The Chapel of St. Basil: A Splendid Risk

When most people think of architecture that gives glory to God they think of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Although everyone knows that this tradition continues in the construction of countless buildings throughout the world, one rarely hears much about them. In our secular age, the edifices that make headlines tend to be skyscrapers, stadiums, airports, and museums—erected to honor the gods of mammon, sports, speed, and art. All too often “religious” buildings fall victim to poor design and crippling financial constraints. Bedeviled by such liabilities, the results are often uninspiring—exteriors indistinguishable from a Grange meeting hall and interiors more suitable for staging a gymkhana than celebrating Mass. Needless to say, such buildings seldom evoke aesthetic delight, much less reverence, awe, or wonder.

The University of Saint Thomas’s recently dedicated Chapel of Saint Basil in Houston, Texas is a welcome exception to this disheartening trend. Designed by world renowned architect Philip Johnson, Saint Basil’s is not only architecturally arresting, but also strikingly beautiful. Anchoring the northern end of the academic quadrangle at the University of Saint Thomas (UST), the chapel contrasts dramatically with the rest of the mall—two story, tan brick buildings, designed by Johnson in 1956, just nine years after the Basilians founded the school.

Towering seventy feet above the quadrangle and dominating the campus with its distinctive style and immense golden dome, the chapel draws all eyes toward itself. As the Houston Chronicle’s Ann Holmes recently observed, the chapel is “easily the boldest building on campus.” Contrasting vividly with its surroundings, St. Basil’s embodies the otherness of sacred space. It also seems to express—in the most vibrant and unapologetic terms—the mission of the Church, the university, and the Basilian order.

It is immediately obvious that those who designed and built the chapel took a great risk—one that has utterly vindicated their daring. Indeed, the spiritual and aesthetic courage that the chapel exemplifies reminds us that the Christian life is itself, as the early Greeks claimed, a splendid risk. The Chapel of Saint Basil also stands as a glorious reminder of the sheer audacity of the twin enterprises to which the Catholic university is called: winning souls and enlightening minds.

The boldness of the vision so obvious in the chapel accurately captures the intrepid spirit of UST and its Basilian founders. Begun fifty years ago on a shoestring with forty students and eight faculty members, Saint Thomas today boasts five colleges, 2500 students, undergraduate degrees in thirty-three fields, graduate programs in nine disciplines, a faculty of more than 200, and a national reputation for the excellence and orthodoxy of its philosophy and theology departments. The completion of St. Basil’s, which crowned the tenure of outgoing president, Dr. Joseph McFadden, sets the stage for UST’s next half century of achievement. As Saint Thomas heads into its next fifty years, under the leadership of its new president, J. Michael Miller, CSB, the university has never been in better shape. In fact, the chapel, which has already become a Houston landmark, not only represents UST’s past accomplishments but also seems to augur well for its future as a leader in Catholic education.

In creating the plans for Saint Basil’s, Philip Johnson, who came out of retirement to design the chapel, combines a cube, plane, and sphere to startling effect. While drawing on the rich resources of traditional church architecture, he simultaneously introduces elements that make Saint Basil’s distinctively modern. The body of the building, a giant white stucco cube, and the three bronze bells atop the southwestern wall are reminiscent of traditional, white-walled Greek chapels, and the brilliant dome, covered in twenty-four carat gold leaf and surmounted with a seven-foot gold cross, recalls the great churches of Byzantium.

The black granite wall—fifty-seven feet high, 115 feet long, and almost four feet thick—that diagonally bisects the main building creates both a strikingly original exterior and interior. The church’s ingenious entrance, fashioned to resemble a tent-flap, suggests the dwellings that the Israelites used to house their holiest objects. It also expresses the relationship between the Old and New Testaments—with the Yahvistic covenant providing the figurative opening through which Christians enter into the fullness of their own faith.

