Vol. XIX, No. 6
A Noble Radiance
Chapel of Our Lady of Ephesus, Kansas City
by Brian W. MacMichael
The devout usage of chapels occupies a venerable place in Christian practice. Whether in a university dormitory or amidst a sprawling Gothic chevet, favorite chapels inform the pious memories of many of the faithful. The notion of an intimately arranged chapel summons a certain fascination and esteem, conjuring idyllic thoughts of the zealous knight praying until dawn before battle, or of the instrument of conversion in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Romanticizations aside, chapels are generally regarded as peaceful havens of fervent prayer. At the same time, they can wonderfully illustrate that popular piety and private devotions are not antithetical to the Church’s liturgical life, as was long argued in certain circles. And they may also serve as exemplary models for larger churches.
“The House of Mary” in Kansas City
An example of such a chapel is the Chapel of Our Lady of Ephesus, established by Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City–Saint Joseph. Bishop Finn enlisted William Heyer, a classical architect based in Columbus, Ohio, to help create the chapel at the diocesan chancery in Kansas City, Missouri. Completed in 2011, it is not a private chapel for Bishop Finn’s personal use, but is built on a grander scale and intended for the curial staff of the diocese and for the broader benefit of the diocesan faithful.
The story behind this chapel is truly fascinating, and has its origins in Ephesus, Turkey. According to tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary last resided in Ephesus under the care of Saint John the Evangelist, until the time of her Assumption (or her “Dormition,” as the Eastern Churches refer to Mary’s falling asleep and subsequent bodily resurrection). Some 1,800 years later, Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey (+1915), a French noblewoman who joined the Daughters of Charity, was sent to nearby Smyrna (now Izmir) to work in a Turkish hospital. While there, she encouraged an expedition to find the ancient home at Ephesus, and with the assistance of a Vincentian priest, she eventually succeeded in identifying the “House of Mary.” After Sister Marie purchased the land with family money, the house became a shrine and popular destination for pilgrims.
One such pilgrim was Bishop Finn, who celebrated Mass at the shrine a few years ago. While visiting Ephesus, he met with the Archbishop of Izmir about the canonization cause of Sister Marie. Not long thereafter, because of limited resources and other challenges in Turkey, the archbishop asked whether Bishop Finn would be willing to adopt Sister Marie’s cause officially. This was approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in January 2011. Thus, in an interesting turn of events, the Diocese of Kansas City–Saint Joseph now oversees the cause for sainthood of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey. It was only natural, there- fore, that the new chancery chapel would be informed by this connection, and by Bishop Finn’s special devotion to Our Lady of Ephesus.
In 2010, the diocese had acquired the historic New York Life Building in downtown Kansas City. Constructed in the late 19th century and located just a couple of blocks from the cathedral, this brick and brownstone Neo-Renaissance building was the first “skyscraper” in Kansas City. A massive bronze eagle sculpture, original to the building, still stands guard over the main entrance and makes a most appropriate icon. The eagle, of course, is the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, the adopted son of the Blessed Mother. According to legend, Saint John built the home at Ephesus himself.
The chapel is found at the heart of the chancery on the ground floor, occupying the space of a former conference room. In another happy coincidence, the room had already been outfitted with classical elements — an ideal style with which to invoke the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. The pilasters and existing entablature were repainted and gilded during the restoration and conversion into a chapel.
New chandeliers and custom woodwork were ordered for the project, and niches were installed for statues of Saint Paul and Saint John. On an easel in the sanctuary below Saint Paul rests an oil painting of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey, depicted holding a miniature version of the home at Ephesus. The tabernacle was obtained from a diocesan parish, while a number of other items, including the high altar and pews, were acquired from recently closed churches in the Diocese of Cleveland.
Bishop Finn collaborated with Heyer’s firm in the design process from the beginning, and the result is some extraordinary symbolism.
The freestanding altar designed by Mr. Heyer’s office is a scale model of the house-church in Ephesus, complete with a blind arcade to represent the façade and doorway. A new terrazzo floor was arranged in a geometric pattern to recall the temple of Jerusalem, with a highly symbolic emblem of Our Lady of Ephesus placed in the center. Mr. Heyer provides the following account of how the emblem was devised:
The rose at the center is from the ionic column capitals on the (destroyed) temple of Artemis at Ephesus and an ancient Church symbol of Mary’s purity. The surrounding outer line is symbolic of tower embattlements as they would be seen from above — a direct reference to the headdress of Artemis of Ephesus and symbolic of Mary as ‘Tower’ of Ivory and ‘Tower’ of David. The lilies are Greek symbols of Artemis and ancient Church symbols of Mary’s purity. The alternating pomegranates are classical symbols of fertility and symbols of Mary’s singular fertility in delivering the God-Man, Jesus Christ, to humanity. The crescent moon is an ancient symbol of the goddess Artemis, but transferred to the Virgin Mary as she is the ‘reflection’ of her Son as the moon reflects the light of the sun. Thus the emblem is a representation of the Virgin Mary as would be understood in light of ancient symbols of the Church, and particularly those symbols significant to the ancient culture of Ephesus, Turkey.
