A New Direction in Church Design

One day fifteen years ago, I happened to be channel surfing past the Eternal Word Television Network when I was greeted by a momentary flash of heavenly beauty across the screen. Quickly flipping back, I realized that it was a Mass being celebrated in an unusually majestic church with an extensively gilded and marbled interior.

Having never seen this church before, I distinctly remember asking myself why today’s churches can’t still be built to glorify God the way this beautiful “old” work of art had been. Within minutes, however, I felt as though a joke too good to be true had been played on me—what I was witnessing was in fact the Mass of Consecration for this magnificent and brand new church.

That church is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, which was commissioned by Mother Angelica and is now a longstanding familiar sight to viewers of EWTN. That day back in 1999 marked a turning point in my understanding of the direction of Catholic sacred architecture in the post-conciliar period.

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Up to then, I had been conditioned to believe that such blatantly Catholic forms and furnishings were but a stale hangover from the Church’s distant “triumphalist” past, and that my attraction to them was some sort of perverse personal weakness that indicated an obstinate, unenlightened resistance to “the spirit” unleashed in the 1960s. Yet, as I slowly took in what was there before me on the television screen, at the threshold of the new millennium, I felt an unexpected sense of both joy and vindication. To my young mind at least, it was as though I was witnessing a visual clarion call challenging the prevailing mentality of modernism that had successfully held sway in the Church for some thirty years.

Now, let us fast forward to 2014. Relatively speaking, it is still somewhat of a rarity to see a new ecclesiastical project of such delicate care and quality. However, it is not nearly as rare as it was at the turn of the century, and considering various ongoing deterrents both within and outside of the Church, that alone is significant.

It is true that a certain indiscriminate preference for the contemporary remains firmly ensconced in the average American parish. Yet there has also quietly developed a parallel phenomenon: a deliberate and measured return to tradition, born of a deep desire to reestablish continuity and stability in Catholic life. Given the wide appeal it enjoys among younger priests and committed laity—the Church of tomorrow—I dare say it has gained a life of its own. A brief survey of just some of the many projects from the past several years serves to illustrate this point, and is a feast for the eyes and soul in the process.

Parish Life
In 2003, a small church in Houston, Texas was consecrated for the parish of Our Lady of Walsingham, designed by the very old and established firm of Cram & Ferguson Architects. This unique Marian title, based on the English apparition and pilgrimage site of the same name, is specifically evoked in the building’s neo-Gothic style, which draws heavily on the vernacular architecture found in the village of Walsingham, Norfolk, England. It therefore becomes a strong visual tie to its namesake.

St. Raymond of Peñafort Church, located in Springfield, Virginia, was consecrated in 2006. Designed by Bass Architects, Chartered as the first permanent home for a young parish founded in 1997, its fortress-like Romanesque stone façade and stout brick towers are prominently visible from the bustling Fairfax County Parkway, and therefore seen daily by thousands of passersby. It incorporates intricate stained glass and various antique furnishings.

5Another larger project by Cram & Ferguson is St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, Tennessee, consecrated in 2009. Romanesque through and through, its vaulted interior contains large, newly completed apse and dome murals in a naturalistic style. With the parish having outgrown its previous building after just a couple decades, the size and permanence of this new church guarantees that it will adequately serve and inspire for generations to come.

St. Benedict’s Chapel is located in Chesapeake, Virginia, and was consecrated in 2011. Designed by Franck & Lohsen Architects for a parish operated by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), it is possibly the first parish church in the United States built specifically for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or Traditional Latin Mass, since before Vatican II. The elegant yet humble design clearly presents itself as a Catholic church, while also incorporating elements of the architecture typical to the local region.

9Franck & Lohsen also designed the stately St. John the Apostle Church a few hours north in Leesburg, Virginia, which was consecrated in 2012. This old parish had long outgrown its small nineteenth-century wooden church, and needed one large enough to accommodate the continuing population boom in Loudoun County. The new design employs various traditional details, with material choices and other elements reflective of the historic town, as well as reminiscent of the old church. The liturgical and devotional furnishings were rescued from a closed church in New Jersey, at which Venerable Fulton Sheen was the homilist for its consecration in 1929.

One of the newest functioning parish churches in the United States is St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, designed by Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC, and consecrated in 2013. The heavy brick exterior, evoking the familiarity of earlier American immigrant churches, makes for a commanding and permanent presence from the outside. Inside, one is uplifted by a nobly simple, bright, and spacious classical serenity. The altar is given special prominence by its location under a colorful baldacchino, or altar canopy.

Also consecrated in 2013 is St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, designed by O’Brien & Keane Architecture. This large church is reminiscent of the Romanesque architecture found throughout Tuscany, which St. Catherine herself would certainly have known. A boldly contrasted triforium arcade below the clerestory provides an additional element to draw the eye’s focus to the altar and tabernacle. Numerous shrines with larger-than-life wooden polychrome statues, custom made in Italy, line the side aisles.

