By the time architect Henry Hardinge Menzies decided to concentrate on sacred architecture nearly two decades ago, he had already honed his skills over a successful 20-year secular career.
Menzies’ recent renovation of St. Augustine Cathedral in Bridgeport, Conn., has won wide praise and, some say, points to a renewal of sacred architecture. His original sacred-design projects span the country. He has also written several articles on sacred art and architecture for Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
From his office in New Rochelle, N.Y., Menzies spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.
What are some of your favorite projects among the churches, chapels and oratories you’ve designed?
The two in Connecticut are the ones I like the best. St. Augustine Cathedral was quite a challenge since it wasn’t originally designed as a cathedral, but as a small church. Bishop William Lori asked me to make it a beautiful church. It was in bad repair. I designed everything, including the tabernacle and the light fixtures.
The big things were the baldacchino of bronze, which turned out to be quite beautiful, and the reredos. Because I like to put the tabernacle on the axis of the altar, we needed the artwork behind it. There was only a blank wall there. I made the reredos of mahogany and put mosaics of adoring angels on it around the tabernacle. For that whole project, Bishop Lori was very much behind me. That’s why it came out so well.
St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan was even more of a challenge. The original church was designed without any indication that it was a church. For instance, there was no cross or sign of any kind. The interior was rather bare and the tabernacle was out of sight.
Renovation work is more difficult than starting from scratch since I must fit my design with another architect’s ideas. At St. Aloysius I had to follow a modern architect. At the cathedral, I had to follow (Patrick Charles) Keely’s Gothic architecture. When it’s finished I want it to look like this is the way it’s always been.
What do you think of the general state of ecclesiastic architecture today?
I’m going to be optimistic. There are people who are doing good things. When Mike Rose wrote Ugly as Sin (Sophia, 2001), he called me and asked me to send photos of my work. I got a bit nervous. But he said, “You’re the solution, Henry.” He also wanted to be positive.
There is hope ahead. We have been in a little battle to get beauty and art back into the Church. The Church was the patron of art for 1,500 years or more. Then some people after Vatican II have tried to make the Catholic Church look “Protestant” by eliminating most artwork and leaving bare walls.
Even if you put a cross up, you don’t have a corpus.
I’m a convert. That was the way we were in many Protestant churches. A place of worship has to inspire you. It has to speak to you. It has to invite people to pray. You don’t help people to pray with a bare church.
What are your thoughts on how best to revive traditional forms of sacred architecture?
If you chose to ignore traditional architecture, it’s just like ignoring any history: You’ll have to re-live it. We can learn a lot from history since there are design principles that are always appropriate and sound. On the other hand, we have to be optimistic to design for the future.
If the Church had not been creative itself, we wouldn’t have Gothic architecture; we’d still be worshipping in a cave. The Church sponsored this in the past, and the Church should take the lead in architecture today. We have to look at architecture as an artistic challenge to help people to pray.
People told me St. Augustine Cathedral has helped people to pray. That’s my reward — to help people to pray. I want them to come to attend Holy Mass and to have a devotion to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
What design elements can enhance or encourage worship and prayer?
Whether church or chapel, the reason for [the architecture] is the Holy Mass. The important thing in the church is the altar, where Mass happens. That’s got to look important. The problem is when they pulled the altar from the wall after Vatican II. What you got is only a table. It’s a table in a big space, so it gets lost.
How do you know it’s important? You put a kind of “house” over it — a baldacchino or a testa, which is a baldacchino hanging from the ceiling. You can also hang a crucifix within either, as well as light fixtures. In architecture you’re saying, “This table is important.”
The second important object in the church is the tabernacle, which over the last several years has been placed either to the left, to the right or out of sight. Consequently, people’s devotion to the Eucharist went down. The bishops realized there’s less devotion. People couldn’t find the tabernacle.
Where does design come into that picture?
You put the most important thing on the axis. After the altar, the second most important thing is the tabernacle. The main statue in a museum is put in the middle. For many of us the best place for the tabernacle is on the axis of the altar.
Why is designing for beauty especially important?
Because God is beautiful. It makes sense that the place where God is worshipped should be the most beautiful thing there is. They understood this during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The transcendentals are truth, goodness and beauty. That’s what God is. According to one great theologian, when you take away beauty, the other two transcendentals are incomprehensible.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.