The tabernacle at Toronto’s St. Joan of Arc Church is a classic example of modernist architecture that was a staple of churches built from around 1955-77. It’s not a style that we see in new churches any more. Photo by Michael Swan

Modernist churches a thing of the past

By 
  • March 20, 2016

TORONTO - There are a lot of very traditional Catholics who would have trouble explaining what a baldaccino is. Even the select few who know might have trouble identifying the hexagonal baldaccino above the altar in St. Joan of Arc on Bloor Street West.

St. Joan of Arc is among a handful of masterpieces of modernist architecture built during the post-baby-boomer years in the Archdiocese of Toronto. Its baldaccino (a canopy covering the altar which often echoes the cupola above, a feature of Church architecture since Renaissance times) is hexagonal and mirrors the interior shape of the church. When St. Joan of Arc was completed and consecrated in 1967, architect William Saccoccio received an “Award of Merit” from the Ontario Masons Council and the Ontario Association of Architects.

“A successful church complex, the elements of which are assembled in a strong composition,” said Saccoccio’s peers in bestowing the award. “It is not a sentimental or nostalgic form, but an honest attempt to find an appropriate form to an old problem in a new context.”

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and parishioners at St. Joan of Arc love their nearly 50-year-old building that gathers everybody close to the altar and relies on natural light streaming in through abstract stained glass.

Not all our church architecture from the period surrounding the Second Vatican Council — about 1955 to 1977 — has been so cared for. Early this year demolition crews tore down the chapel that once graced the old Willowdale campus of Regis College. That church had been designed in 1958 by one of Canada’s most celebrated modernists, Peter Dickinson.

“If this was a modest Victorian row house in downtown Toronto, it would have been designated (as a heritage building) ages ago,” Michael McClelland, an architect and advocate of modernist architecture, told The Toronto Star.

A couple other modern churches were closed in recent years, leaving about 10-12 examples of modernist architecture still functioning in Toronto. The archdiocese doesn’t want any of its churches designated for heritage. The designation makes them harder to sell and impossible to renovate. The archdiocese has no desire to operate museums. Its churches exist to house a community and celebrate Mass.

But there’s no denying churches are part of our heritage. If they weren’t, the archdiocese would not be spending $128 million to renovate and restore St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Dana Saccoccio, who now runs her father’s old practice at Saccoccio Weppler Architects Inc., remembers the excitement and the ideals that drove the St. Joan of Arc design process when she was a girl in the 1960s.

“I remember the priests who would come to our house. I guess they went to his office too, but they would come to the house and there would be all kinds of discussions,” she said. “There was a very funky priest (St. Joan of Arc pastor Fr. Peter Renders) whom we all liked.”

What Renders and Saccoccio were talking about at the family kitchen table had its roots in the 19th-century liturgical movement.

“The idea behind the liturgical movement in terms of church architecture was that since the liturgy is what made the community and is important for the salvation of the community and of individuals, individual people had to participate in it,” said Catherine Osborne, a theologian and historian of church architecture.

Long, narrow churches where the priest said Mass at a distant altar at one end and the people didsomething completely different in their pews at the other end were not the liturgical movement’s ideal. They looked back to the early history of the Church and saw people gathered around the altar for the eucharistic feast.

“The Second Vatican Council more or less said the liturgical movement was right,” said Osborne, who will soon publish American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow, a book about modernist church architecture in North America.

Rather than simply accepting standard, existing styles of church buildings, in the run-up to the Second Vatican Council priests like Renders started talking to architects like Saccoccio about what happens in the liturgy, asking them to design a building to accommodate the liturgy.

“Architects loved it,” said Osborne.

Rather than starting with a steeple, architects began designing from the inside out, making the altar central and gathering the people close to the action. In the post-war period, as building costs grew, there was less money and time spent on the exterior of the church.

As a young man on the building committee and a builder himself, Oreste Campeotto approved completely of the emphasis on the interior at St. Roch’s on Islington Avenue in northwest Toronto.

“Ideas changed since the Vatican council,” said Campeotto. “It’s not the walls that count. It’s the people... We have to be adapted to modern times. I followed the instruction of the Church.”

St. Roch’s was built in 1976, a time Campeotto remembers with great fondness. Its exterior is a tall, brick facade with room for a couple of bronze statues that almost blend in with the red brick. Inside, skylights make the sanctuary glow with natural light, even on a cloudy March morning.

The mostly Italian parish wanted people to be part of the liturgy. Campeotto is still happy and proud that the building committee went with a raked floor that raises the back rows higher than the front rows, like a theatre.

