Raleigh’s New Cathedral

Back in May, the Catholic diocese of Raleigh, announced scaled-back plans (from $75-90 million to $41 million) for its new cathedral.

Now “Under the Dome” gives you three interesting little videos on the plan:
Part 1: Site and Layout (4:43)
Part 2: The Sanctuary and the Spirituality of the Architecture (4:55)
Part 3: The Internal Layout (10:11) – first 6 minutes are a bit of a fundraising appeal from the bishop.

This is a beautiful plan, and I predict that most people will like it. So much is so beautiful here.

The question I would raise, though, is whether the plan allows the worshiping people to be, as the U.S. bishops put it in built of Living Stones, a “liturgical assembly gathered as one body in Christ.” Some of the people won’t be able to see each other in this plan. That is a functional problem.

I know, I know, worship isn’t just a horizontal gathering of people – but it is that in Catholic theology, in addition to a lot of other things. Ideally, architecture of whatever style brings together beauty and functionality. Ideally, the congregation feels itself to be one body as it participates in the sacred rites where worship is offered to God and his saving work is made present to his people. It’s not an either/or – either congregational unity or focus on God.

The path-breaking architects, including those who work in traditional styles, are those who are able to bring about a new synthesis that overcomes such false oppositions. What a shame that didn’t happen here.

I think the good people in Raleigh might have gone west about 2,000 miles and taken a good look at the renovated Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. There, they had to work with what they had (it’s a renovation), but the overall sense is of a gathered assembly and the sight lines are good. Beauty and functionality come together there.

For your reference, here is what Built of Living Stones says about the space for the liturgical assembly. It is the nature of the document not to issue specific rules (“Everyone must be able to see everyone else!”), but to give principles and a vision. My question is whether the floor plan of the new Raleigh cathedral fits that vision.

The Building: The Place for the Liturgical Assembly Gathered as One Body in Christ:

50. The church building is a sign and reminder of the immanence and transcendence of God—who chose to dwell among us and whose presence cannot be contained or limited to any single place. Worship is the loving response of God’s People to the mystery of God who is with us and who is yet to come. “As visible constructions, churches are signs of the pilgrim church on earth; they are images that proclaim the heavenly Jerusalem, places in which are actualized the mystery of the communion between man and God.”[66 GIRM 294: Ibid.: “Even though all these elements must express a hierarchical arrangement and the diversity of functions, they should at the same time form a deep and organic unity, clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people. The character and beauty of the place and all its appointments should foster devotion and show the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there.”] In addition, the church building manifests the baptismal unity of all who gather for the celebration of liturgy and “conveys the image of the gathered assembly.” [67 GIRM 295: “The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, the word of God is proclaimed, and the priest, deacon and other ministers exercise their offices. It should clearly be marked off from the body of the church either by being somewhat elevated or by its distinctive design and appointments. It should be large enough to allow for the proper celebration of the Eucharist which should be easily seen.”] While various places “express a hierarchical arrangement and the diversity of functions,” those places “should at the same time form a deep and organic unity, clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people.” [681 Cor 11:26; cf. Rev 19:9.]

The Congregation’s Area: 51.  The space within the church building for the faithful other than the priest celebrant and the ministers is sometimes called the nave. This space is critical in the overall plan because it accommodates a variety of ritual actions: processions during the Eucharist, the singing of the prayers, movement during baptismal rites, the sprinkling of the congregation with blessed water, the rites during the wedding and funeral liturgies, and personal devotion. This area is not comparable to the audience’s space in a theater or public arena because in the liturgical assembly, there is no audience. Rather, the entire congregation acts. The ministers of music could also be located in the body of the church since they lead the entire assembly in song as well as by the example of their reverent attention and prayer.

52. Two principles guide architectural decisions about the form and arrangement of the nave: (1) the community worships as a single body united in faith, not simply as individuals who happen to find themselves in one place, and the nature of the liturgy demands that the congregation as well as the priest celebrant and ministers be able to exercise their roles in a full and active way; and (2) the priest celebrant and ministers together with the congregation form the liturgical assembly, which is the Church gathered for worship.

