The Resurrection of Sacred Architecture

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome is one of the oldest churches in the city and in the world. Originally constructed in 340 by Pope Julius I, it replaced an earlier house church that had been established on the site by Pope St. Callixtus I in 220. As one of the original twenty-five parish churches of Rome, it is possibly the place of the very first open celebration of Mass.

When walking through the nave of the current church, which was rebuilt on the foundations of the Julian church in 1140 by Pope Innocent II, the observant eye will notice an odd discrepancy between the sizes and styles of the columns lining the side aisles. This is because they predate the building by centuries, having been salvaged from the ruins of either the Baths of Caracalla—from whence also comes the church’s main portico—or the Temple of Isis on the adjacent Janiculum Hill, or both.

History is replete with such examples of “dead” buildings and their parts being sacrificed in order to reemerge in some form in a newly glorified body, so to speak. The logic is simple: why go far away for materials, and expend the time and labor needed to fashion them into a desired object, when ready-made versions of that object stand unused and within easy reach, otherwise left to deteriorate and fade into oblivion?

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This way of thinking largely tapered off with the dawn of industrialization, when thrift and practicality in construction became less and less of an issue due to easier and more economical ways of obtaining, transporting, and processing materials. As a result, in predominantly industrial and post-industrial cultures, we seldom see many new buildings made from the remnants of earlier buildings.

Still, this idea of reclamation and reuse of whole parts of buildings is one that’s very much at home within the Catholic tradition. And, given the current demographic challenges faced by the Church in many regions of the United States, might it be worth rekindling such creative thinking and problem solving in order to address twenty-first century needs?

A parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago has been doing just that since its founding eight years ago. St. Raphael the Archangel in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, was canonically established as a parish in 2007 to accommodate a growing population at the northernmost boundary of the archdiocese. Fr. John Jamnicky, the founding and current pastor, recalls that in those early days, the parish began its sacramental life by renting a farm and gathering in a barn for the celebration of Mass.

However, this was not just another barn. “We were trying to beautify it, even temporarily,” says Fr. Jamnicky, “so we chose furnishings from diocesan warehouses.” These diocesan warehouses are a treasure-trove of priceless works of art and craftsmanship, accumulated from over one hundred churches from within the archdiocese that closed about three decades ago due to changing demographics. The massive closures meant that many churches were either sold to Protestants or left deserted to fall into ruin.

st. raphael interior 2

On September 29, 2007, four weeks after the temporary barn-made-church was opened, it was visited and formally blessed by Francis Cardinal George, who, in the words of Fr. Jamnicky, was thoroughly “knocked off his feet,” and said it was the most beautiful temporary church he had seen. Jokingly, the cardinal then said, “I should give you St. John of God Church!” Father’s response was, simply, “Your Eminence, we’ll have to get back to you on that.” St. John of God, a once-magnificent Polish church built in 1918 on the south side of Chicago, had been closed and standing empty and neglected for nearly a quarter century.

Despite Cardinal George’s humor, little did he know that Fr. Jamnicky and the man to whom he refers as his “Michelangelo”—parish business manager, construction manager, and close friend and advisor Dr. Richard Gambla—had already been talking about mining the archdiocese’s rich architectural reserves on a grander scale. In the year-and-a-half that followed, a survey of parishioners was conducted, and not surprisingly, it found that the vast majority wanted a “church that looks like a church.”

The topic of using St. John of God Church was then broached with Cardinal George as a serious proposal. The original idea was to disassemble the entire building and reconstruct it at a new location. However, it was found to be such a structural disaster upon further inspection, that the idea of reusing the whole thing was shelved. Instead, it was decided that only the prime salvageable elements would be used: the façade, twin bell towers, doors, hardware and four rotundas. Around the same time, the parish was made aware of the availability of a second vacant church in Chicago, St. Peter Canisius, whose interior furnishings were in very good condition.

