mosimann would often talk to parishioners about the design for the church, which hung in the hall of the parish center. While they expressed their desire for a new church, almost everyone wished that the design would be more traditional.
As Father Mosimann put it, “I was a physics major, so I like data and numbers, and when I put it to them, ‘Is this the church you want to build?,’ and in two years I had probably four say ‘this is it,’ but hundreds said they wanted something more traditional.”
So he put together a building committee and sought their advice, asking whether to keep the old design, or to reconsider everything and “build a beautiful church.” Overwhelmingly the committee opted for a new traditional and beautiful design, and began the process of selecting an architect.
During their architect search, Father Mosimann noted that most had church architecture as only a part of their practice, not a central focus, and “only a few really understood what sacred architecture was really about.” One firm, though, the Washington, DC, firm of Franck & Lohsen, who “really put their work in sacred architecture front and center,” became the building committee’s unanimous choice. Anyone who drives up the street to St. John’s today would be hard-pressed to say that they made the wrong choice.
The first task that the architects, Arthur Lohsen and Michael Franck, had was to decide the location of the church on the property. The parish owns not only the old church and the property with the current parish center, but also an impressive rectory on a large piece of land between the two. Though all three properties were adjacent to each other, most parishioners had no idea that the rectory and its land were part of the parish. While the 1980s design had faced toward a sea of parking spaces, the new architects placed the church facing toward the rectory grounds, where they cleared away a tall hedge and a tangle of power lines that separated the parcels, tying all three properties into an impressive parish campus for the first time.
Moreover, placing the church adjacent to the street running toward the center of town, together with the design of a large terrace and steps in front of the church, created a welcoming gesture toward the town, rather than turning its back on it. The terrace, together with a small fellowship hall that opens onto it, serves as an important place to gather after Mass. But more importantly, the terrace is also a formal setting for the significant outdoor liturgies of the year, such as the Corpus Christi procession and the Easter Vigil ceremony.
“We wanted to make it look like it had always been there”
The exterior design is rendered in brick, a synthesis of Romanesque forms and the local architecture of Virginia. As architect Art Lohsen said, “we wanted to make it look like it had always been there.” Because of the great care the architects took in being sensitive toward the local architecture and surroundings, the local historic review board voted unanimously in favor of the design when it was proposed.
The interior layout of the church is based on the traditional cruciform plan. This is ideal, as it emphasizes the most important thing that takes place in church, the Mass.
Father Mosimann asked parishioners what their biggest distractions were during Mass, and most responded that it was noisy children and people moving about. Even if a church in the round is intended to foster community, he commented, when people have full view of each other “you’ve now maximized distraction.” Therefore, to get people to focus on the Mass, there are few better ways than the traditional cruciform plan, where the people directly face the sanctuary, altar, and tabernacle.
The ambulatory that runs around the interior of the church, functioning as an aisle, is adorned with both a beautiful set of stations of the cross and a sequence of stained glass windows. The stations of the cross, recovered from a church in Philadelphia that had been closed, were restored and fitted into the perimeter of the ambulatory. The stained glass windows in the ambulatory are brand new, but done in a traditional style, featuring saints canonized by either Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Two shrines to Blessed Pope John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa anchor the narthex ends of the ambulatories, and around the perimeter of the nave, in a reference to ancient custom, gilded letters adorn the frieze, spelling out scriptures from St. John’s Gospel.
The placement of the baptismal font was a “no-brainer,” Father Mosimann said. In a parish where often baptisms are done five or six at a time, they needed space for families to sit during the baptism, and so a logical location was in a chapel at the end of the west transept (or “arm” of the cross- shaped interior) rather than in the narthex (entrance space), where there would be no seating.
The architectural setting for the high altar, the reredos, was something of a miracle that both the pastor and the architect called “a work of the Holy Spirit.” Though not even in the plans when construction began, a parishioner searching for liturgical furnishings found this magnificent structure in Newark, New Jersey; it fit just perfectly, and looks as if it were planned from the beginning. Along with the reredos, an altar of African onyx was acquired, and an exquisite ambo was made from the same materials to match.
Looking toward the future
Finally, as a testament to the unity of the arts in the Mass, wherein music is also critical, an ample choir loft was built above the narthex. This is among the best locations for a choir while lifting souls with the beauty of music during the Mass, there is no distraction from the liturgy itself, and no resemblance to a performance. Placing the choir high above the nave (main body of the church) is an acoustical advantage. Though the choir loft at the moment lacks an organ, like so many other carefully planned parts of the church, a space is reserved for it to be installed in the future.
Indeed much of the church remains incomplete, primarily to keep to the budget, but also with the understanding that over time art will fill the spaces reserved for the church’s embellishment. “It’s much more expensive to have everything done at the ribbon cutting, which is what most people expect today,” says Lohsen, “but the church is ‘the mother of the arts’ it takes time so that over a hundred or so years, the church becomes complete.” Already this is starting to happen, as a niche on the main façade reserved for the statue of St. John was filled within a few months after the dedication.
St. John’s is far from the first traditional church built recently in the United States, but it is one that gets the important things right. St. John the Apostle is an encouraging sign that the painfully learned lessons of the past half-century of sacred architecture are starting to be understood by the clergy and the Church as a whole. Laity and clergy alike have learned that sacrificing tradition for fads and the latest styles leads to irrelevance in the next generation, and that art and liturgy that is “up to date” is soon out of date. It is becoming a common understanding now that traditional architectural forms are valued for their usefulness liturgically and spiritually to foster deep connections to the roots of our faith.
It is an encouraging sign that parishes can build in a fully traditional style, and that it really can be done on a reasonable budget. While the $15 million that St. John the Apostle parish spent to construct their new church hardly seem small, a number of private homes in neighborhoods near the parish cost as much. (Father Mosimann pointed out that if every parishioner were to have contributed the amount they spend for internet costs for five years, it would equal the total cost of construction of the church.)
Probably the most remarkable thing about St. John the Apostle is how unremarkable this church would have been considered if it were built a century ago. Today, it is certainly out of the ordinary, and this is a very welcome sign that appreciation for art and beauty in Catholic worship is undergoing a phenomenal recovery.
This new church shows how a parish can build a beautiful and architecturally traditional church today and on a relatively low budget. That is what makes a place like St. John Apostle parish so remarkable. It should be encouraging to lovers of beautiful sacred architecture everywhere that the long-chanted mantra of “you can’t build it that way” just isn’t true anymore.
Erik Bootsma is an architect and planner who lives in lives in Arlington, Virginia. After completing his undergraduate studies at Thomas Aquinas College in California, he received his master’s degree in architecture from the University of Notre Dame. He is a board member of the National Civic Art Society and of the Mid-Atlantic/Washington Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Mr. Bootsma writes and lectures on ecclesiastical architecture and the philosophy of beauty; and on other architecture-related topics on his blog, The Radiance of Form (radianceofform.blogspot.com). He currently works as an independent architectural designer and contractor (website: bootsma-design.com). His article “History, Harmony, and Beauty Blend in Recovery of Sacred Heritage” appeared in AB September 2011.