Vol. XX, No. 4
Restoring Sacred Architecture to a Higher Plane
William Heyer works to draw faith communities heavenward
This interview was published in the National Catholic Register June 25, and appears in AB with permission. Illustrations from architect William Heyer. His website is accessible at heyerarchitect.com.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the gathered local community was often pointed to as the new focal point of worship, while Jesus Christ was literally set aside.
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer” (314). “Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the diocesan bishop: a) either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration; b) or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful’s private adoration and prayer and which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful.”
This has been interpreted in many forms, with the Blessed Sacrament frequently being placed in a side chapel or in a corner. Sacred architecture and art that emphasized the sublime mysteries of the faith were ignored, defaced or disposed of in an attempt to modernize and “humanize” the Church.
Yet this overemphasis on man actually led to a demeaning of his value and purpose, according to architect William Heyer.
The University of Notre Dame-educated father of six likes to remind people that Catholic architecture is supposed to point man heavenward. A church building, he says, should take the natural laws of architecture and complete or “supernaturalize” them, a reflection of how Jesus Christ in becoming one of us completes human nature and makes us fit for heaven.
Heyer, who has been part of the design and restoration of chapels and oratories for the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, recently spoke about the eternal significance of sacred architecture with National Catholic Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
Have you always been interested in architecture?
I was drawing houses and various architectural scenes from a very young age. I had an eye for art, but also a mind for math, an indispensable combination for an architect. My father noticed this, especially when I was in middle school, so he encouraged me to pursue architecture.
When did you get involved with sacred architecture?
I grew up in Allegany, New York, in a Catholic family. We attended St. Bonaventure, a lovely brick-and-stone Gothic church. Sadly, it was renovated — or “wreck-o-vated,” to borrow a popular term — while I was there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It was disturbing to see a beautiful and functional church taken apart inside, but I couldn’t explain in detail why. I just knew, without any training in sacred architecture — and even at a young age — that something was wrong.
I then attended Portsmouth Abbey School, a preparatory school in Rhode Island run by the Benedictines of the English Congregation. The campus and church, St. Gregory the Great, were designed by modernist architect Pietro Belluschi, but the monks had a beautiful liturgy, and, in shape, symbols, and natural materials, the church was still recognizable as being a place of Catholic worship.
After Portsmouth, I went to Pratt Institute, a college of architecture and art in New York City. I soon realized that the architecture world had a very different understanding of what church architecture should be, if they talked about church architecture at all. The language of modernism — a style of architecture I was new to, yet which was pervasive since the 1920s — was well-entrenched and insuperable at that point (the late 1980s). It rejected the architecture of history — period.
There was a growing conflict between what I believed and what I was being taught. The modernist architecture I was taught had rules and was striking enough, but it was unfulfilling and completely devoid of beauty; and, since I was also in the process of embracing my Catholic faith in a more complete way, the clash of values became a painful trial for me.
I was blessed at the time to be part of Saint Agnes Church in Manhattan, which was staffed by many holy priests. One of them in particular, Father George Rutler, gave me a firm foundation on which to build my vocation in life. His instructions helped me to accept the call of helping to bring back desperately-needed beauty to church architecture.
During my fourth year at Pratt, I was able to study in London. I went to Mass every Sunday at the London Oratory, also known as the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. There, I truly felt like I was taking part in a heavenly liturgy.
It was so easy to pray because the liturgy and the architecture were so completely fused, it seemed. It drew me into a world radiant with beauty, meaning, inspiration and hope.
I had been in beautiful churches before, but the London Oratory was especially moving for me. I think my patron, Saint Philip Neri, certainly had a hand in this. I would later reflect that the founder of the Oratorians had chosen to guide me in my life and career, rather than me choosing him.
How did you end up at Notre Dame, where you earned a master’s in architecture?
After I completed my undergraduate studies at Pratt, Father George Rutler advised me to contact Thomas Gordon Smith, the chair of the architecture school at the University of Notre Dame. I think Father Rutler must have said something to Professor Smith as well, because I received a postcard from Smith before I remember sending a letter.
Smith ended up hiring me to work in his office, and then, from 1999 to 2001, I studied for a master’s degree at the Notre Dame School of Architecture. I was inspired by Smith, who became a mentor for me in so many ways and is now one of my closest friends. I was also able to meet and be encouraged by other Catholic professors of sacred architecture like Duncan Stroik, David Mayernik, and Dino Marcantonio.
During my graduate studies, my wife and I took our first child on an extended pilgrimage to Rome. I was already fortunate to be in Notre Dame’s architecture program, but being in Rome was a blessing within a blessing. It was an extraordinary time for prayer, study, reflection, and wonderful discoveries in sacred architecture. I visited the 50 principal churches of Rome as a personal — and architectural — devotion during that Jubilee Year in 2000.
One of the many highlights was hearing Pope John Paul II address artists in St. Peter’s Basilica. His famous Letter to Artists was penned in 1999, but he spoke again to artists the following year as a personal gesture toward us. I remember my vocation as a sacred architect was even more firmly established at that time.