The result was the incorporation of the essence of two “dead” but still beloved inner-city churches into a brand new building forty miles away in Old Mill Creek, guided by the careful hand of architect Simon Batistich. Behind the reconstructed and steel-reinforced St. John of God façade sits a brand new state-of-the-art traditional church shell, filled with the interior—altars, statues, windows, stations of the cross, and even pews—of St. Peter Canisius.

And, an ongoing series of happy coincidences—or, more accurately according to Fr. Jamnicky and Dr. Gambla, divine providence—have only served to reassure the parish that this was the right thing to do. The first and most important of these coincidences is that St. John of God and St. Peter Canisius had very similar interiors, right down to the architectural style and layout, making for the blending of the two to appear as though it was always meant to be. Ironically, the marble statues and altars were carved in Italy by the Daprato Rigali Studios back in the 1930s, the very same company tasked with their restoration and refurbishing in their new home.

Then there is the almost comical story of the bells. St. John of God had a set of bells in one tower only, but for whatever reason, none were ever cast for the second tower. Fr. Jamnicky tells of the pastor of a church on Chicago’s west side—which needed to remove its steeple for structural reasons—approaching him at a diocesan function and saying of the steeple’s three bells, “If you want them, they’re yours.” Father committed to them sight unseen, and was reprimanded by both Mr. Batistich and Dr. Gambla upon telling them the news, because he was unaware that they needed to be “voiced relative” to the existing set of bells in order to sound harmonious when rung together. Upon inspection, however, the acquired set was found to match that technical musical requirement perfectly, “even better than we could have done if we had tried,” he says.

The exceptional interior furnishings do not stop with what came from St. Peter Canisius. Spirits will be lifted in song by the 1915 Austin Pipe Organ No. 558, which came from the former Medinah Temple, one of Chicago’s finest civic concert halls in the twentieth century. With seventy-four ranks, ninety-two stops, and over fifty-one hundred pipes, it is one of the largest orchestral organs in the region, and has witnessed such legends as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Luciano Pavarotti.

The acoustics and structure of St. Raphael’s have been designed specifically around the requirements of this organ, right down to the precise reverberation time. Though it still sits disassembled in storage, once installed, the parish anticipates becoming a destination for music connoisseurs throughout northern Illinois, thus drawing in a diverse cross section of society and exposing them to a Catholic environment in a way many might otherwise never know.

While St. Raphael the Archangel is now in use, significant work remains to be done as funds permit. As he reaches retirement age this year, Fr. Jamnicky is hoping to receive an extension in order to remain pastor long enough to shepherd the project through two more critical milestones. “I need about a million and a half [dollars] to finish reconstructing the upper portions of the towers, and about another million and a half to refurbish and install the organ,” he says, adding that naming opportunities are available.

The process has been transparent, with monthly open progress meetings and regular bulletin articles. Parishioners have been kept abreast of everything, even financial snags along the way. As a result, their support and enthusiasm for the project has been constant for eight years strong, and the parish has already doubled in population since its founding.

A few years ago, remarks Fr. Jamnicky, a couple approached him about being married in St. Raphael’s, because the bride would have been the fourth generation in her family to be married in St. John of God. Indeed, many people have been drawn in from well beyond the canonical boundaries—often former parishioners of the two “resurrected” churches—illustrating the spiritual and psychological importance of continuity and heritage in passing on the faith.

“The people wanted a church that looks like a church, and honestly, so did I,” declares Fr. Jamnicky. “The newer parishes in Lake County have been built in ‘big box’ styles, so this is very unique in this area of the archdiocese. People comment about the monumental scale. It’s otherworldly. It’s a little bit of heaven.”

And what is the lesson to be learned? Is this just an isolated burst of “wow” in an otherwise humdrum landscape, or can it teach something to suburban and exurban parishes all across the nation?

The answer, it seems, can be found through the modification of a tortured cliché: yes, it is most certainly time to think outside the “big box” and consider emulating the story of St. Raphael the Archangel. Bishops, pastors, and their advisors have much to gain and nothing to lose by following the inspirational example of faithful stewards of Catholic identity like Fr. Jamnicky, Dr. Gambla, and of course, the late Cardinal George.

(Photos courtesy of Chicago Tribune.)


  • 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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