Liturgical Space for a Catholic High School - Part 2: A Chapel, Not a Church

June 24, 2008

View the Image Slideshow for Liturgical Space for a Catholic High School - Part 2: A Chapel, Not a Church (Opens a new window).


Once the leadership of the high school community (most especially the board of directors, the president, and campus minister) embraced the idea of a complete renovation of the chapel space, the need for some basic liturgical principles and formation became apparent. The basis for our formation was the U.S. Bishops’ document, Built of Living Stones (BLS). This provided us with a common foundation. We used its principles to educate ourselves on a vision for Catholic worship and architecture.

We discovered an immediate challenge. BLS, like most other liturgical documents, presumes that the liturgical space is designed for a Sunday worshipping community gathered to celebrate Eucharist. The implication included:

A Parish Church

» Permanent Community
» Altar as a permanent and central focus
» A worship space for: Sunday Eucharist, primarily; funerals; celebration of Sacraments: Baptism, Christian Initiation, Marriage, etc.
» Often large to accommodate hundreds of people

Our project was a chapel, not a church. Divergent principles became apparent. In this high school chapel, Sunday celebrations of Eucharist occurred a few times a year. When they did occur, it was with a transient community – different people led by various priest presiders. Where the liturgy documents presume a level of permanency in the parish, our local situation was characterized by continual flow of people: students cycling through every 4 years and chaplains reassigned every 2-5 years. Neither the community nor the ecclesial leadership was consistent.

Therefore, we ask ourselves some questions:

What happens in a high school chapel?
What are the rituals this space needs to support?
Are there things we would like to do in it that we currently cannot do?

In contrast to a parish church, our answers generated a list of loosely structured liturgical and devotional activities.

A High School Chapel

» Before school gatherings, consisting of: impromptu small groups gathering for informal prayer, group reflection
» Liturgy of the Hours
» Rosaries
» Class prayer
» Quiet reflection and personal devotions
» Adoration

More formal rituals and sacramental celebrations that take place included:

» Mass – class and small group masses before school and occasional weekend masses with outside groups, e.g. Marriage Preparation weekends
» Communal Reconciliation

The Ambo and the Living Word

Upon evaluating the types of activities that take place in the chapel, we discovered the altar was not usually the central focus of ritual activities. Instead, most of the actions – rosaries, prayer groups, devotions, and reconciliation – in one way or another engage the word of God. They are Miege Ambocelebrations of the word, with praying and proclamation at the center of the ritual activity. Thus, the ambo became the central sacred furnishing for the activities that most frequently occur in this high school chapel.

The ambo as a primary furnishing led us to design one that could outwardly display a Book of the Gospels or a Lectionary. By displaying a ritual book containing the sacred scriptures, it would signal that the word is a living word. It is meant to be seen and read by us, to interact with our lives, to confront us, and to impact us. Furthermore, the rituals of praying for one another, sharing life stories, offering rosaries for those in need, confessing one’s failures, are among the ways that the incarnation of the word is continually manifested in society today.

Baptismal Priesthood

Lay leaders direct the majority of the activity in the chapel. The priest chaplain is a part-time assignment to the school. He presides at mass in the chapel, but many others, such as the full-time lay campus minister and teen leaders involved in peer and campus ministry, are more primary users. By highlighting the importance of the ambo, the chapel serves to promote the liturgical and ritual roles of all the baptized. Thus, to get the maximum use, the chapel needed a design that encourages the common priesthood of the baptized to use the space with ease and that respects their active role in liturgy.

Once we appreciated that we were designing a chapel and not a church, we discovered a new freedom. We decided to use the values stated in BLS and creatively incorporate them to our particular needs.

Miege Altar and Ambo

This space would be worthily suited for Eucharist, balancing the table of sacrifice and the table of the word. At the same time, it was flexible enough to support a variety of ritual prayers led by young people. (The next installments in this series will more fully expand upon these ideals.) The end result for us was a space showcasing important principles of liturgical design, such as Integritas (wholeness), Consonantia (harmony), and Claritas (radiance), while providing substantial flexibility.

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.


Part 1:    Overview
Part 3:    Involving the Students
Part 4:    Flexible Space(s)
Part 5:    Transitioning into Sacred Space

[Return to top]