15Currently under construction is St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, South Carolina, designed by McCrery Architects. The design is predominantly influenced by Renaissance architecture, and consists of a church that sits back from the street, behind an entry courtyard incorporating formal gardens and flanked by twin ancillary buildings with colonnades. This establishes a peaceful transitional zone between the outside world and the Holy of holies, and gives one a sense of being drawn in toward the façade.

Our Lady of Grace Church in Maricopa, Arizona, designed by Liturgical Environs, PC, has begun construction as well. This Gothic style design, which incorporates shallow pointed arches and a hammer beam ceiling, is the focal point in the development of a large parish campus. The church is intentionally designed with future expansion in mind, which will seamlessly allow for it to triple in size as the parish grows.

Religious Life
Various religious orders are experiencing a rise in vocations and are quite young in their overall composition. As a result, the United States has seen several new monasteries planned, begun, or completed in recent years to accommodate the anticipated continued growth. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, who care for the aforementioned Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament on the grounds of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Alabama, are no exception.

16Another notable example is the Monastery at the New Mount Carmel, planned for the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming (producers of Mystic Monk Coffee) and designed by McCrery Architects. This sprawling Gothic Revival complex will include a chapel at its core, hermitages housing up to thirty monks, a refectory, guest and retreat quarters, and other spaces that will enable the monks to live faithfully according to their rule and flourish as a growing and thriving community for generations. The land is situated in a remote and peaceful mountain setting.

Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1999 and situated in the Ozarks of Oklahoma, is a similar scenario. Designed by Thomas Gordon Smith Architects, it blends Romanesque and Renaissance elements, and it continues to be built in phases. The overall program is constructed piece by piece according to the highest priority, and the monks have the happy problem of not being able to build fast enough to keep up with their community’s steady growth.

Campus Life
On college campuses, perhaps in the category of “not your average Newman chapel,” the story continues. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, designed by Duncan G. Stroik and consecrated in 2009, is the focal point of the quadrangle at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. The design is true to its locale in the mission lands of Southern California, but also clearly tied to a sacred tradition that goes even further back. The result is a stunning edifice that would hold its own alongside the finest European churches.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity InteriorAlso in the Golden State is Our Savior Church and USC Caruso Catholic Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects with Perkowitz + Ruth Architects, and liturgical furnishings by Liturgical Environs. Consecrated in 2012, the project consists of a church and adjacent student center in an Italianate Romanesque style. Some defining features are the rusticated travertine exterior, expansive stained glass windows, and open piazza tying the two buildings together.

The Diocesan See
We are even seeing signs that a rediscovery of tradition has begun to filter up to the highest levels. While new cathedral construction is not nearly as common as the other building types discussed, it is especially significant. As the mother church of the diocese, a cathedral is often seen as prototypical; an indication of the general philosophy a bishop would like to see adopted by the parishes under his auspices.

22The Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina has commissioned a new cathedral under the patronage of the Holy Name of Jesus, to replace the current cathedral, which has become inadequate to serve the rapidly growing Catholic population in the region. The design, currently in development by O’Brien & Keane, is of a style similar to that of the aforementioned St. Catherine of Siena in the same diocese, but on a larger and grander scale. Expected to take about two years to complete, renderings show that it will incorporate high vaulted ceilings, arcaded side aisles, and a substantial dome.

Across the globe, the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima in Karaganda, Kazakhstan has arisen from the ashes of the former Soviet Union. Consecrated in 2012, it stands as a brand new witness to the triumph of Christian hope and perseverance over communist oppression. By the use of Gothic Revival, an expression of an earlier style that originated out of a purely Christian religious and social setting—as opposed to something postmodern that would only serve to reinforce the instability and uncertainty introduced by the oppressors—order is restored from chaos, and hope to the future. It is no accident that, in a town that housed concentration camps for people of faith within recent memory, the cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, who implored all of her children to pray daily for the conversion of Russia.

Despite the diversity of hands involved in these works, they are all steeped in timeless Catholic tradition and unmistakably state-of-the-art buildings: a true illustration of a hermeneutic of continuity. And while the focus here has been only on new construction, the increasing prevalence of traditional renovations—or re-renovations, to be more precise—merits its own attention, and will be the subject of a forthcoming essay in Crisis.

Lest delusion set in, the ratio of new traditional churches to posh amphitheater spaces still being built is grossly disproportionate. Nevertheless, after the epic social and liturgical upheavals of the last century, it is a wonder that any sort of traditional resurgence is happening at all, and these projects seem to be only increasing in number and scale with each passing year. Just a decade ago, attempting to write this piece would have proven difficult; twenty years ago, impossible.

This should give cause for optimism to those faithful who yearn for the vitality that flows from firm Catholic identity and its enduring visible expression. After all, as the saying attributed to Chesterton puts it, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” Such wisdom is surely not lost on the many pastors, parishes, religious communities, architects and others helping to cultivate this budding sacred renaissance in the midst of a disintegrating culture that is too often hostile to faith.


  • Michael Tamara

    Michael Tamara is an architect who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He holds a BA in architectural studies and art history from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and an M. Arch I from Syracuse University. He studied in both Rome and Florence.

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