53. The body of the church is not simply a series of unrelated sections. Rather, each part contributes to the unity of the space by proportion, size, and shape. While various rites are celebrated there, the sense of the nave as a unified whole should not be sacrificed to the need for flexibility.


  1. “Some of the people won’t be able to see each other in this plan. That is a functional problem.”

    The idea that every worshipper must be able to see every other worshipper in a church is, first of all, physically impossible to carry out (barring a single-file circular arrangement), and second, a flawed conception of the requirements for a liturgical space. The Church nowhere requires that everyone be able to see everyone else. So rather than having a “functional problem” or dissonance with actual Church directives, it would be more accurate to say that the Cathedral in Raleigh does not adhere to the architectural ideology of the person who wrote this article.

    EDIT – as I was posting, the name switched to show that Fr. Anthony posted this. OK, I’ll bite. Father, can you prove via documents that the church requires buildings to provide line-of-sight between all portions of the congregation, and on top of that between all individual congregants?

    1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #1:
      So there!

      I think the question, Jared, isn’t whether everyone can see every single person. I’m sorry if my wording of the post led us down that rabbit hole.

      The question as I see it is whether it feels like the assembly is a gathered body. When there are people behind me in rows or otherwise (in church, at a football game, gathered around an Easter vigil fire outdoors) and we’re all looking at the same point of attention, it feels to me like we’re a gathered body and I don’t feel cut off from the people behind me.

      When, on the other hand, the cruciform design puts a visual wall unnecessarily between me and others – others that I could see if the barrier weren’t between me and them – the feeling is quite different. I suspect it feels that way to most people. If it feels differently to you, so be it.

      I have this nagging hunch that the real issue here is emotional – some people are so opposed to so much that has happened since the Council that they’re led to defend preconciliar things that are hard to defend. We need the ability to make distinctions and to show more prudence.

      I sort of said this in my post but I’ll say it again and more explicitly: the vision of Msgr. Francis Mannion in bringing about the Salt Lake City cathedral is what we need more of. I’m not talking about the style of it necessarily or of all its particularities, but of Msgr. Mannion’s ability to cut through complicated issues, affirm the best of the Vatican II vision, and bring forth such great things from tradition in a way that fits the Vatican II vision. I wish there were more of that attitude among those on ‘the right.’


      1. @Anthony Ruff – comment #2:

        Thanks for your response. I actually have no problem with your lengthier explanation. Nor do I necessarily have an emotional attachment to the cruciform floorplan (although I do have an emotional attachment to beautiful, authentic, well-crafted spaces). I will just point out that there is a difference between your nuanced response and the original post, which simply listed line-of-sight as a functional problem – as if it is a black-and-white assessment.

      2. @Jared Ostermann – comment #9:
        Hi Jared,

        And I share your emotional attachment to beautiful, authentic, well-crafted spaces!

        Thanks for your comments here – it helped me to clarify my thoughts and express myself more clearly. You’re right, my original wording in the post is unhelpful. I’m glad you helped advance the discussion.


    2. @Jared Ostermann – comment #1:
      Jared – to the question you pose after “EDIT” in your updated comment:
      I address that explicitly in my last paragraph before the BLS excerpt – please look there.

  2. In addition to the functional problems noted, one should wonder whether it is appropriate for a cathedral (or any building project of this scale) to retreat into forms and features of architecture that are old and frequently used. Is this quoting the great architecture or creating a “cookie cutter” pseudo traditional building which does not advance ecclesial architecture? One should note that church architecture was always “unconsciously contemporary” (to use a Pecklers-ism) until the late 19th Century. Though with the budget, something on the scale of Christ the Light is not possible, it is a shame that instead of being creative, this building, like so many churches in the South is a pastiche of “traditional” Christian architecture.