“You can see the altar,” Campeotto points out.

The kind of open, democratic design the modernists brought to church building for 20 yearsreflected the times the Church was living through, said Italian theologian Massimo Fagioli, who teaches at St. Paul, Minnesota’s St. Thomas University.

“It’s impossible to disconnect the history of architecture from the history of the Catholic Church and theology,” he said.

Through the papacies of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the emphasis in church architecture shifted away from modernist design. As post-modernism began taking off in other areas of architecture (houses, office buildings and institutions), the new churches began to revive, meld and remix elements of older styles of church architecture.

In the 1980s and ’90s anxiety about diminishing church attendance and the muted influence of the Church on secular society drove a movement for churches that looked like churches. Once again the money was spent on steeples and other impressive exterior features.

In North America, the dwindling work force of priests made larger churches necessary, so the smaller number of priests could minister to a larger number of families.

With a new papacy, the problems of Church architecture may be open for a new look once again.

“What’s interesting about Pope Francis is that he doesn’t care, as his predecessors did, for the beauty, the esthetic side of Catholicism,” said Fagioli. “He knows exactly that the truth, in real life, can be ugly — that the truth can be messy. He celebrates (Mass) like a normal parish priest. That is his way of not inviting Catholics to look nostalgically back to an era of coherence.”

Big, postmodern churches tryto evoke a certain experience. “I want to try to say this in a way that doesn’t sound too polemical,” said Osborne. “It’s trading on nostalgia, for better or for worse. It’s saying there was a time when the Church was at the centre of the community and it meant a certain thing. But it doesn’t mean that anymore, for whatever reason. So, we can maybe get it back if we make these buildings that ring this bell in people.”

But what bell are the architects trying to ring? asks Fagioli. The nostalgia of the new, postmodern buildings looks back almost exclusively at European churches — whether Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine or Baroque. The Church today, whether in North America or elsewhere, is increasingly multicultural, said Fagioli.

“We don’t know what a multicultural Catholic church building looks like,” he said.

Which is no reason to go back to modernist architecture, said Osborne. That ship has sailed.

“I don’t think we’re going to suddenly start building modernist churches again under any circumstances,” she said. “What I hope for is just a little bit more respect for the ideals that got these places built in the first place.”

Dana Saccoccio remembers her dad as a very good architect who did his best work on churches.

“His favourite building type definitely was the church,” she said. “We’re kind of proud of him. I think he was a good architect. He was also a good Catholic. He understood the Church. He was maybe one of the lucky ones, because he bumped into people who would allow this creativity.”

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UNIVERSAL CHURCH ICONOGRAPHY
Illustrated Creed
“I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, … And was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate,...

UNIVERSAL CHURCH ICONOGRAPHY
Illustrated Creed
“I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, … And was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again … and the life of the world to come. Amen."1

