Relating church architecture to faith

  • November 19, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Since Vatican II, many churches have dropped their bells, changed their seating arrangements, moved the tabernacle off to the side and more.

But modern building codes and technology aren’t the only culprits in the deviation from traditional romanesque and gothic structures — the change also reflects an individualized approach to theology, said Michael Nicholas-Schmidt, whose recent Masters of architecture thesis focused on sacred space.

“Even though we as Catholics share a faith, there is an understanding that each community has different charisms or different ways to approach it,” he said. “I really do think that churches need to be the product of a community’s discernment, thought and reflection.”

Communities need to reflect on how they worship and what their building can do to communicate to them and support them and certain churches have recently done that, he said. St. Gabriel’s of the Sorrowful Virgin in north Toronto, for example, adopted antiphonal seating, which illustrates the idea that while the community gathers together, it still faces an axis that moves from baptism to communion and eventually to beyond the altar, presumably eternal life, Nicholas-Schmidt explained. Since the community of Passionists at the parish believe in the importance of man’s connection with the Earth, the construction also adopted sustainable building initiatives and structural aspects that connect people with the gardens outside.

“But at the same time, you find in the United States a huge movement ... the need to build classic, romanesque and gothic churches because of the belief that that’s where we achieved perfection. It’s all very interesting and at the end of the day most architects need to respond and say, well, is this a true expression of your theology or is it nostalgia?”

Because people sometimes forget that architecture does more than just keep the rain off and the heat in, Nicholas-Schmidt said, they reduce the church to a functional object or an expression of the architect’s imagination. Because not all architects hired to build our churches are Catholic, he adds, there’s a huge onus on the building committees of churches to educate themselves about liturgy and how architecture can support or detract from the liturgy. Three central questions faith communities should ask are: “how does this space frame my relationship to the community, how does it frame my relationship to God and how does it frame my relationship to the world outside its walls?”

“It’s always sort of played a communicative role in culture, expressing ideas. And it has a real memory because it maintains traditions and it maintains ideas,” he said.

For those who need a bit of guidance, Nicholas-Schmidt recommends finding a liturgical consultant. Some architects happen to also be liturgical consultants, like Michael Boreskie, a Winnipeg architect who sells a kit to help parishes determine their needs and clarify their expectations to the architect.

“The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops published their general guidelines in the text Our Place of Worship, but really there are no specific guidelines for church design,” Nicholas-Schmidt said.

While he wouldn’t give any examples of bad architecture, he did suggest how some churches might have fallen quickly out of step with the past.

“(One) really interesting thing post-war is with the creation of the suburbs, you needed to build a bunch of buildings really fast and churches were just built overnight on all sorts of empty land where they didn’t know who their community would be but they had to get up quickly because of rapid expansion.”

At the same time, Vatican II was unfolding with a change in the liturgy and communities were probably confused as to what they wanted to reflect and how best to do that, he said.

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