Liturgical Space for a Catholic High School - Part 3: Involving the Students

June 24, 2008

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A Catholic high school’s primary objective is to foster a student’s spiritual life. Designing a chapel gives the unique opportunity to create a space that invites young people into intimacy with God, as well as engage their thoughts on sacred space. If an institution wants to promote the intellectual life, key components are libraries, lecture halls, and multi-media resources. In the Catholic world, promoting the spiritual life entails churches, chapels, and devotional spaces.

From the beginning, we wanted to engage the students. Their input was used throughout – from the initial brainstorming sessions to the installation and placement of votive candles.


When we began dreaming, the full-time campus minister was invaluable, as she gathered active students from campus ministry. We asked them what they liked about the current chapel and what they would change. Clearly, they enjoyed the comfort of the former chapel. It was cozy with moveable Semi Circlechairs and carpeting, albeit stained and rippled.

The coziness factor, however, came with a price. The students largely saw the chapel as a casual atmosphere. There was little sense of awe-inspiring beauty, which showed in the way the chapel was treated prior to renovation.


After an architect was hired, much conversation ensued over the configuration. Where would we place the altar? What about the ambo? (See Part 2 for a discussion on the ambo as the primary symbol.) How would the chairs be configured?

The students assisted us in the process through experimentation. We brought in student groups and invited them to think about an activity they have done in the chapel – such as praying the rosary or liturgical prayer before school. Then they were asked to arrange the furnishing as they best saw fit for their particular activity. Their only direction was to be creative.

The students found it challenging to imagine alternative arrangements. To help, we created radically different situations. We had them move the altar and ambo from one end of the chapel to the other, and then they arranged the chairs. They initially put the chairs in traditional rows and then we suggested a semi-circle formation. For each configuration, we read a scripture passage, created a sense of prayer, and then asked them how the layout affected them, e.g., their sense of connection to one another, their experience of God in their midst.

Their responses and ideas produced 5-6 different ways the chapel furnishings could be arranged. We gave the student feedback to the architect. His team then came back with a plan that successfully enabled maximum flexibility in the chapel’s layout. (Please see the Slideshow at top for detailed configurations.)

Holy Images

Part of the renovation included a transitional space to the chapel (the final installment in this 5-part series will detail this aspect of the chapel’s redesign). The concept was a hallway of holiness, lined with 8 icons of holy men and women. The students chose their favorites from images of diverse saints. The final result is a grouping of saints from our Catholic tradition who speak to and inspire the students, modeling a flourishing vision of Christian living.

Stained Glass Window

A key feature of the chapel was the enormous arched window spanning the entire western wall. After the redesign was underway, we uncovered the Stained Glasshistory of the original intent for this huge window. The school’s original architect had a rendering of the window depicting Luke’s account of the Great Catch (5:1-11). We engaged students in group reflections based on this gospel passage. They shared how this passage spoke to them, and several interpreted the passage with their own artistic gifts.

When we hired glass artist Michael Pilla (Minneapolis, Minnesota) to create the window with this theme, he suggested further involvement of students. In a workshop with students, he had them research the kinds of fish that live in the Galilee region of northern Israel. He incorporated their findings and creative contributions in the final product.

Prayer Wall

Prayer WallThe chapel included a devotional space next to the tabernacle and flanked by a portrait of the Blessed Mother that had been carried over from Europe by the first bishop of Kansas City, Kansas and the school’s namesake, Bishop Jean Baptiste Miege. This devotional space would be marked as a prayer wall with uniquely forged iron brackets to hold votive candles. The candles were randomly arranged by student design.

Lighting and Sound

Lastly, a small but important detail was the lighting and sound. The lighting was designed with multiple possibilities. All lights are dimmable, so students can control the lighting and create a mood for each occasion. This was placed alongside a comprehensive, remotely controlled sound system whereby students can play calming background music or make the music a more integral part of their worship and devotion.

From start to finish and as the main users of this space today, students were actively involved in the creation of a sacred space for their spiritual development.

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 2:    A Chapel, Not a Church
Part 4:    Flexible Space(s)
Part 5:    Transitioning into Sacred Space

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