There’s more to the liturgy than which words are spoken when and by whom. There’s more to it than can be captured by any one language, living or dead.

Architect Douglas Cardinal was one of the first to show the post- Vatican II liturgy in a church. As the Second Vatican Council ended, the now world-famous architect of Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization began work on his first internationally recognized masterwork — St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alta.

The story of St. Mary’s encapsulates triumphs and tragedies of the Canadian Church against the backdrop of Vatican II ideals. The church was consecrated as a cathedral by the Oblate Archbishop Anthony Jordan of Edmonton in 1968, who attended all four sessions of the ecumenical council in Rome.

Cardinal grew up going to a residential school in the 1940s — St. Joseph’s Convent School in Red Deer. His father was Blackfoot and his mother Metis. He was one of the rare success stories — a smart kid who got top marks, excelled in art and music, studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

He was also the head altar boy at St. Joseph’s and today as he pushes toward 80 years old he can still remember every word of the Latin Mass and can still sing the chants.

Cardinal’s brilliant career almost never happened. He was assaulted on the street as a young man in an ugly racial incident. In the Alberta of the late-1950s, it was naturally the native kid who wound up in jail. Jordan got him a lawyer, and helped get him out of jail.

From there, Cardinal travelled Europe — taking in everything from Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to the baroque San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by his favourite architect, Francesco Baromini.

That was followed by more architecture studies at the University of Texas and travel through Mexico and the American southwest, where he saw adobe missionary churches that reminded him of one of the great 20th-century masterworks, Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France.

When German Oblate missionary Fr. Werner Merx tapped the young Cardinal to design a new church the priests didn’t know of the young architect’s history with his bishop. Merx stormed off to Edmonton prepared to battle Jordan for the chance to employ this brilliant young architect, not knowing how pleased his fellow Oblate would be to see the young man he saved from jail erect the first post-conciliar church in his diocese.

Merx and Cardinal weren’t just going to design a big building with some pews and a spire. They were going to invent a church based on the liturgy.

“We started by saying, what is the reason for the space?” Cardinal told The Catholic Register. “The altar.”
Merx insisted on a spare, unadorned sanctuary without even a cross. The pastor wanted the altar to be the sole symbol of the real presence, open and accessible to everyone gathered around it.

Every day at 4 p.m. Merx and Cardinal would meet at the church, play organ music and go over Cardinal’s designs. Their instruction manual was Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It took months to come up with the spare, unpolished altar that would dominate the sanctuary.

Cardinal designed a “light canon” — essentially a hole in the roof — over the altar.

“I wanted divine light coming from the altar,” he said. “That’s the sacrifice, the table of sacrifice. It should be the symbol of Christ. So light should emanate from the altar.”

The roof itself became a tent-like baldacchino hovering over the altar. Merx’s last church had burned down, so he wanted this one made of pure masonry and concrete. It was a tall order for a low roof.

“They told me it was impossible, with 81,000 simultaneous calculations to be solved. They said it would take 100 years,” recalled Cardinal.

The walls around the altar were laid out in a spiral form for the sake of acoustics.

“I want the sound of the Church to ring like a cathedral so that when the priest said ‘Dominus vobiscum’ it would go ‘Dominus vobiscum-um-um-um,’ ” he said. “Those beautiful Gregorian chants, I wanted them to sound properly in the church.”

Cardinal rooted his design in the spirit of baroque architecture, with its moving, dynamic forms.

“I felt the Church was better expressed by the Jesuit order, which was the baroque order, which was to bring some drama and power to the forms and shapes,” he said.

The result is something architecture students everywhere study, said Toronto architect Roberto Chiotti.

“Cardinal’s church in Red Deer always comes up as one of the case studies,” said Chiotti. “It’s very influential on the students and some of their designs.”

But Merx and Cardinal’s vision suffered in the post-Vatican II era. Merx was transferred to a northern mission almost as soon as the church was completed.

“Which really broke his heart,” said Cardinal. “He wanted to be there, but he was too liberal for the community.”

Subsequent pastors and parishioners found the design too austere and too far off the beaten path of regular Church architecture.

“No, they don’t get it. They put all those horrible statues in there. They’ve got... ugh!” Cardinal said.

At one point another architect was brought in to remove the baptistry from the entrance, where it had been a symbol of initiation into the church, and to make things a little more conventional. Cardinal tried to sue for the moral rights to his design, but the courts were reluctant to limit the parish’s right to dispose of its property.

When the church was built it stood alone on the horizon — a mysterious and beckoning shape. Today, it’s surrounded by a suburban subdivision with houses and schools. The bell tower still stands above the entrance, but the parish has never commissioned a peel of bells to occupy the trinity of open spaces left for them in the wall.

Despite all these disappointments and compromises, St. Mary’s made its mark.

“It’s captured in any historical anthology or survey of Canadian architecture. It would likely be in any major anthology of Church architecture because it’s so unique in its form,” said Chiotti. “Cardinal came along just at that moment when we were trying to articulate Vatican II and what does it mean. It’s a major transformation. He was a leader in trying to give tangible, meaningful expression to the documents as they would manifest themselves in Church architecture. It was very courageous and bold.”

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