    1. @David J Wesson – comment #3:
      forms and features of architecture that are old and frequently used

      Well, I hope they keep some of those old and frequently used forms and features, or people will have no idea what’s going on! I expect a roof, a floor, walls, and the like. 😉 But I’m sure you had other forms and features in mind.

      In all seriousness, though, is the primary issue with this cruciform layout the walls and arcades? If the seating remained as it is, but the nave of the church was rounded (like a church in the round, but without seating along the whole curve), would that sufficiently address the visibility issue, regardless of the design issues it raises?

    2. @David J Wesson – comment #3:
      In order for “advance” to be meaningful there must be an agreed telos toward which progress can be made. You seem to be looking for “creativity”, but since the road to each successful “invention” is usually littered with a great many failures, I would ask, “What’s so wrong with cookies made with a cookie cutter?” If something is flawed with the design, then by all means identify the flaw and seek ways to remedy it, but the essence of your criticism seems to be more “It’s just not new enough.” Here it would be good to remember that in this diocese (I live near Raleigh), traditional architecture is indeed the “fresh” look – something that likely holds true throughout the South. A booming Southern church that needed lots of new buildings during the 30-yr tenure of the previous bishop, we have a landscape dotted by cookie-cutter semi-circular churches; they may achieve Fr. Anthony’s desideratum of a congregation that can see each other (and all get a little closer to the altar), but this “contemporary” architecture feels incredibly tired to me. The design that is breaking the mold and introducing “new” perspectives, on the other hand, is our cruciform cathedral.

  3. David J Wesson : One should note that church architecture was always “unconsciously contemporary” (to use a Pecklers-ism) until the late 19th Century.

    I don’t think this is entirely true. Not only did the Gothic revival begin in the early 19th century, the the neo-classical movement was a pretty self-conscious recovery of early forms. Indeed, Charlemagne’s 9th-century chapel in Aachen was an attempt to imitate the older churches in Rome and Byzantium. That said, quotation of past forms can be done well or badly, and I find that today it is often done badly, though it is difficult to tell from an architect’s drawings.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #6:
      I was not precise in my wording. I agree with your assessment, though. One can quote older architecture and do it well while still being honest to contemporary architecture. This looks more like a cut and paste from other churches in the name of “tradition” which is just a flight from the perils of modernity or postmodernity or what have you.

  4. As those who know me would expect, I agree with Anthony. Having a cruciform church in which significant portions of the participants are unable to see each other is a retrograde step. The proposed layout is as bad as those L-shaped Carmelite chapels specificially designed so that lay people cannot see the nuns at all. The entire assembly should be in one space together. It doesn’t have to be long — I note that in the original press release it was said that the rear of the nave would be 50-60 feet closer to the sanctuary. This still does not do the job, alas.

  5. Perhaps it is skillful editing on Fr. Anthony’s part, but I think this question must be answered in conversation with today’s post on community as communio. Those who emphasize the more horizontal aspects of community (perhaps we could use: A BODY united in faith) will place higher premium on being able to see other worshipers, whereas those who emphasize the horizontal bonds of community (a body united IN FAITH) will be less inclined to view sight lines as impacting unity.

    For my own part, I think getting too hung up about being able to see each other actually runs counter to BLS because it focuses upon ‘individuals finding themselves in one place’ rather than forging the transcendent unity BEYOND this simultaneous location that BLS is asking architecture to inculcate. The far more important concern is acoustical, for I can participate fully and actively with my brethren without ever seeing a single one of them, but I cannot do so very easily if time lags and reverb prevent us from singing/speaking in unison.

    So where do I stand on the proposed cathedral? I agree that it is generally easier to form a unified assembly if people are sitting in a unified space, so take Fr. Anthony’s criticism to a point. The problem isn’t with the cruciform layout as such, but on the overuse of the transepts. A few people seated in transepts (as “overflow” space for big liturgies, as a good place to get handicapped seating by a door, quick exit strategy with toddlers, etc.) can still participate fully without difficulty. But the transepts here are meant to seat, I believe, just as many people (combined) as the nave itself, which is far more disruptive. If I were the rector of this cathedral I would encourage its parishioners to treat the nave as standard seating and only “open” the transepts as need arises.

