How To Guides

Building and Renovation Projects ~ A Conversation in Four Parts

March 07, 2007


CommentariesIn the experience of building or renovating its place of worship, a parish community engages in a conversation that can shape not only a space for liturgy but also a spirit of faith.  This conversation has four essential partners: the folks who are the local Church; the traditions and practices of Catholic liturgy; the architecture space and its components, either new or existing; and the meaning that is attached to and embedded in these respective partners.  This exciting, and sometimes, complex, dialogue raises a variety of questions and concerns.  It also challenges the parish to reflect upon, and to restate its self-understanding as Church, its desire for a vibrant liturgical practice, its appreciation for artistic expression, and its commitment to mission.

The building or renovation project is more than crafting a structural response to the community’s need.  In the words of Marchita Mauck, “it is about forming a holy people whose lives are transformed, motivated, formed, and sustained by their experiences in that place” (Places for Worship, A Places for Worship: A Guide to Building and Renovating (American Essays in Liturgy).  Liturgical Press, 1995). 

There are several methodologies that could be employed by parishes in the process of building or renovating a place of worship.  Often a parish will engage the services of a liturgical consultant, a practice I highly recommend.

The “conversation” image is more in the realm of a model, or a conceptual framework, that can be developed and realized by whatever method the parish might use.  The image of a conversation underlines the importance of both the exchange of information between all those involved with the project and the need for that information to be informed by various experiences, practices, traditions, requirements, stories and wisdom that affect the project.

Typically, a conversation has several characteristics: a respect for those engaged in it; the realization that no one person or party knows everything about the topic; that there may be surprises, both good and unexpected as it develops; that there are sources outside the participants that need to be attended to; and that it can be taken up again in the future when a new topic emerges within the community.

There are four partners in this overarching “conversation,” which allows for all aspects of the project to be considered and all participants in the project to be involved.  These “partners” are best presented in the form of questions:  Who are we?  What do we do?  What do we need?   What does it mean?
»          Who are we?

This question gets at the basic identity of the community as local Church and expands to an understanding of the local faith community within the larger Church, as well as within the social/economic/cultural community that describes the life of the parish community.  This is the “partner” that allows for a detailed description of all the components that make up the identity of the community:  its history and its stories; the present and future demographics; its baptismal identity as the People of God and its eucharistic identity as the Body of Christ; and its self-understanding as a people charged with both an ecclesial mission and a church project.
»          What do we do?

This “partner” leads to naming all the liturgical, social, pastoral, devotional, administrative and any number of other activities that shape the life of the parish, which also affords the parish an opportunity to imagine other activities that a new worship space will accommodate, as well as how a new worship space will allow for a fuller celebration of the rituals of the Church.
»          What do we need?

At this point in the conversation the parish will identify all those components of the project that need to be provided for what they do and intend to do when the project is completed.  This includes everything from liturgical appointments to possible arrangements of the space, to relationships of the various areas and furnishings within the space to the architectural design that is envisioned.
»          What does it mean?

This may be the hardest and yet the most important piece of the conversation.  This is where the participants in this conversation need to go beneath the surface of information and desires and discover the many layers of meaning that are attached to the conclusions of the other three “partners.”  In other words, this is when we ask the larger question: what does it mean for us to do what we do with the things that we have because of who we are and who we need to be?

Everything about a liturgical design project has meaning attached to it.  The design of the baptismal font, the location of the altar, the scale and arrangement of the building, the placement of service areas for outreach programs, the choice of devotional shrines, the way we approach the main portals, etc. – everything speaks of a significance that is both related to that particular item as well as to the integrity of the whole space and to the identity of those who inhabit it.  Nothing in the building or renovation of a liturgical space is liturgically or ecclesiologically “innocent”; everything has a meaning-full-ness.

On a final note, I have presented here a conceptual model, not a recipe for a building or renovation project.  In fact, it overlaps many times throughout a process and can be applied to a single discussion, as well as to the whole spectrum of a project.  For example, in a discussion about the altar, it is important to ask these four questions: who are we in relation to the altar?  Or, what does it say about who we are?  What do we do with, around and because of the altar, both in liturgy and in life?  What do we need this altar to ‘say’ about us, about Jesus Christ, in its design, scale and choice of materials?  And, does it matter where it is located, whether it is accessible, what it looks like, and how it stands in relation to the rest of the space?

The building or renovation of a place of worship is an exciting and historic moment for any faith community. Approaching such a project as we might any new venture with an openness to new possibilities and to a deeper appreciation of our journey in faith will allow us to enter the “conversation” and be renewed by its richness.

Rev. Phil Horrigan is the Director of the Art and Architecture Department in the Office of Divine Worship, Archdiocese of Chicago.

Photo by Gilbert Sunghgera, S.J.


Ten Key Principles for Arranging an Environment for Worship

The Environment and Art Committee: A Parish Ministry

The Hospitable Environment for Liturgy

[Return to top]