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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.