  6. Another “challenge” of the deep transepts will be what the faithful seated in the back rows will be able to hear from the choir area in the back of the nave. Sound does not travel very well around corners!

  7. I see the bishop and his advisers wanted to build a big building that “really looks like a church”. Can’t have one of those, of course, without a choir loft, but is that really the best location for singers and instrumentalists? They have included a very small chapel and a very grandiose area for the tabernacle. Why not a larger chapel to house the Blessed Sacrament? Somebody (the bishop perhaps?) must have had a strong bias for a prominent tabernacle in the nave. I can understand that from the perspective of RTR, but are we still headed in that direction? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a finely crafted piece of architecture, but how effectively will it facilitate a worship experience that will build up the church of Raleigh as a temple of living stones? And do we really need altar rails to divide the priestly people from its high priest? Just saying.

  8. It has always struck me that the factor independent of architectural style is the clumsy expansion of small-scale buildings to a big-church scale.

    Modern engineering also permits wider buildings, higher ceilings, and such. If a design must be imitated, why not the Hagia Sophia? Why must it be some chapel-in-the-woods blown up big?

  9. The Hagia Sophia is a good idea, but the problem in Raleigh is that the architect is obsessed with the idea of a cruciform church replicating the figure of Christ on the cross. It is difficult to believe that he has not seen some of the wonderful spaces in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM (to give just one example) where there are churches within a rectangular shell but with a horseshoe configuration of the assembly around the sanctuary. Or (still within a rectangle) semicircular arrangements like the cathedral in Venice, FL. Or any number of other arrangements that have proved their worth liturgically.

    And that he has not learned the lessons that arrangements such as the co-cathedral in Houston (T-shape, i.e. cruciform without the top arm) or Padre Serra in Camarillo, CA (altar in the dead center of an octagon), simply do not work. Christ Cathedral in Orange, to return to that recent topic, is on the edge of not working with a central altar (it needs to be shifted back towards the bishop’s chair).

    If only architects would not be so blinkered, or so concerned with “making a statement”, but instead be aware of other building projects of recent years, we would all be a lot happier. This is why we still need liturgical building consultants such as Dick Vosko, and why we need to bewail the fact that many architects feel threatened by such consultants. We should insist that they bow to their superior knowledge and experience.

  10. I think the transepts are too deep. In the videos they show a direct front view of the Cathedral, and the transepts look entirely too large and unpreportional.

    I also think that the choir and the organ being located in the balcony is problematic. With such deep transepts, choral and organ sound will probably not travel well to the back of the transepts. Was it not possible to make a bigger apse or choir (top of the cross) and locate the organ and choir there, as is often the case in more monastic and Anglican style buildings?

  11. Acoustics are the equal of visuals in evaluating design in terms of the reformed liturgy. The natural acoustics should support choral and congregational singing without need for amplification. A deep dome on a high drum suited a liturgy where a nimbus of choral sound was sufficient for the liturgy, but is problematic for congregational singing if the acoustical problems are not thoroughly considered.

  12. I serve in an L-shaped church; it was originally a simple rectangle but the population outgrew it. What had been the “parish hall” became the second wing of seating; the sanctuary was beautifully redesigned and realigned at a 45º angle, splitting the difference between the wings. Beautiful in principal, anyway. Those who aren’t seated in the front third of either wing might not even know there are people in the opposite wing. I won’t begin to describe the acoustical nightmare the redesign wrought, but it is clear that church design is far harder than it might seem. Raleigh’s designers are clearly looking for something “retro.” I hope the faithful are happy with the result.