1. IMAGE/ICON OF GOD AND THE CREATION OF THE WORLD → AT CHURCH ENTRANCE2
2. SCENES FROM THE COMMON SACRED HISTORY → ALONG ONE WALL/ICONOSTAS, E.G.:
FALL OF ADAM AND EVE
NOAH AND THE FLOOD
SACRIFICE OF ABRAHAM
MOSES AND THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
NATIVITY OF CHRIST
FLIGHT INTO EGYPT
JESUS IN THE CARPENTER SHOP
CRUCIFIXION
RESURRECTION
DESCENT OF HOLY SPIRIT ON THE APOSTLES / APOSTOLIC COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
CONSTANTINE’S EDICT OF 313 / COUNCIL OF CARTHAGE IN 397 AND THE BIBLE CANON
CHURCH OF SAINT PETER’S IN ROME / OUR LADY OF KAZAN IN SAINT PETERSBURG
3. SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF A FAITHFUL INDIVIDUAL → ALONG OTHER WALL/ICONOSTAS, E.G.:
GOOD WORKS – GOOD SAMARITAN / ZACCHAEUS
PRAYER – REPENTANCE PRAYER OF THE PUBLICAN / THE GOOD THIEF
SEVEN SACRAMENTS – SAINT LEOPOLD MANDICH / SAINT PIO IN THE CONFESSIONAL
4. ALTAR RAIL / ANCIENT STYLE LOW ICONOSTAS → IN FRONT OF APSE AND ALTAR
5. LECTERN PORTABLE → IN FRONT OF ALTAR
6. IMAGE/ICON OR STATUE OF MARY WITH THE CHILD → LEFT OF ALTAR
7. THE FIFTEEN SCENES OF THE ROSARY → LEFT WALL OR ICONOSTAS
8. IMAGE/ICON OR STATUE OF CHRIST THE TEACHER → RIGHT OF ALTAR
9. THE WAY OF THE CROSS, INCLUDING DESCENT INTO HADES → RIGHT WALL OR ICONOSTAS3
10. TABLE OF PREPARATION → LEFT OF ALTAR
11. ALTAR → CENTRE OF APSE
12. TABERNACLE → CENTRE OF ALTAR4
13. CRUCIFIX → ON ALTAR
14. IMAGE/ICON OF LAST SUPPER, THE FIRST EUCHARIST/MASS IN JERUSALEM → IN FRONT OF ALTAR5
15. IMAGE/ICON OF ETERNAL LIFE DEPICTING THE SAINTS AND GOD → IN CHURCH APSE6
REFERENCES. Abbreviation: e.g. – for example. 1 Illustrated Creed is a depiction of the entire Creed, from the beginning to the end, thus proclaiming Christian Faith in pictures, including pictures in stained glass windows – a synergy of faith and art, good and beautiful, and a perfect and unsurpassable artistic masterpiece of Christian civilization. The ideal church building, the house of God’s people, is a sacred functional/practical symbol of timeless form and proportion, containing images of sacred persons and events from the beginning of creation to the glorification in heaven. The shape of a church dome may be symbolic of the rainbow from Genesis 9:16 and the cross on its top is a sign of the New Covenant. Simplicity of design in parish churches is helpful for their economical maintenance; symmetrical and well-proportioned design gives beauty to a church building in which Eucharist/Liturgy/Mass and other Sacraments are celebrated for the glory of God and for human sanctification, e.g., churches in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Kiev, Saint Petersburg, Rome, Montréal, Washington, San Francisco and Mexico. 2 This is an original 2013 Slavic synthesis based on Genesis 1:1-31, Exodus 3:14, Colossians 1:16, and Church Tradition, and a correction of theologically-deficient, though artistically excellent, Renaissance painting in the famous Sistine Chapel in Rome, which also lacks scenes from the Rosary and the Way of the Cross, popularized after the 16th century; see Santa Sofia basilica in Rome. 3 The 15th station of the Way of the Cross, Christ’s descent into hell on Good Friday, is an original Slavic-Italian sequel (final) published in 2006. 4 See: Saint Francis of Assisi church in Mississauga, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield, and others, http://ewtn.com/ library/curia/cdwinoec.htm – the centrality of the tabernacle. 5 See: Saint Francis of Assisi church in Toronto and a multitude of others. 6 This picture, like the 15th station of the Way of the Cross, beautifully and perfectly rounds out the illustrated Creed into a fitting and irreplaceable whole; see: apse of San Vitale in Ravenna, painting of Domenico Ghirlandaio, and many others. See also: http://newadvent.org/cathen/05257a.htm; http://sacredarchitecture.org; Pope John Paul II’s letter commemorating the 12th centenary of Nicea II, Rome, 1987; Paul Evdokimov, L’Art de l’icône: théologie de ta beauté, Paris, 1972; Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Rome, 1963; Pope John Paul II (promulgator), Catéchisme de l’Eglise catholique, Rome, 1992; Josef A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman rite, New York, 1951. Prepared by Slavic Christian Society / Société Chrétienne Slave / Slăviansko Xristianskoe Sŏbranie, Mississauga http://slavxrist.org 1999; originally published in Polish as Uniwersalna Ikonografia Kościoła: Ilustrowane Credo, Mississauga http://kolbe.ca 1999. English edition: (1) Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Polish Roman Catholic Church, Mississauga, 1999; (2) revised according to the 2013 Croatian edition Univerzalno Crkveno Slikarstvo: Ilustrirano Vjerovanje – blessed by Bishop Bogović, published by Knights of Columbus, Council 12922, 1883 King St. E., Hamilton, ON L8K 1V9 https://kofc.org/en 12.2.2016.

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SLAVIC CHRISTIAN SOCIETY
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Interesting problem. It's common for one generation to want to tear down the last generation's buildings, even churches. We can come to regret that. There's no 'timeless' Catholic style: tastes and needs change. But not every experiment works,...

Interesting problem. It's common for one generation to want to tear down the last generation's buildings, even churches. We can come to regret that. There's no 'timeless' Catholic style: tastes and needs change. But not every experiment works, and buildings sometimes need to be altered or replaced.

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M. Cels
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Those of us working to tear down these monstrositis and build Churches that look like churches aren't trading on the past, we are trading on the timeless reality of what the Mass is, a Sacrifice that leads us to the Father in Heaven.

Padre
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