Liturgical Space for a Catholic High School - Part 4: Flexible Space(s)

June 24, 2008

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Earlier in this series, I expressed the importance of a highly flexible space to our community, since the students are engaged in a variety of liturgical prayer activities in the chapel that are not supported by the permanency found in an ordinary parish church. The chapel in a Catholic high school needs to be able to support a worthy celebration of the Eucharist, yet it also needs to serve as a quiet meditation space, a place to pray the rosary, a space for small group scripture reflection, all with various group sizes.

Fortunately, we had a creative architect, Mike Shaughnessy, who was not afraid to explore multiple possibilities. Essentially, the chapel layout is a rectangle, yet the entrance atypically interrupts the length of the chapel (north wall). After a few meetings, Mr. Shaughnessy proposed at least five different ways the chapel could be arranged all within the one design he created.

The geometry of the floor tiles was the key that enabled us to have numerousHoly Water Font layouts, and yet do so with connection to and in harmony with the rest of the structure.

Mr. Shaughnessy proposed 12 inches x 12 inches ceramic tiles as the main material for the floor. Additionally, two complementary polished granite tiles form a cross: one line bifurcating the length of the chapel and the cross bar placed two-thirds the way up. The cross bar, or what would be a transept in a traditional cruciform church, was the element that held the chapel together.

On the north, the granite tiles forming the inlaid transept begin with the holy water font in the transitional space. The font was made from the same stone, so the continuing tiles create a subtle connection and flow into the chapel body. At the cross section, a highly polished accent granite forms a large circle (about 10 feet in diameter). The visual line from the holy water font continues to a southern wall and niche containing the tabernacle. This, too, rests on a large slab of the granite.

These highly polished granite tiles were arranged to highlight possible focal areas. In addition to the large circular pattern at the center, two rectangular areas are situated at the upper and the lower ends (or East and West) as seen on the renderings. Each section is 6 feet x 9 feet. Their purpose serves to center and ground a particular ritual activity or sacred furnishing.

Various Configurations

For a celebration of the Eucharist – at the dedication and consecration of the altar, for example – the altar was centrally located and the ambo was placed directly “behind” it, on the nearby rectangular feature. The chairs can be Miege Configarranged in traditional rows facing the altar, much the way they would be in a cruciform church. Alternatively, the row can be slightly arched to extend the circular granite pattern at the heart of the chapel.

A very different configuration for Eucharist could be a more monastic setting whereby the chairs are arranged antiphonally. Long rows running the length of the chapel, no more than two or three deep are positioned to face in toward the center axis of the chapel. The altar is in the middle. The presider’s chair is positioned on one of the two rectangular granite features. The ambo, however, is on the opposite end – the West side – on the second rectangular granite feature. A slight variation to this set up would be to position the presider’s chair alongside the assembly. On the eastern granite feature closest to the altar, the customized, hand-painted processional cross can be placed as a backdrop to the altar. This positioning adds balance to the massive color and detail pouring forth from the stained glass window that is the west wall.

As indicated in Part 2 of this series, we discovered the ambo was a central feature for many of the liturgies that transpire in this chapel. The ambo can be easily placed in the central circle and chairs easily gathered around it to create an intimate setting for a liturgy of the word, Liturgy of the Hours, or rosary.

An alternative is to place the ambo on the western granite feature and gather the chairs around it. This puts the participants’ back to the entrance of the chapel and can instantly create a greater sense of privacy. People coming and going are less likely to disturb the ritual action.

The use of varied, yet complementary floor tiles paved the way for a highly flexible space, while maintaining liturgical integrity.

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 3:    Involving the Students
Part 5:    Transitioning into Sacred Space

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