According to Dr. Jean Kitchel, who chairs the philosophy department at UST, almost everyone who visits the church mentions the novelty and artistry of the entrance. “I think,” she says, “that people find it very evocative of the most ancient days of our faith, and of holy ground.” Evocativeness aside, Mario Rodriguez, the project engineer for Linbeck Company, which built the chapel, is delighted that people are so enthusiastic about the entrance, because, as he freely admits, fashioning “the tent-flap may have been the hardest” of the many challenges posed by the chapel’s construction.

Inside the high-ceilinged chapel, visitors are immediately struck by the intriguing use of indirect, natural light. The granite wall, which is invisible inside the building, also bisects the golden dome, flooding the interior with columns of natural light that irradiate the entrance, the altar, and an impressive bronze sculpture of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. A dramatic leaded glass cross measuring thirty-one by twenty-two feet, cut into the western wall, provides additional light, as do the two-story glass panels in the vestibule. The simplicity of the interior, the soaring ceiling, and the bareness of the white walls create a peaceful atmosphere conducive to prayer.

According to Fr. Janusz Ihnatowicz, who chaired the Chapel Committee on Interior Furnishings, visitors are also intrigued by the chapel’s highly original reverse relief Stations of the Cross. Bill Merriman of Merriman Holt, St. Basil’s architects of record, considers them “one of the great strokes of brilliance in the overall project.” Indeed, experts and laypeople alike recognize the stations as a tour de force.

Merriman is not alone in his praise. Last September, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced that it had chosen David Cargill, the sculptor who created the stations, to receive one of its prestigious visual arts awards for 1998. The jury that bestowed this honor praised the stations as a work “conceived in the grandest tradition of medieval Christian art” that nonetheless displays “the provocative power of contemporary expression.”

As many observers have noticed, the play of light on the stations creates an interactive dynamism that draws the observer into the drama that they depict. According to Professor Kitchel, as the light changes throughout the day, the figures in the stations often “seem to come alive and take on a vitality all their own, . . . reminding you that the stations represent a living event.” Cargill says that he deliberately tried to achieve this effect in order to “bring to reality . . . in a quiet way [the] horror” of Christ’s suffering and death, while simultaneously “moving the scene from [his] condemnation to resurrection, [and] from our bondage to freedom.”

Upon entering the chapel, however, one’s eyes are immediately drawn not to the stations but to the corpus of Christ suspended on a cross recessed into the north wall. Donated by Houston philanthropist Dominique de Menil, the corpus is a beautifully executed polychromed figure that dates from the fourteenth century. Directly under this carving of Christ is David Cargill’s stunning altar of royal impala granite with “legs” carved to represent the “living water” that Christ promised to all those who believe in him.

The eastern wall is dominated by Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, a large bronze of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child sitting on her lap. The statue, which was donated in memory of the late Leo Linbeck, Sr., who with his wife, Patti Ruth, cofounded the company that built St. Basil’s, is an impressive reminder of Christ’s teaching ministry and of the Blessed Mother’s intercessory power. Father Ihnatowicz considers the statue a perfect representation of the university’s scholastic and spiritual mission because “the Christ Child is holding the Bible—the word of God,” while “Mary is presenting Christ— who is the Word of God.” Cargill, who did the bronze, says that the statue, which emphasizes the need for divine wisdom, is especially appropriate “in a university setting.”

A vivid icon of Saint Basil the Great, which hangs to the left of the altar above the tabernacle, offers yet another reminder of the crucial importance that teaching and learning play in the life of the Christian. In addition to being the patron of the Basilians, this fourth century Byzantine bishop was also a scholar and humanist who founded monastic life in the Eastern Church. The icon, painted by Polish artist Michal Ploski, immediately attracts attention because its rich reds, greens, and yellows provide the only color in the chapel. At the Basilians’ request, Ploski replaced the usual panel of St. Basil performing a miracle with one emphasizing his work as a teacher and doctor of the Church.

