Liturgical Space for a Catholic High School - Part 1: Overview
June 24, 2008
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I was newly ordained and assigned as chaplain to a local Catholic high school, Bishop Miege High School in Mission, Kansas. My first event was the ribbon cutting ceremony for a multi-million dollar media center. It was breathtaking. A few steps off of a main corridor lined with metal lockers are impressive double doors opening onto a balcony. The perch, two stories high overlooks the vast open space like a bluff above a river and plains. Below, a long line of high-speed computers dominates the room.
The Media Center stood in stark contrast to the orphaned chapel. I nearly tripped over the worn and stained carpet buckling at its entrance. The garish plexiglas was not only wasteful on energy efficiency, but it was adorned with cracks and holes. The chapel needed a complete redesign, and the school community needed a vision.
Parish Church v. School Chapel
In parishes, construction and renovation processes, while always unique, have become fairly straightforward. Most dioceses have standard procedures whereby a parish involves a team of people:
» the Pastor – who leads the process in design and fundraising
» a Building Committee –parishioners with various expertise and who are representative of the community
» an Architect
» Liturgical design consultant, if one is hired
» Capital campaign consultants, if hired
» Construction experts: engineers, builders, skilled trades, plumbers, electricians, etc.
» Liturgy committee members, art and environment people, interior designers » Pastoral Council members
» Finance Council members
» Parishioners who are willing to serve in particular ways during the process;
» the Assembly: at various points in the process, the whole parish is involved in town hall meetings, feedback processes, financial commitments, etc.
The Catholic high school is a different entity both in its ministry and organization. Most Catholic high schools are governed by a Board of Directors, administered by a president, the daily activities are supervised by a principal, and a chaplain and campus ministry team help shape a Catholic environment. Our process reflected this multi-faceted leadership team:
» Chaplain – leader for the liturgical and sacramental life of the school and one who brings a studied perspective of the liturgical tradition to this particular community.
» President – overseer for all financial and construction matters, fundraiser, and the public relations face for the school.
» Board of Directors – the governing body, comprised largely of benefactors and supporters of the school. At Bishop Miege High School, they successfully raised $14 million in 4 years for the Media Center and complete overhaul of the entire school.
» Campus Minister – an invaluable resource. She uses the Chapel the most, so she knows how it’s used, when it’s used, what is needed for improvements.
» Students – the end users and the ones for whom the chapel is intended. The space must speak to them and be a place that invites them to come and pray. (Part three in this series will focus on the role and importance of the students in this process.)
» Teachers and Staff – the students come and go, yet the staff is stable. Religion teachers use the space for class prayers, liturgies, devotions, and other activities.
» Liturgical consultant – in this particular situation one was not hired though the possibility was discussed. In other projects where there is little experience or strong liturgical formation is lacking, a consultant could be helpful.
Establishing a shared vision with the president was critical. The need was a total redesign for the chapel. The project would compare in quality and stature to the Media Center and be congruent with other upgrades throughout the school.
We created a core building committee exclusively for the purpose of guiding the chapel renovation. The committee was headed by the chaplain and included the president, campus minister, a religion teacher, and two parents who where both alumni. This group collaborated to hire the architect and consulted regularly with him. Additionally, this committee researched, interviewed, and hired artists for the project.
A most important step was the chaplain’s presence at Board meetings. Over several months, the Board members were educated on the importance of sacred space, and how the vision of a renovated chapel fits with their passion for Catholic education. This was tremendously beneficial. Their excitement generated more eagerness throughout the community as they shared the plan with alumni, local pastors, and parents of current students. The Board’s enthusiasm ultimately led to the chapel’s success.
The renovation process in a high school is not as straightforward as in a parish, at least in the sense that in a parish, the pastor bears the ultimate responsibility for the decisions made, even though the decisions were (ideally) reached through a collaborative process. In the Catholic high school, ultimate responsibilities for various areas, e.g., finance, administration, rest with more than one person. As with parishes, collaboration is vital.
After several conversations and formation regarding the Church’s tradition on the dignity of worship spaces, shared vision and commitment emerged. From this, the need for a wholly renovated chapel became apparent. The end result was a crowning jewel to the work that had already been done in the school, and the chapel is now a showcase feature for all who approach the main entrance of the school.
Darren M. Henson is a priest in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He was Chaplain of Bishop Miege High School in Mission, KS from 2001-2003. Currently, he serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia, KS. He holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has taught at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute for Pastoral Studies and for Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, offering courses in liturgical and sacramental theology.
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