O'Fallon, Illinois

A New Church for St. Clare of Assisi Parish: The Architect's Perspective

June 30, 2008

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Front EntryCatholic Church construction projects, whether new or renovation, often involve unpredictable schedules that can be drawn out and full of numerous starts, stops, waits and accelerations. The causes of this pattern (or lack thereof) are many, but the most prevalent center around the question of how long it will take to raise the necessary funds to be able to proceed with construction under regulations set by the diocese, financial institutions, code officials, and/or others.

All participants involved in the planning, fundraising, and construction process must be flexible in their thinking, and totally dedicated to maintaining focus on their vision without letting setbacks get in their way. Pastors, staffs, building committees, planning subcommittees, architects, consultants, and the parishioners all must function as a team, being careful not to lose the spirit and momentum so critical to success.

St. Clare of Assisi Church in O’Fallon, Illinois, approximately 20 miles east of St. Louis, stands today as a marvelous example of what can be accomplished by a relatively small group of people when they pull together over an extended period of time without giving up their vision.

The following story, as told from an architect’s point of view, describes the journey that St. Clare Parish, along with its many consultants, contractors, artisans, began in 1999 and completed with the Rite of Dedication for Phase 1 on September 30, 2007.

The journey for my firm, BCDM, began in May, 2002, approximately three years after the parish had started their initial identification of facility needs. Ken Greisemer, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, whom St. Clare’s chose as their liturgical consultant, had experienced several BCDM-designed churches, so he passed our name, along with others, onto the St. Clare committee. After interviews were conducted, the committee narrowed its list to three, and it was then that we saw the first example of the relentless pursuit of excellence and vision by the parish that carried throughout the subsequent five years of planning, raising funds, and constructing Phase 1. The committee and pastoral staff traveled to the regions where each of the three “short-listed” architects had predominantly worked, to experience in person the sights, sounds, and intangible spiritual sense of each of the churches. Those travels not only led them to a more informed decision on architect selection, but the information garnered in that trip (both good and bad) also helped them to be better qualified parish representatives during the Space Programming and Concept Design Phase.

Using the foundations of the U.S. Bishops’ Built of Living Stones, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and other documents to build upon, Ken Greisemer and Father James Deiters, the pastor, conducted many workshops prior to BCDM’s selection, which were invaluable in setting the stage to begin quickly an informed planning process,. In addition to the building committee, four commissions had been formed to clearly define the Parish Mission and what impact each commission should have on the design of the new church. Those commissions were:

» Evangelization and Social Justice Outreach Commission
» Christian Formation Commission
» Parish Life Commission
» Worship Commission

In order to begin the extremely important Space Program Process for the Master Plan, the group was reconfigured into the following specific subcommittees related to the major anticipated components of the building and site:

» Site Development
» Worship/Music
» Social/Meeting
» Administration
» Religious Education

Three other non-facility subcommittees were established. They were:

» Communication
» Prayer
» Finance

Input was solicited from all parishioners through the subcommittees but also through questionnaires and opportunities for one-on-one discussion with committee and subcommittee members and the architectural team.

Multiple programming and planning meetings were held and in the end, a Master Plan Space Program was generated. That program described a facility of 64,925 square feet, containing an 1100-seat church, a 500-seat fellowship hall, 12 religious education rooms, parish offices, and other minor Master Floor Planspaces. The initial estimated cost of that entire Master Plan was nearly $14 million, a figure that was considerably beyond the capabilities of that 900 family parish. That estimate was based upon a relatively high quality, semi-traditional architecture, patterned somewhat after the architecture of Assisi, a goal that had been so strongly stated by the parish, committees, and pastoral staff throughout the programming process.

One option at that point could have been to reduce the vision to a simpler, less quality architecture. But, in the continuing spirit of St. Clare Parish, the decision was made to wait with what they could not afford and to build whatever they could in that high quality, semi-traditional manner. The Phase 1 goal was cut back to approximately 38,700 square feet with an estimated cost of $7.9 million.

The Capital Campaign was launched in October, 2002 with a goal of raising as much as possible of the $7.9 million within a 3-year pledge drive. That campaign was successful and met expectations, but under Diocesan regulations, advanced planning/engineering and construction could not begin until the cash-in-hand increased dramatically. Thus, the project momentum ground to a halt while the parish continued to raise the required funds.

During the year and a half that followed, the parish kept the vision in sight, doing such things as holding parish picnics, special liturgies, and other activities at the vacant site for the new church. Specially written parish prayers continued to petition God’s blessings on their mission to build. Pledges continued to be paid and the St. Clare parish community moved closer to realizing its dream.

