A Year Later: Reflecting on Successful Elements of the Space
June 09, 2008
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Having celebrated liturgy in the new St. Elizabeth Church for a little over a year, a few elements of the plan stand out as successful.
Position of the Altar
The first is positioning the altar so that it is the central focus of the church. The floor plan is designed to thrust the altar into the middle of the assembly so that they will take more ownership of it and will ponder the many levels of meaning of this key symbol. The building is cruciform, and the pews in the transepts are perpendicular to those in the nave. The sanctuary is deeper than it is wide, and the altar is situated near the front of it, while the ambo is behind it and to one side.
This arrangement was controversial in the beginning, because people were more accustomed to seeing the ambo farther forward than the altar. The new configuration has two advantages: 1) the altar is clearly favored because it does not suffer from spatial competition with the ambo; 2) with the ambo located farther back, it is easier for lectors to establish eye contact with the entire assembly. There is no need for eye contact when the priest-celebrant stands at the altar, because at that point, he is praying to God, not to the assembly.
The tabernacle is located in a separate chapel, so it does not compete with the altar, either. This was not controversial for the parishioners because the original church (1981) was also designed this way. Still, we wanted to cement the centrality of the altar in people’s consciousness, which prompted us to do three things:
1) we reiterated the theology surrounding the altar as the locus of Eucharistic action;
2) we renewed the instruction for proper reverence (profound bow) for the altar; and
3) on the first Sunday after the Rite of Dedication, we invited everyone to come and kiss the altar. On the first anniversary of the dedication, we repeated this. Their devotion was evident. Small children whose parents did not lift them simply kissed the side of the altar.
The floor in both the nave and the transepts is raked, which allowed us to elevate the sanctuary only one step. This makes the altar, both visually and physically, more accessible to all.
The second successful element in the church is its spaciousness, including extra wide aisles. We wanted to use the entire church for liturgy and to process the entire assembly whenever possible, and to do that there needed to be room for large groups to get from one place to another without feeling constricted. Several liturgies stand out as examples.
» We light the Easter fire in the outdoor gathering space (a walled courtyard). From there we process to the adjoining parish hall for the liturgy of the word. Then we process to the font, where there is room for everyone to stand and participate in the baptisms and confirmations. Finally, we move to the pews for the liturgy of the Eucharist.
» Weddings and funerals work particularly well. Family and friends visit in the gathering space prior to the liturgy. At weddings, the couple is greeted at the font, where their parents are invited to sign them with baptismal water, recalling the signing they did years before. Then everyone processes in together, accompanied by the opening hymn. At funerals, the body is brought to the font for the sprinkling with water and placing of the pall. Particularly for small funerals, we encourage everyone to remain in the gathering space and process in with the family.
» Before daily Mass, we celebrate Morning Prayer in the Eucharistic chapel. Afterward, everyone processes from there, down the center aisle, to their pews for Mass.
» When we pray the Stations of the Cross, the entire assembly processes around the church so that it is a true stational liturgy. A wide aisle circumvents the entire space, even behind the sanctuary, and the stations are situated along this aisle. Granted, this may not work for large numbers, but for up to about 60 people there is ample room. When elderly people tire of standing, they simply step into a pew and sit; then they move on to the next station when everyone else does. Since the pews have no ends on them, a person can actually sit down without moving into the pew.
A third element of the building that has felt successful is natural light. In the old church there were only two windows. We could not keep even the toughest plants alive, but we had no idea until we celebrated in the new church how it had dampened the people’s spirits. The new church has 170 windows, and the ample natural light is one of the people’s favorite things. Not only do plants thrive, but it is wonderful to see how the sunlight moves around the space during the different seasons.
Most of the windows are on the clerestory level, which is more effective for lighting the space than windows on the ground level. Light in people’s eyes has been a problem from April through June. We are planning some stained glass to control that but, interestingly, the people have voiced a strong concern that we not destroy the light.
Rev. Frank Coady is pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Salina, Kansas. He is also a liturgical design consultant and serves as Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Salina.
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