Liturgical Space for a Catholic High School - Part 5: Transitioning into Sacred Space

June 24, 2008

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One of the most unique features of this high school chapel renovation is a transitional space between a main school hallway and the chapel itself. The space achieves two important functions: one architectural and one liturgical.

Architectural Features

EntranceWe made good use out of a small corridor (about 17 feet), leading toward the chapel. Doors to adjoining spaces were repositioned, so that the renovated corridor could have solid, uninterrupted walls on both sides. The doors to the chapel were relocated to the edge of the main school hallway. There are three striking characteristics one notices upon opening the doors:

» It is dark. The brightness of the school’s hallway gives way to dark natural tones on all surfaces. Lighting only comes from accent features – a spotlight directly over the holy water font and specialized strip lighting to illuminate icon panels on both sides of the corridor.

» It is quiet. The floor is carpeted and sound absorbing materials cover the walls and ceiling. In stark contrast to the hallway outside, this transitional space immediately communicates a soothing atmosphere. The holy water font flows very gently.

» Its ceiling is low. This contributes to the quiet and dark characteristics of Entrance Contrastthe space and contrasts dramatically from the uplifting grandeur of the chapel.

These three characteristics serve as a striking contrast to the chapel interior, where the ceiling is very high, supported with arching wooden beams and lined with natural wood planks. The chapel is flooded with natural light, as the western wall is a massive stained glass window. The transitional space takes the student away from the normal décor of the institutional school hallway and prepares them for a drastically different space. Its dark, quiet, and diminutive characteristics make the first step into the chapel truly awe-inspiring.

Liturgical Features

Liturgical and spiritual components of the chapel ooze out of its main doors. Saint AngelaFeatures of the chapel, such as the floor tiles, specialized lighting in a ceiling dome, and a hand-carved statue of St. Angela, the chapel’s namesake, were brought out into the main school hallway. This effectively communicates that there is something different, something sacred about this area of the school.

Within the transitional space itself, there are two prominent liturgical symbols that contain layers of varied meaning. Most notable is the holy water font. As this was not a parish church, there was no need for a large baptismal font. However, we wanted to communicate a similar meaning.

Recognizing we were designing this for teenagers, we wanted something to capture their imaginations as they approached the water. The font is a circular basin of flowing water that moves in the direction of the chapel. It is living water, and this space is intended to enliven the spiritual lives of those who enter it.

Built of Living Stones states, “the font is a symbol of both tomb and womb; its power is the power of the triumphant cross; and baptism sets the Christian on the path to the life that will never end, the ‘eighth day’ of eternity where Christ’s reign of peace and justice is celebrated” (68). This font draws upon both images of tomb and womb. First, the tomb, as the font’s shape tapers. The architect’s initial intent was that it points inward toward Font Tombthe body of the chapel. Yet, unexpectedly, its shape is clearly that of a coffin. Furthering this theme of a tomb is the material – granite, roughly carved on the outside. It resembles a sarcophagus. This tomb imagery is balanced with the imagery of life and womb. The water is living water as it flows nearly four feet. The shape that the water occupies is a keyhole, drawing upon the imagery that baptism is the sacrament that incorporates one into the life of the Church.

Further piquing the students’ imagination are eight icons of saints, chosen by the students and faculty. The icons lovingly gaze upon those who pass by. There are four on each side, recessed into the wall with hidden lighting illuminating the icon surface. Yet, they can be easily changed. As students cycle though the school and as new saints are canonized, different classes and groups can offer their own choices of holy people.

By using a total of eight surrounding the holy water font, we preserved the octagonal symbolism often found in the baptismal fonts of antiquity. The icons serve to inspire the students to live their baptism well.

Much like an individual needs time to segue into prayer by leaving behind all the many tasks and chores of the day, we likewise need space to help us move from one arena to another. This space accomplishes that and infuses liturgical symbols into a practical, transitional space.

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 is 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 4:    Flexible Space(s)

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