  13. I’m disappointed with the brash statement this cathedral makes. It’s a “we’ve arrived” message more typical of Charlotte than Raleigh.
    I see the hand of Duncan Stroik with his love of marble monumentality and his desire to make a bold and bombastic Catholic statement behind this plan.

    Maybe this is understandable considering Sacred Heart in Raleigh is the smallest cathedral in the U.S., or once enjoyed that honor. It surely could win an award for being one of the most undistinguished cathedrals the Church has ever built. In a state where churches of all denominations run the gamit from ho hum gothic copies, or since Vatican II, examples of Ramada Renaissance to Dairy Queen contemporary. Most of them little more than a hodge podge of kitsch.

    A much more toned down three aisled, 6th century style Italian basilica with seats along the walls and flexible seating in the nave permitting people at times to stand close togehter might have addressed some of the acoustical issues raised here.

    The cathedral at Cuernavaca Mexico comes to mind as another possibility for finding something more suitable and yet striking, and with marvelous interior lighting too. The Raleigh diocese might also be able to produce a much cheaper building and without the need to create such a pastiche.

    For some interesting ideas:


  14. If I ever became rich and wanted to build a new house, I would definitely hire the New World Byzantine guys to design it. It would be interesting to see how they would approach a RC cathedral.

  15. My original comment was based on a general principle – I object to the idea that line of sight is absolutely necessary between all parts of the church interior. But after a closer look at the plans, I do see the concern. The transepts seem disproportionately deep, such that there does seem to be some fragmentation of the space. I would expect some acoustical issues as well. But my guess here is that the architect was caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, having a too-long nave was seen as problematic (back seats too far from the altar). On the other hand, shifting a good proportion of the seating into the transepts created distance/fragmentation from other congregants. It seems like a square peg in a round hole (or in this case trying to fit a semicircular ethos into a cruciform design). Probably if choosing a traditional cruciform/nave configuration it would be better to just go for it rather than compromising like this. Although the distance from the altar is greater for some, I would say there is much greater congregational unity in a long unified space. Thinking of the Basilica in DC, for example, which is enormous but has relatively shallow transepts. I’ve always felt like part of a huge unified assembly at major liturgies there.

  16. An important consideration that I haven’t seen touched on here, nor in the videos from Raleigh, is how the building functions as a cathedral church rather than simply a church. An important sign when the diocese gathers in a cathedral is that of the clergy concelebrating with their bishop as the head in ministry to and with the people. It seems to me the most likely placement of concelebrating clergy in this layout is in one or both of the transcepts. (The sanctuary does not seem large enough for the numbers of priests that serve Raleigh.) This is where the visibility of the people in the transcepts really becomes problematic. There should not be unintended symbols in a building that is inherently symbolic, but the fact is that the clergy are most likely going to end up on the other side of a wall from large numbers of the people they serve. In a building where even columns and hanging lamps are referencing the Book of Revelation, this is not a small issue. It points to inherent problems with using a form that developed to serve the liturgy in a different time and place.

    I also find it disturbing that while the place for the reservation of the Eucharist has been quite thoroughly thought through, as of the time of the video, the architect had no clue what the baptismal font would look like. To get to this stage of the design process without having considered anything other than its placement is telling of both the archtect’s and the bishop’s priorities.

    1. @Fr Lou Meiman – comment #24:

      How often do large numbers of clergy gather in a cathedral as compared to the times when people are baptized? Does a focus on reservation of the Eucharist (in a protected place) and not so much on baptism (where someone actually has to go out and evangelize) tell us something about the priorities of the JP2/B16 era? Would a cathedral design today be different?

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #25:
        The times when large numbers of clergy come together may be few each year, but they are the times when a cathedral is most a cathedral, when the fullness of the ministries of a diocese (clergy and lay) are present. A cathedral needs to facilitate that gathering.

        So far as baptism, I think the differences between Raleigh and the renovation of Christ Cathedral in Orange are striking. There the font has obviously been considered as an integral part of the design. The western entrance to the church has even been named the “Door of Catechumens.” I think this speaks volumes about priorities, particularly to the many non-catholic visitors this church will get.