Those who raised the six million dollars necessary to build the chapel, however, believe that the saint’s miraculous powers were very much in evidence. The chairwoman of the fundraising committee, Poppy Doyle, a UST alumna and a daughter of Leo and Patti Ruth Linbeck, says that the two biggest challenges were “raising the last million, and convincing everyone that the money would come.” Doyle’s mother, Patti Ruth, set a remarkably generous example for other donors by contributing the single largest gift—the chapel’s stunning dome, its seven foot gold cross, and the twenty-four carat gold leaf that covers both.

The final gift is an American Classic organ currently being built by Schoenstein & Company in San Francisco. Given by many donors in honor of the late Francis Monaghan, CSB, it will be installed in the late summer or early autumn of 1998. According to Professor Thomas J. Crow, who chairs UST’s music department, the $270,000 organ “will add the finishing touch to the chapel, completing the spatial definition of the sanctuary wall.”

Although Bishop Fiorenza dedicated St. Basil’s only last June, the chapel already plays a vital part in campus life. Its bells toll every half hour throughout the day, ring the Angelus, call congregants to several daily masses, and signal special events in the life of the university. Dr. Kitchel reports that students frequently stop to listen to the bells, and often check their watches when they hear them tolling. Despite relative youth, the chapel, which seats 230, has already witnessed its first baptisms and weddings. In fact, its first “wedding” occurred when Mr. and Mrs. Barlow Anderson repeated their marriage vows on their sixtieth wedding anniversary. As Professor Kitchel wryly explains, “We wanted to be sure that the first marriage celebrated in the chapel was one that would last!”

St. Basil’s has not only become a focal point of campus life. It has also begun to attract increasing attention around Houston and across the country. The American Institute of Architects, for example, honored the chapel with two of its Religious Art and Architecture Design Awards for 1998. In addition to the award the AIA bestowed on David Cargill for the artwork inside St. Basil’s, the Institute also recognized the beauty and originality of the chapel’s external design. Praising the “thoughtfulness and wit” of St. Basil’s designers, those who conferred the award noted—with evident pleasure—that the chapel is full of surprises: “From its tent-like slit in its front wall to the interior light effects, it’s worthy of Merlin the Magician.”

Bill Merriman attributes these awards to the chapel’s “timeless design,” which “transcends any particular architectural style.” Indeed, St. Basil’s, he says, “is really more art than architecture.”

It is also obviously a work of love that a host of people associated with UST have brought to fruition. The twenty-nine black walnut pews, handcrafted by Michael Dobbins and paid for by the contributions of hundreds of donors, as well as the more than 300 pavers on the walk outside the church, testify to the number of people whose generosity brought St. Basil’s into existence.

Only a few years ago, such an achievement might have seemed impossible. After all, UST had survived fifty years without a permanent chapel, funds were scarce, and building a full-scale church seemed prohibitively expensive. The very thought of constructing a highly original chapel in a style dramatically different from the rest of the campus must have seemed outlandish But then fifty years ago, many people in Houston thought that attempting to establish UST, a Catholic university dedicated to Thomistic thought, verged on the absurd. Indeed, more than fifty years before that, many considered the Basilians’s coming to Houston a venture more daring that prudent.

But the Basilians, the founders of UST, and the builders of the Chapel of St. Basil recognized—as their detractors did not—that they belong to a tradition of taking splendid risks. In coming to Houston to teach, in establishing the University of Saint Thomas, and in constructing the chapel, the Basilians have remained true to that tradition, and in so doing have reaped the abundance promised to those who risk all for the Kingdom of Christ. In one of the twists of which providence is so fond, UST’s motto, Crescamus in Christo (“Let us grow in Christ”) has turned out to be prophetic as well as hortatory. Viewed in this light, the Chapel of Saint Basil, universally recognized as “the boldest building on campus,” turns out also to be the most appropriate.


  • Carson Daly

    At the time this article was published, Carson Daly wrote from New York.

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