Things to Consider

Reordering Historic Churches

November 02, 2007

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St. John in Paduca exteriorIt is natural that over time our historic houses, public and commercial buildings evolve and are changed to fit the needs of the day. People often readily see the wisdom and necessity of this type of change. If you live in a one hundred year old home, chances are the bathroom (if there was one in the first place) and the kitchen are not completely original. Historic schools, banks and stores would have a hard time functioning and often risk replacement if they cannot be brought up to contemporary codes for accessibility and ability to meet contemporary demands.

Oddly, this same understanding and motivation is not always brought into the conversation when dealing with historic church buildings. While alterations to insure accessibility may be more widely accepted, changing the arrangement of the church interior can often be contentious. Here are a few commonly expressed reasons for not wanting to “touch” a historic church building.

+  Some of the renovations following the Second Vatican Council were not sensitive to the character of the buildings; there is fear that beauty and character will be lost and that the changes are shortsighted.
+  The need is not seen for buildings to reflect and support current ritual practice and theology.
+  It is unclear how current conditions limit the worship and mission of the People of God.
+  Strong memories are connected to the current building and its contents.
+  Change is simply hard.

Realizing that Change Is Always with Us


One of the most enlightening exercises that parishes with a historic church can engage is to document the changes made over the years to their building. Often one finds that significant changes were made to the furnishings, artwork and arrangements - even prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Sometimes the additions were inferior and sometimes they were superior to the original plans for the building. Over time, in responding to the desires of successive eras, the building may now contain an accumulation of “too much stuff” that may be obscuring that which is central to a parish’s liturgical and devotional life. Conversely, previous renovation may have created a barren environment that is found lacking. Documenting the changes and evaluating the quality and appropriateness of the current worship space is a good first step for considering any changes.

Realizing What We Have

Sometimes parishes are unaware of the treasures they have (or have had) in their buildings. It can be painful to see unnecessary destruction or unwillingness on the part of parishes to maintain the character and beauty that has been handed down to this generation. Sometimes truly worthy elements have been discarded and replaced with inferior pieces of art, materials and craftsmanship. Original painting schemes may now be painted over. Valuable, worthy elements may be stored elsewhere.

Realizing Certain Goals

St. John  in Paduca interiorActive participation by the people of God in the liturgy is one of the hallmarks of the Second Vatican Council’s directives on the liturgy. Restoring the catechumenate, opening up our rich symbol system, and experiencing the multiple presences of Christ have all affected understandings and expectations for the church building. Commonly pre-Vatican II churches were designed as “two rooms.”  Sanctuaries contained the holy actions, holy objects and holy “people.”  Separated by the communion rail, the nave was arranged as the adjacent room to view the actions in the sanctuary. Much can be done to minimize the two-room design arrangement of pre Vatican II churches in order to better “ convey(s) the image of the gathered assembly” General Instruction of the Roman Missal ("GIRM") #294. Sometimes places designed for formerly private rites like baptism might be better used for current private rituals. Reconciliation chapels or the chapel for the Reserved Blessed Sacrament may find a dignified and beautiful home in the former baptisteries or side chapels of larger churches. Given our current understanding of the nature of baptism, continuing to locate this central symbol out of sight of the assembly is problematic to say the least. Buildings whose historic imagery is limited to one culture or gender poses another task for this generation.

The Challenge -- Striking a Balance

St. Josaphat in ChicagoWhile avoiding the uncritical retention of anything that is old, creatively incorporating elements from the past can enliven and enrich the worship experience. Striking a balance between historic preservation and worshipping in the present is not an easy task. Each parish will make different choices. Bringing the “shell” of the interior to a more original color and design palette may actually soften the impact of the stained glass and Stations of the Cross that are in many structures the only historic elements retained on the walls. Churches can be reordered by creating a new sanctuary area for altar, ambo and chair in the midst of the assembly. In this type of renovation, the clear focus on the central acts of worship allows for much of the historic fabric of the shell of the building to be more readily retained without obscuring the central role of the liturgy.

"Over time, as public expressions of worship change, there is a consequent shift in the demands on the physical space used for the Church's liturgy. In accord with the norms of the liturgical reform, it is sometimes necessary to alter historic structures that pose a challenge.  In projects of this kind, a delicate balance can be achieved through a selection of designs and appointments that respect and protect the Church's ancient artistic heritage and, at the same time, effectively serve the requirements of contemporary worship."  Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship #239

Mark Joseph Costello is a Capuchin priest living in Chicago.  He works nationally as a liturgical design consultant.  A graduate of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago with a Master of Divinity degree, he also received a Master of Fine Arts in Interior Architecture from the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.


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Parish Consolidations: Using Art and Artifacts

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