      2. @Fr Lou Meiman – comment #26:
        A cathedral is also a parish. Baptism is primary for any parish community. Without baptism, there are no ordinations, no clergy, no blessed oils, nothing of the sacraments at all.

        As long as there are benches, chairs, or even open floor space, the clergy can be accommodated. If the loft is good enough for the music ministry, why not for extra concelebrants? Would a priest give up his seat, the last in the house, for an elderly person, a sick person, or even a child who was enthralled by the view? I would hope so. How often do they think of such things? Perhaps not as often as they might, I would guess.

        But I think the choice is a false one. It is possible to build a noble, beautiful, and liturgical cathedral for less than $41M and accommodate all of what is needful. Raleigh has chosen another path. And that is what it is.

  17. I absolutely agree that baptism is primary. In fact I was surprised to learn in reading Augustine Thompson’s excellent biography of Francis of Assisi, that at least in Central Italy, baptism was reserved to the cathedral well into the Middle Ages. Hence entire buildings devoted to baptism at the cathedrals of Rome, Florence, and Pisa. One of the roles that a cathedral has that is different from a parish church is that it is the liturgical center for a diocese. It sets the standards for parish churches. For the baptistry to become an afterthought at a cathedral is inexcusable.

    As far as the visibility issue, I didn’t intend it to be merely a matter of the clergy seeing and being seen. (Although I do find a certain irony in the priests literally being walled off from a significant portion of the people.) One of the other roles proper to a cathedral is calling together the whole church of a diocese. At the Chrism Mass for instance, ministers to the sick, catechists, parish council presidents, catechumens, parishioners, as well as deacons, priests and bishop together become a sign of the fullness of ministry that is the church of a diocese. In that case each person stands as a sign that points to a ministry larger than themselves. It seems to me that this heightens the need for the assembly to be aware of itself, and for the building to “form a deep and organic unity, clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people.” Choosing a plan that begins by placing stumbling blocks in front of the perception of that unity is poor design. Incidentally, this was also a concern that I had with the Diocese of Orange acquiring the Crystal Cathedral. Not that anyone could say that the congregation would not be aware of itself in that space, but large portions are separated by being on balconies that did not visibly connect with the main floor. I’m still not clear how this is addressed in the renovation.

    As for cost, my background is in architecture, and I would also totally agree that beautiful and noble design is not dependent on money. Some of the most creative solutions I have seen were forced by a lack of resources.

  18. here are my observances:
    there is no mention or place for a presider to sit other than the bishop.
    A daily chapel is necessary for the reservation of the eucharist(tabernacle); daily liturgies, small weddings, funerals and other services. For the size of this building, I find the size of the chapel very small. i would have placed the ‘confessionals” in the chapel( a sacred space) not in a narthex.
    yes, i agree that the baptismal pool seems to be an after thought compared to the Christ Cathedral in Orange.
    While a cruciform is very symbolic, it does “divide” the assembly into 3 parts.
    Check out St Elizabeth Ann Seaton Church, Keller, TX. They wanted a traditional yet modern church to seat 1200 people. I took the cruciform and rounded out the angles so that most of the assembly could see each other. It creates an very open space and it seems to work out well..not bad for $4 million 10 years ago!

  19. Those in the transepts are physically facing each other. And, as pointed out, more can be closer to the altar. it is a beautiful design, and at this point, neither following a design tested over the centuries or using something dreamt up 40 years ago is “innovative.” It’s about glorifying God and sanctifying the faithful.

    1. @Conor Cook – comment #30:
      But the point of the post is that church directives gives us functional requirements for architecture in order for the reformed liturgy to be celebrated well. I’m all for “glorifying God and sanctifying the faithful.” But according to the teachings of our Church, that happens through the reformed liturgy which places demands upon artists and all of us. I wouldn’t dismiss church teaching and directives as “something dreamt up 40 years ago.”

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