It became clear to me in Rome — with the inspiration of Saint Philip Neri and then John Paul II — that order and beauty, symbol and memory, were not things that could be simply added to life, but were truly essential aspects of life. The human heart is drawn to contemplation of God through the beauty and order of nature as an imitation of the Divine, and through the arts and architecture, these things can and should be revealed. This is a noble profession to dedicate one’s life to, and I’m very privileged and joyful to be able to take on my role for the Church through my practice and teaching.
You’ve been an adjunct professor of fine arts at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, since 2010. Do you find that your students are open to the importance of beauty?
The students are serious-minded men preparing for the priesthood, and they are enthusiastic to learn more about sacred architecture. It is one of the more popular electives in the College of Liberal Arts. We discuss the origins and growth of the language of Catholic architecture and the aesthetic and constructional issues of church- building today.
One of the basic questions I ask my students is if they think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They’ve usually heard the expression, so there’s often a tacit and tentative acceptance of it, but they soon discover that it’s not really true. Physical objects actually possess beauty, as spiritual objects do, but we don’t always recognize it sufficiently. Our occasional lack of perception, however, doesn’t take any of the beauty away from the object. It is still there. This is an essential but forgotten Catholic understanding of the world: that beauty is objective, and we can learn to see it.
I also like to challenge seminarians and priests on the understanding of beauty. Every Sunday, we get to hear sermons about truth and goodness, two obvious and essential perfections of God. But a third perfection of creatures that points to the infinite perfection of God, according to No. 41 of the Catechism — beauty — is often forgotten in this triad. Truth, goodness, and beauty reinforce each other and are inseparable, as God in the Holy Trinity is inseparable, so when beauty is missing, truth and goodness are incomplete.
Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about these things in The Spirit of the Liturgy (one of the books we use in class): “The Logos [Christ] Himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art — the beauty of the universe — have their origin.” If Jesus Himself is the great artist and the source of all art, we really need to step back and reconsider beauty in the hope of grafting it into our lives, just as we try to do with goodness and truth. Beauty can no longer be left to the side. The Church must again elevate her and honor her.
Does your own parish have a beautiful church?
Saint Catharine of Siena here in Columbus was built in 1962 and is an enduring sacred building in stone. Many people have said Saint Catharine’s looks modern, but the inspiring thing is that it was designed according to traditional norms of sacred architecture — even though most other church designs had embraced a functional, cold modernism by this point in the 20th century. It is cruciform in plan, has a wonderful canopy over the altar modeled on that of the basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls in Rome and is — as we classical architects say — organically developed from historical models. What stands out to the common visitor is that it seems a little simplified, and its ornament is not your typical Gothic or Romanesque in style, yet it is traditional, deeply symbolic and yes, beautiful.
I find Saint Catharine’s a wonderful place to pray. I can “read” the language of the architecture without effort and communicate with God peacefully amidst it. That’s the key question with any church: “Am I brought into the presence of God in such a way that I am inspired to converse with Him?” The triad of truth, goodness and beauty in the church building and liturgy should ultimately draw the faithful into more profound communion with the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What was it like to be chosen to oversee the renovation plans for the Chicago shrine of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest?
To be a part of the Shrine of Christ the King at the institute’s American headquarters in Chicago is humbling and filled with many blessings. I was involved in designing the institute’s St. Patrick Oratory in Kansas City [Missouri], and have been assisting with the designs for their St. Stanislaus Oratory in Milwaukee, but this project in Chicago is on a truly monumental scale. St. Gelasius, the former name of the church, had been the first National Shrine of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It fell into disuse and disrepair for a time, and then in 2003, Cardinal [Francis] George entrusted the institute with the great work of making St. Gelasius fit for Catholic worship again. The project is moving along, and we hope to have it completed in the coming years, with the assistance of generous donors.
Are the days of the ugly church over?
More and more Catholics are becoming aware of the modern conflicts in faith and architecture that I once struggled with, and now they want a serious and enduring sacred architecture that expresses truth, goodness and beauty for the life of the Church. So I’d say that the days of the ugly church are numbered — as long as we continue to want these things.
Historically, the life of a town used to be organized around the monastery, church, cathedral and so on, but now the church is often seen as one among many important types of buildings. Catholics need to understand and profess again that sacred architecture is not just a matter of utility or artistic preference, but of the revelation of our faith in built form, a symbol of Christ, His Church and our ultimate home in heaven.
Sacred architecture makes the living Church visible, which means making Christ’s presence visible — which means, also, that I have an awesome responsibility as an architect for the Church.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
Immaculate Conception Church, Kenton Ohio
Built in 1866, was rerenovated in 2013
Photos: William Heyer
Above: Sanctuary before renovation
Below: Renovation complete
Saint Colman of Cloyne Church
Washington Court House, Ohio
Built in 1885 with a new apse added in 1958, the church was in need of repair and the client wished to unify the 1885 and 1958 interior with a new gothic scheme.
Photos: William Heyer
Above: Before renovation
Below: Renovation completed
Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy