New & Old in Church Architecture: A Case Study

As a liturgical designer and consultant, one of the things that I’m interested in is the notion of artistic stewardship when we close or remodel our church buildings. Are there ways to make creative use of the art and furnishings that previous generations have left us? With great interest I’ve watched the development and progress of the new St. Joseph Catholic Church in Le Mars, Iowa, which was dedicated this past Sunday.

St. Joseph Catholic Church, Le Mars, Iowa on the night of dedication: October 21, 2012.

The new church replaces the parish’s previous 127-year-old structure, which developed serious moisture issues shortly after its construction due to the incorrect firing of exterior bricks. Decades of trapped moisture had literally caused the church to begin falling apart.

The former St. Joseph Church standing next to its replacement.
Interior of the former St. Joseph Church prior to demolition.

From the very beginning, parishioners were intent on reusing as many elements as possible from the former church – both for sentimental reasons and cost-effectiveness. In fact the new church, designed by BCDM Architects of Omaha, Nebraska, was essentially designed around the furnishings from the former church.

Interior of the new St. Joseph Church features furnishings from the previous building.

And boy, did they reuse everything! While not a complete clone of the original building, the new church contains many similar characteristics, including a vague Neo-Gothic architectural schema. The new 600-seat church is laid out in a traditional cruciform shape, with the altar near the crossing and surrounded by pews on three sides. The tabernacle is housed in the towering three-story reredos from the former church and is obviously the visual focal point of the space.

The church's baptismal font and hanging sculpture at the entryway.

Upon entering the church, one is confronted with a large, flowing baptismal font fashioned from the previous church’s woodwork. Above the font hangs a large sculpture containing portions of stained glass windows from the former church. While effective at drawing one’s attention to the font and making creative use of the old windows, the sculpture does not contain any baptismal imagery. Rather, the stained glass panels depict various symbols such as a thurible and the “IHS” monogram.

View of the chancel from one of the transcepts.

A view from the transcept illustrates how the seating relates to the chancel and the overall space. The side altars from the former church have been relocated to the rear of the transcepts to serve as areas of private prayer. It’s a bit curious that the sanctuary lamp hangs at the center of the crossing and not nearer to the tabernacle, especially since its entire purpose is to indicate that the Blessed Sacrament is present. The choir area is also located in one of the transcepts.

A Day Chapel is located behind the chancel for smaller liturgical celebrations.

Through a doorway near the chancel, one enters a small Day Chapel. The chapel seats approximately 80 people in longitudinally arranged pews. The reredos were fashioned from the former church’s pipe organ case and houses a crucifix and tabernacle from a nearby closed church. While the intimate space is conducive to private prayer, it seems theologically questionable to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in two separate tabernacles in the same church.

What do you think? Does this church effectively and creatively make use of its inherited artistic patrimony? Were any theological or liturgical principles compromised by relying so heavily on the reuse of historic furnishings and artwork? Can the Church rightly claim herself as the great “patron of the arts” when projects such as this fail to employ artists in the creation of new works?

From the above video, it appears that parishioners are very moved by their new space… and maybe that’s what matters the most.

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31 comments

  1. There are many laudable aspects here. The reredos is dominant, no doubt. It sets a tone, certainly. And on entering this church, one gets the tone, even if one is not convinced by what happens at the altar or ambo.

  2. I disagree fully with the suggestion that all new churches should be ‘modern’ and employ the fine talents of our modern artists and artisans. Their work is appreciated and should be used often in the creation of new churches in contemporary architectural styles.
    However, we should wisely and appreciatively preserve the artistry of the past and use it as authentically as possible when building churches designed to be complementary to their particular aesthesis.
    How well that has been done in the present example is questionable. Particularly awful are the black spider-like chandeliers which detract from any intended complementarity to the preserved elements. They are really hideous. The multiplicity of conflicting arcs is also a distraction and does not contribute to a unity of formal elements. Too, the building is rather stark to really complement the reredos and other furnishings from the old church. They seem more ‘exhibited’ in a more or less ‘traditional’ showcase than incorporated into a full and artfully consistent architectural scheme. The idea is most laudable, but isn’t well executed, I think, with this example.

    1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #2:
      One other reason to preserve items from the past is that they may have been given, and accepted, on an implict or explicit trust that they would be used in the church for devotion. By showing respect for the wishes of those earlier benefactors one avoids the risk of being seen to have breached that trust. In simple terms, if I respond to an appeal to raise money to contribute, say, to buying a statue of the patron saint, I would be dismayed if a subsequent imcumbent were to dispose of it simply out of a preference for a different artistic style. It would show a casual attutude to my contribution and leave me less inclined to support a subsequent appeal.

  3. “it seems theologically questionable to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in two separate tabernacles in the same church.”

    Has this never happened before, say in great cathedrals? Why this constant hostility towards people’s devotion to the Eucharist. Seeing as the sanctuary these days is so often cluttered and busy, and how one is barely afforded silence and time for personal meditation and prayer, and seeing as how churches are so often locked as soon as Mass is finished, is it so objectionable to have a quiet chapel set aside where we can worship and sit in the presence of the object of our devotion? Praying and reflecting infront of a tabernacle or the exposed Host is simply a cornerstone of any Catholic spiritual life I might have. Again and again, people try to wrench this away because of their “theological objections”, because it means the Eucharist is being “misunderstood”.

    There is a whole wing of the Church that is very uncomfortable with the treatement of the Eucharist as a holy thing in and of itself, without the moving, fluid, clamorous context of “the people of God coming together”. Why?

    1. @Jordan DeJonge – comment #4:
      Jordan,
      My uneasiness with two tabernacles has absolutely nothing to do with “hostility towards people’s devotion to the Eucharist” nor anything of the sort. Even the Code of Canon Law (938 §1.) states: “The Most Holy Eucharist is to be reserved habitually in only one tabernacle of a church or oratory.” It seems to me that this duplication of tabernacles symbolically compromises the oneness of the Body of Christ.

    2. @Jordan DeJonge – comment #4:

      In this case, Jordan, they’re right (never thought I’d hear myself say that).

      Two tabernacles is…odd, and not traditional. It may even be forbidden by relevant liturgical legislation.

      A separate Blessed Sacrament Chapel (itself an idea more associated with VII for simple parish churches, but long a practice in the great Basillicas and cathedrals, and not entirely unheard of in parishes even pre-VII; I think of Pugin’s Cheadle) is fine and great for private eucharistic devotion if it’s done nicely. In fact, it is sometimes considered a “Liberal” feature to have one (the conservatives are usually the ones pushing to have it restored to the center behind the altar in the sanctuary; so I think you’ve grossly misread the “political” motivations/alignment on this question). But if you do have a separate reservation chapel, then you really shouldn’t also simultaneously reserve in the sanctuary.

      It seems especially unneccessary/redundant given that this is a free standing altar in what is (assumably) a totally Novus Ordo parish, rather than an altar against the wall or reredos as might be found in an Old Mass venue. At least the latter might mean another tabernacle at the high altar would serve more of an architectural and liturgical purpose.

      However, I will point out that I don’t see any sanctuary lamp in the “high altar” picture for the new church (as there was in the old), so maybe the tabernacle in the main sanctuary is not, in fact, being used for permanent reservation? Maybe it was only included as part of the reredos (and for temporary reservation after communion; many old side altars in churches with multiple altars have such tabernacles that were not used for reservation but where nevertheless included for this purpose).

  4. It’s a shame the old church had structural problems, the midwest is losing too many of its wonderful Victorian buildings.

    I think it’s great they reused so many elements from the old church, but the new structure has some odd proportions (like the chunky gothic arches being held up by flimsy narrow columns). I think the interior is far more successful than the exterior, which lacks verticality even though the building is obviously very tall.

    There’s a rural parish near Antioch, IL that is actually reconstructing a Chicago church closed a couple decades ago (the front facade and towers were moved stone-by-stone). Perhaps that could be featured here as another example/approach to reusing older architectural elements. I think it is called St Raphael.

  5. The exterior shot just seems to make the new church look so squat and truncated in comparison to the old. It makes it seem as though the current parishioners aren’t looking and reaching to heaven as much as their grandparents did. I suppose the old building will be knocked down, thus removing the unflattering comparison.

  6. I’d be curious to know whether the interior of the old church always featured the smooth and plain white walls and ceilings as shown in the photo above, or whether that was a relatively recent change, perhaps in response to moisture damage? If the latter, I’d be curious to know what was beneath the white paint originally.

    The uncluttered plainness of walls and ceilings as seen in the new space is a common feature of many contemporary churches, and I’m not convinced it’s always for the best. A number of churches in my suburban area also show a dreary symmetry of interior brickwork or wooden planks, which also seem visible in the pillars and ceiling of the new space, and which I also believe to be unfortunate. I’m in favor of letting the Catholic imagination bloom in a thousand different expressions on the interior surfaces.

  7. If there was nothing structurally wrong with the high altar, they rightly kept the wonderful piece (of which they seem so proud and attached) in continuity with the past, and in honor of those who carved it and of those who donated, it while saving money. If they had not, who knows what, if anything, would have been put in to decorate this church. And it looks like the old high altar could be employed in saying the EF form of the Mass as well. In a sense, this parish was being “green.” Also they did employ artisans in creating this new building. Beside the complex itself, the tester over the font, the new font itself, as well as the lights are new and could be considered works of art. Many years to this parish, it’s priest and people!

  8. It’s a tragedy…and I mean that from every aspect. This isn’t a lament of pre-conciliar versus post-conciliar. I love modern/contemporary architecture. BUT, the proportions are wrong, the structuring is wrong, the integration is wrong. It is simply not inspiring from any perspective. In all seriousness, it must be asked who are the architects and liturgical consultants? The modeling and engineering makes it look like a jungle-gym-run-a-muck. Would it not have been possible to expand the original structure faithful to its architectural character? It was for all sorts of medieval monasteries, including Cluny, why not here? I would praise the large font, but even it looks clunky. How is it to practically enable the initiatory rites?

    In short, architects and consultants are needed that are both trained and artistic. As a professor once told me in the faculty of architecture and planning – most architects today are neither artists nor aestheticians – they are space planners and HVAC problem solvers.

    1. @J. Thomas – comment #15:
      Amen!
      A comparison of the harmony of line, curve and arc in the old church and the dis-harmony of line, curve, arc, mass, and everything else in the new church says it all. We have a vast empty space articulated by a variety of lines that do not achieve formal unity in which have been placed some rather unfortunate artifacts. Incredibly amateurish! (And, I’ll bet they have an electric [oh, excuse me, um ‘digital’] ‘organ’.)

      1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #16:
        Interesting comments at #15 & #16.

        It could be that the church declined to hire a design consultant. Architects are not the best liturgical experts.

        But it must also be said that just because the ancients were hamstrung by Roman engineering limitations, it doesn’t follow that we can’t enjoy “wide” buildings. The only caution is that the church should sing.

        On further reflection, I agree the font is disappointing, aside from the infant/adult segregation implied by the upper basin. It’s just a bit small.

        “We have a vast empty space …”

        Is the vast empty space really a problem? What about Hagia Sophia?

        And on the multiple tabernacles … If two is better than one, what about some magic number, like 12?

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #17:
        I think I agree with everything you state. The issue isn’t the volume, I think Mr. Osborn agrees, it the manner in which the volume is established by the architectural materials. There is no architectural-aesthetic character to the structure, to my eye anyway. The same is true of the exterior – tragedy – the articulation of brick-work and its German-born contrast of redbrick/white contrast should have been retained. The attached facade that now buries the original structure has no character whatsoever; be it contemporary or traditional. In fact, they probably would have served the original building better by juxtaposing a more rigorous modernist form against the original if they were unable to afford matching the original building. As it is, I think they have lost a lot and gained little – at least on the art/architecture side of it.

        Can church communities, pastors and architects please read and understand Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture . If you can’t afford the best marble, use the finest stone; if not the best stone, the finest tile; if not the best tile, the finest wood; if not the best wood, the finest plastering. The principle of simplification enshrined here will serve the church well. The material/aesthetic reduction will always lead to a greater clarity and pleasantness of form. In other words, if all you can afford is the most precise/ glorious/ ennobled cube – build that! Not something that has both lost its foundation but never achieved its goal.

      3. @Todd Flowerday – comment #17:
        You are certainly right in suggesting that vast empty spaces can be inspired and inspiring. However!!! This church is NOT Hagia Sophia. Plus, one might observe that while HS is vast, it somewhow isn’t empty. This church, on the other hand seems empty with or without the artifacts which happen to be situated within it. Too, you correctly muse that we moderns can build and enjoy ‘wide spaces’: but this wide space is no Work of Architecture. It pretends to be somehow traditional but breaks every rule and convention of the vocabulary it manages to corrupt… and, gives us a ‘wide space’ that would collapse were the architectural elements and vocabulary (vaguely) hinted at actually of structural importance. It is an architectural lie. A mask. Inside and out it is a tasteless and unmasterful pastiche of not-understood architectural vocabulary.
        Actually, you summed it all up in one word:
        ‘the church should sing’… and this one doesn’t!

  9. Well, by “the church should sing”, I believe Todd was referring to its acoustical properties, which can’t be assessed by pictures. The aural dimension is worth at 50% of the material equation, with the visual dimension being the other 50% (if the natural acoustics of a church do not work well with the liturgy, visual splendor is no sufficient cure); then there are the non-material matters.

    I applaud the adaptive re-use of the fine old reredos (definitely not the meh Victorian frosting-on-cake stonework or mediocre catalog art that defined Catholic sanctuary decore after the Great Crash of 1929). The other details are not persuasive to me, other than the general locating of the altar and font and seating.

    Probably the worst part of the visual features are the astoundingly poorly proportioned columns and dosserets sans capitals. For some reason, modern architects (including some Neo-Classicists beloved of the historicist church architecture set) have an awkward hand at columns and arcades, neither handling height as well as Antiquity or the Middle Ages, nor squat as well as Richardsonian Romanesque did.

    I love wrought iron, but can’t tell if the lighting reads as wrought iron…

    I utterly agree with J Thomas’ impleading of that Ruskinian principle, btw. No church should have any item that looks or feels cheap. It need not look or feel lux, but it cannot feel cheap.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #20:
      Re columns and arcades. In my experience, the reason they are so astoundingly poor in contemporary church buildings is that, while they may carry structural load, they are typically designed as soffits for HVAC. If you look at the CAD renderings above there is venting in the spandrels of the arcades. This is found in almost every church designed in this manner. In fact, every Catholic new-build I have seen in the last seven years uses a modified form of this basic engineering – and none to great success. Those churches which avoid this problem are typically not trying use strip-mall-style gables as substitutes for the gothic broken-arch, or they have placed HVAC in the floors. But as most of these churches are slab foundation construction this latter solution is an additional cost.

      One can compare this engineering with St. Clare of Assisi in O’Fallon Illinois. The architecture of this church has been generally considered to be more successful. But in fact, the engineering, HVAC and even light fixtures are the same!

  10. Was it that famed aesthete, Walter Pater, who first dubbed architecture frozen music? Whoever it was perceived that all great architecture has musical energy expressed in form and mass, line and curve, colour and texture, and that it was, acoustically, a ready crucible of vibrant musical activity. I should have thought that TF had all this in mind. At any rate, this building is not musical, and I should be very surprised if music resonates within it. In no sense does it ‘sing’.

  11. This Church exemplifies SC 9. It is built as the center of a complex of offices, school, meeting hall and more, rather than standing alone. That has costs as well as benefits; while the Church imposes its style on the surroundings, it loses it’s singular, upward thrust.

    The interior tries to escape the cramped feel of the older church, eliminating the columns in the midst of the pews. I assume that helps the acoustics too, but it leads to broad arches to accommodate the elements from the earlier church. (Most of BDCM’s designs seem very bulky to me.) I’m not sure why others do not see the archways as unifying: even the chandeliers echo the shape, giving the hole at thepeak above the altar more of a sense of letting light come down into the Church.

    It is too bad they could not get brick of the same color, but the old color is kind of garish anyway. I wish they had kept some stained glass in the clock tower.

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #23:
      Do you mean Sacrosanctum Concilium #9 ? If so, this article is not describing the church building. If its read as a justification for submerging a “liturgical” space within a “faith-formation” space I find that to be a bit of stretch. Either way, should one read it as the latter it still wouldn’t mean that any particular spatial arrangement is necessary – nor say anything of the architectural character (or lack thereof) of massing buildings in such a way.

      1. @J. Thomas – comment #25:

        Why wouldn’t the liturgical space try to embody liturgical principles in SC? I am not claiming that this was intentional, only that the building of a complex including church, social hall, and offices that replaces a stand alone church only building reflects a move toward a church whose activity is not limited to liturgy.

        This obviously can be done in a number of different ways. At this church, the placement of the clock tower in the center of the complex rather than over the main entrance changes its effect. The straight up steeple lines are lost amid the new buildings, rather like the interior that lose the old reredos etc. in the broader arches. Not perfect, but it does express something.

  12. Btw, I want to like the attempt at a clerestory in this design, but everything else in the wall & vault (such as it is) design fights it, so I can’t.

  13. I am simply glad that the Catholics of this region have a church which can accommodate a sizable number of worshipers for any one Mass. The notion of assembly is greatly diminished if a parish’s priests must celebrate five Masses on a Sunday simply because the existing church cannot seat more than one to two hundred. Here in heavily Catholic New England even smaller towns like mine often have two or three parishes. Churches are often within a mile or two of one another. Not a few churches, however, are old by American standards and are constantly under renovation. Also, some of the churches are landmarks and cannot be destroyed. Even so, I find that the parish communities are smaller and more tightly knit here than in regions with newer Catholic populations and larger churches. Also, perhaps the relative antiquity and historical value of the churches in my region explains the willingness of many parishes to undertake renovations rather than build new churches.

    On another note: Perhaps architects of newer churches might wish to experiment with moveable nave furniture (i.e. chairs and hassocks instead of pews.) Pews are of relatively late origin even in western Christianity. More importantly, pews might hinder the participation of the assembly in different types of liturgies. A view of the sanctuary might be important for Mass, but not for Evening Prayer. Also, perhaps a return to the medieval custom of conducting certain secular functions within the church nave might better bind a parish community to the place of sacramental assembly. Maybe baptisms during a Mass might be followed by a reception at the rear of the church nave to welcome the newly baptized into the community. Moveable church furniture could facilitate a shift from a celebration of the sacraments to a celebration of the parish community, all within the same worship space.

  14. I think what this shows us is that the way we are today is not necessarily better than the way we were and on many different levels, physically, spiritually and otherwise. But the old can be new again at least in our glorified life.

  15. Well!!!
    It’s not what Ralph Adams Cram would have done.
    Nor what his heirs would do. (See our Lady of Walsingham, Houston)
    Many are they who play the piano.
    Few are they who are musician-poet-artists
    This goes, as well, for architects.
    Does anyone see in this building any semblence of poetry

  16. After reading all of your comments, I wonder why I like the new church, more from the inside than the outside. Outside it looks a bit “Baptist”, but from the beautiful font to the altar, it seems to me that the liturgical space is very inviting. I did not see from the photographs where the organist and choir are located (or, please Lord, no…the band). At least Roman parishes cannot be rearranged like many of our Lutherans ones can….we now have bands up front in the chancel and the altar often removed for “Praise and Worship” “Services”. Such “freedom” does nothing to maintain the appropriate space for the Mass, which is, I suppose, the point. Anyway, I’d gladly preside in this sanctuary!

  17. I’m four years late to this party, but the reredos and other old fixtures look like prisoners in a gloomy dungeon; in their old building, they were bathed in natural light from the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows (not to mention the clerestory windows!)

    http://www.lemarssentinel.com/story/1861701/photo/1684910.html

    Just look at the light pouring in.

    When a building is dark and well-done, it can be called mysterious. When a building is dark and poorly-done, as this one is, it is rightly called dingy.

    The “architects” should have destroyed every trace of the old church; these poor old fixtures show them up as the frauds they are. Fr McDonald is right, the fact that this building was seen as a suitable or worthy replacement for the former is a sad witness to our poverty in so many ways.

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