During that same period, however, construction inflation in the St. Louis metropolitan area was skyrocketing, judged by many to be in the range of 15%-20% per year. In effect, the dollars raised through the campaign were literally being eaten up by inflation almost as fast as they were coming in.

In March of 2004, in an attempt to cut off as much inflation as possible, it was decided to begin design refinements and see what could be done to match parish “wants to needs to budget.” With an eye toward the third pledge year ending in October, 2005, it was decided to plan for a second 3-year campaign and hopefully be able to start some construction activities on the site concurrently with launching that campaign.

Immediately it was decided to select a General Contractor/Construction Manager to work alongside BCDM as design refinements were beginning and the final drawings and specifications were being developed. Korte Construction Company of Highland, IL was chosen from among three firms considered, and the team of BCDM, Korte, parish representatives and various consultants began not to plan the cheapest building, but to plan essentially the building St. Clare had envisioned for two years, using innovative construction materials and techniques to stretch the dollar without sacrificing quality or key design features.

Through the process, it was extremely important for all parties to put aside egos and work together to achieve a high quality, energy efficient, imaginative, and spiritually uplifting building at an acceptable cost. It was essential that the value engineering process strive to achieve much more than “on time and on budget.”

First, the floor plan needed to be as efficient as possible, avoiding wasted space. Since the parish could not afford the square footage needed for Parish Officers, large Fellowship Hall or Religious Education Classrooms, the following decisions were made:

» Parish offices were eliminated from the new building and they were located in the original brick farm house on the site after the interior was remodeled by parishioners.

Final Floor Plan» The fellowship hall was reduced in half and relocated to a temporary position in one of the “connecting links” to the right of the narthex. It will serve, in conjunction with the narthex, for after Mass activities.

» Religious Education classes will temporarily continue to reside within the school as they have for years.

Res Chapel» The weekday chapel was delayed to Phase 2, but an octagonal Reservation Chapel was included in Phase 1.

Secondly, several innovative design changes were made to substantially reduce costs:

» All exterior walls of the entire building were constructed using “tilt-up” wall construction techniques. The panels were fabricated on site in a very precise manner, as shown on the aerial photo. The exterior exposed face is split face and smooth concrete block of a slightly pink hue to emulate the textures and colors of Assisi. The wall panels, some of which were over 60 feet tall, were built by placing the specially designed concrete block face down within carefully constructed form and then placing reinforcing and concrete on top. The panels, once cured, were then stood up like a deck of cards and fastened to each other, to the roof structure, and to the footings. Studs, insulation, and drywall were added in place to the interior concrete wall face.

Wall PanelsTilt Up Panels

» In order to take advantage of lowered wood prices and avoid escalating steel prices, the interior gothic ceilings of the Nave was changed from painted drywall over steel trusses to exposed wood trusses (without a ceiling at the bottom chord of trusses). This change not only substantially reduced cost, but it also contributed to the wonderful diffused acoustics of the space and improved the aesthetic interest as well. Less truly is more in this case.

» Floors within the nave and choir areas were changed to sealed concrete.

» The baptismal font was custom designed but prefabricated to substantially reduce on-site construction costs.

» As mentioned in Father Deiters’ April 23, 2008 EnVisionChurch article, eighteen large entry doors were manufactured in St. Clare’s Mission Parish in Guatemala. Not only did that decision result in significant cost savings, but it more importantly provided a significant income to the some of the impoverished parishioners in Guatemala.

Steeple» The lantern/steeple on top of the church was deleted but the structure was prepared to receive it at some future time. When the church was nearly completed, a donor from outside the parish came forward and offered to donate the funds necessary to add it (see computerized rendering).

One key factor in finalizing the decision to begin construction was that the Diocese of Belleville, through their recognition of the urgency to build this project, found the parish a loan that allowed them to make “interest only” payments for five years until the parish family had grown and could more easily handle the larger “debt reduction” payments.

InteriorThrough the above described process, Saint Clare parish has stretched the dollar, never compromised their vision, and found a way to proclaim God’s presence to the world from high above Interstate 64. The added lantern/steeple will soon glow in the night to further that proclamation for many generations. It would have been easier many times for the parish to build something of less quality, but through their persistence and vision, the day will come that the entire Master Plan will be completed and the Catholic Church will continue to be alive and well in O’Fallon, Illinois. 

Photos Provided by BCDM

David Beringer, AIA, is a partner with the architectural firm of BCDM, which has offices in Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines, Iowa, and Phoenix, Arizona.

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