Fittingly, the chapel was dedicated on August 15, 2011 — the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, it is still a work in progress: for instance, there are plans for a future reredos portraying Our Lady of Ephesus, which would take the place of the current Coronation of Mary scene above the altar.
Holy Mass is currently celebrated about once a week in the chapel, with seating for sixty. The Mass is celebrated in both the ordinary and extraordinary forms. A wooden altar rail is available for anyone who wishes to receive Holy Communion in that manner, and chant is the preferred style of sacred music. In fact, music at the dedication Mass was chanted completely a cappella.
Some Practical Considerations
The points concerning the presence of altar rails and the use of chant lead us to a couple of general observations about trends in Catholic ecclesiastical design.
Until quite recently, it was extremely rare — even mistakenly considered forbidden — to (re)install altar rails in a church, whether new or as part of a restoration. Although no official Church documents ever mandated the destruction of altar rails, the practice was rampant after the Second Vatican Council. This was in spite of the outcry of many of the ordinary faithful, whose pious sensibilities rebelled against the notion, but who had no real recourse presented to them.
In the United States, the norm of receiving Holy Communion while standing was often cited as proscribing altar rails (arguments in favor of their graceful demarcation of the sanctuary notwithstanding). The previous English trans-lation of the General Instruction of the Ro-man Missal §160, although not forbidding reception while kneeling, did discourage the practice: “Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.”
However, the current translation of this passage (revised with the new Roman Missal) simply states: “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling.” The communicant’s right to kneel (affirmed in the 2004 document Redemptionis Sacramentum) is reinforced, without qualification. Perhaps this subtle shift will contribute to a re-evaluation of the potential merits of the altar rail in future liturgical designs.
Another critical question in future church construction is the tasteful placement of musicians. This is all the more true for small chapels that experience frequent communal use, where it would be especially unseemly to cram a piano or other musical paraphernalia into the only open space available (i.e., the sanctuary). Time and again, the Church has upheld Gregorian chant and chant-like compositions as the musical style that most properly complements the liturgical action of the Roman Rite. In many ways, chant also most properly complements the Church’s sacred architecture. For the sake of both aesthetics and acoustics, when a place set aside for divine worship is limited in size, the accommodation of a small yet talented schola — comfortable with singing the Mass a cappella even from the pews — would seem an excellent option when feasible.
This example of the Chapel of Our Lady of Ephesus in Kansas City shows that it is possible to maintain a sense of intimacy without forsaking an appropriate degree of splendor. Moreover, we are reminded that the ability to engage in a sacramental encounter with Christ may actually be enhanced through the incorporation of personal devotions and spirituality — particularly within small chapels.
These and other general considerations surrounding sacred architecture are of increasing importance during this time of ongoing liturgical renewal after the Council. Indeed, with the heightened sense of reverence being cultivated by the new English translation of the Missale Romanum, there should be greater impetus to assess how every facet of divine worship could be rendered more transcendent. Sacrosanctum Concilium §34 instructed that the liturgical rites “should be distinguished by a noble simplicity” — a characterization that came to be applied to the sacred arts in addition to ritual activity. However, “simplicity” was overemphasized, while the original Latin phrase — ritus nobili simplicitate fulgeant — was overlooked. Fulgeant (from which we have the English “fulgent”) means “let them flash” or “lighten” rather than “distinguished,” and implies that our worship should shine or “flash with illuminating straightforwardness.”1
Sacred places intended for divine worship need not evoke the opulence of Cluny, but they also cannot embrace iconoclasm or disorder and still lay full claim to being a sacramentalization of art and architecture.
A noble radiance that fosters an encounter with Christ must permeate the domus Dei. Otherwise, monumental church- es that inspire the fascination of our culture yet lack evangelizing beauty may struggle to outshine even the most unassuming of chapels in what matters most. |
1 Christopher Carstens and Douglas Martis, Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Mass (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, Archdiocese of Chicago, 2011), 97.
Brian W. MacMichael graduated with a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of Notre Dame and serves as the Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend, Indiana. This article is adapted with permission from a longer version that appeared in Sacred Architecture, Vol. 23 (sacredarchitecture.org).