Building Green

St. Gabriel's Church (Toronto): A LEED™ Church Building Project - The Details (Part II)

June 26, 2007

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Exterior of the church.Pedestrians who approach the church from Sheppard Avenue are greeted with “stations of our cosmic earth” situated strategically along the path through the garden.  Based upon a series of eight stained glass windows commissioned for the chapel at the Passionist’s Holy Cross Centre for Ecology and Spirituality, the stations depict significant moments in the evolutionary story of the universe and the pilgrim journey of humankind within that story.  The first station depicts the “big bang”, the initial bursting forth of energy at the beginning of time from which all else has evolved.  The following two stations move through the coalescing of matter to form our solar system and the emergence of early life forms within the seething primordial broth of our planet’s oceans.  The fourth depicts the emergence of the human.  Juxtaposed to this station are the remains of a tree, its arching branches recalling the image of the cross.  The copper cross from atop the original church roof is mounted to this tree, reflecting a contemporary understanding of the Passion of Christ including the Passion of the Earth. 

To continue their approach towards the church, visitors walk under the outstretched arms of the “tree cross.”  Alternatively, they can choose to journey deeper into the garden past the remaining stations.  If so, they first come upon the fifth station which depicts the beginnings of agriculture, responsible for the significant shift away from nomadic hunting and gathering towards settlement and a more pervasive human presence upon the earth.  The station characterizes this change with the appearance of a deep fissure that both physically and symbolically identifies the emerging rift between humans and the rest of creation.   In the next station, this fissure increases in breadth and depth to reflect the emergence of religions and non-indigenous cultures.  Here the tree reappears, within its trunk and branches, the image of two human figures intertwined, one revealing an expression of suffering, and the other… an expression of ecstasy.  The seventh station depicts the appearance of technology with the prophetic image of an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud overshadowing the earth’s fertile green landscape below.  The final station is out of sequence and is meant to represent a resurrection theme.  Captured in a large mural made from colorful Murano glass tile mosaics salvaged from the front face of the original church, it describes in abstract form, the bursting forth of flowers that characterized the dawn of the Cenzoic Age of earth history after the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago.

After making their way through the garden, parishioners emerge upon a generously proportioned piazza designed to be used as a seasonal outdoor gathering space and staging area for weddings and funerals.  The deeply recessed arcade that articulates the front wall of the narthex overlooking the piazza is a contemporary expression of the form and architectural detailing of the ancient Basilica of Sts. John and Paul at the Passionist world headquarters in Rome.  Made of a unique limestone from Manitoba that is distinguished by its many embedded fossils of ancient sea crustaceans, the fabric of the narthex defines an important chapter in the geological history of Canada.

Living wall at Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Roman Catholic ChurchInside, the narthex is terminated at the north end by a sky-lit, “living wall.”  Water running over the roots of the living wall’s plant material conditions and purifies the air of the narthex and worship space.  The enzymes in the roots of the tropical plants process the volatile organic compounds and other atmospheric pollutants while the water provides natural humidification during winter and de-humidification in summer.  Parishioners rising from the underground garage are drawn into the light by the “living wall” and are reminded of their baptismal covenant by the sound of its purifying waters.  They are also reminded of how the rainforests serve a crucial role for earth’s climate. 

At the opposite end of the narthex is a framed view of an outdoor water feature that harvests rainwater from the roof which in turn supports plant life within a constructed wetland.  Potable water usage is significantly reduced by a highly efficient drip irrigation system for the garden, waterless urinals, dual low-flush toilets and low-flow fittings on all sinks.  This helps to complete the narrative that underscores the irony of holding the precious natural resource of water as a primary religious symbol while willfully contributing to its ongoing degradation.

Buildings in North America consume 40% of the world’s total energy, 25% of its wood harvest,16% of its water and contribute 30% of its carbon dioxide emissions.  As a LEED® Gold (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building, the entire building process from design through construction, to the selection of furnishings, has been researched and re-thought to embrace and reflect the underpinning eco-theology that seeks to mitigate this impact. The new building as sacred space presents a “Gestalt whole,” and like the medieval cathedrals of Europe, becomes itself a form of Catechesis, engaging the senses and inviting transformation.

Roberto Chiotti, B.E.S., B.Arch., M.T.S., OAA, MRAIC, LEED™AP is a principal of Larkin Architect Limited.  In addition to obtaining his professional architectural degree in 1978, he completed his Master of Theological Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto in 1998 with a specialty in Theology and Ecology obtained through the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at St. Michael’s.


St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto: A LEED™ Church Building Project - The Details (Part I)
St. Gabriel's Church, Toronto: A LEED
™ Church Building Project - Eco-Theology Considerations (Part I and Part II)

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