PETOSKY, Mich. — Barb Shimmons always dreamed of being married in St. Francis Xavier Church in Petoskey, Mich., a church she was attracted to because of its traditional style.

A month after her 1998 marriage to Ramon Shimmons, a renovation plan was announced that would move the altar forward and remove the communion rail.

“We were just devastated,” Shimmons said.

She and other parishioners objected and, two years later, the renovation still has not begun, although the parish business manager claims the project is scheduled to proceed May 7 with the removal of pews.

Shimmons and other lay Catholics no longer are remaining silent when Church leaders tell them their churches must be altered to comply with liturgical guidelines.

In communities as divergent as Petoskey, Mich., Grand Rapids, Ohio., and Rochester, N.Y., lay people are questioning whether changes are mandated or even recommended by the Church “in the spirit of Vatican II,” a phrase often invoked as a blessing for such projects.

When a proposal was announced to renovate St. Patrick Providence Church in Grand Rapids by moving the altar into the center of the church and relocating the tabernacle, parishioner Cathy Tippenhauer reacted immediately against it, though she didn't quite know why.

Tippenhauer said the project awakened a drive to learn, understand, and read more about what the Church really has to say on the subject. “It was kind of a springboard for me.”

Likewise, Michael Brennan of Rochester said a recently announced plan to renovate Rochester's Sacred Heart Cathedral sent him searching for his copies of the Vatican II documents and other Church writings.

“I had to do some research and I have done that research,” said Brennan who is part of a 30-member group circulating petitions against the cathedral renovation. “It has focused me on my faith. And I'm finding it more of a treasure and worth trying to keep.”

Respect for Church art is stressed in Rome's post-Vatican II instructions. “Should it become necessary to adapt works of art and the treasures of the past to new liturgical laws, bishops are to take care that the need is genuine and that no harm comes to the work of art,” states Opera Artis (Works of Art), published by the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy in 1971.

Michael Rose, author of The Renovation Manipulation, said most of the projects that have drawn opposition include such elements as moving the altar closer to the congregation, removing the altar railing or statues, moving the tabernacle and replacing pews with chairs.

The U.S. bishops’ new document on church architecture, “Built of Living Stones,” has attempted to address such issues.

It says, for example, that in most cases, the altar should allow the priest to celebrate Mass facing the people. But it also says the sanctuary should be distinct and that seating should not resemble that of a theater or arena.

“Built of Living Stones” allows the local bishop to determine the location of the tabernacle, but says it can be apart from the altar of celebration or in a separate chapel. In any case, the document says, “the piety of the people and the custom of the area” are to be considered.

The document also urges respect for existing buildings and stresses the need for balance by selecting designs that protect the Church's ancient artistic heritage.

Despite increasing interest in such documents by the laity, Sister Arlene Bennett, director of the secretariat for worship and liturgical formation for the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich., thinks opponents of renovation projects tend to be ill informed.

“What we're trying to do is follow the official Church directive, and people who haven't had an education in the Church since the Second Vatican Council have a problem with anything that is being changed in the Church,” said Sister Arlene, a proponent of the controversial renovation of St. Francis Xavier Church in Petoskey.

“They have no concept of the history of the Church, the theology of space in relationship to the liturgy, and rather than go through the educational process they would rather just object to everything.”

Sister Arlene said parishioners who have challenged plans for a separate Blessed Sacrament devotional area at St. Francis Xavier, for example, fail to understand the difference between Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and Christ as present on the altar during Mass.

“How many Jesuses do we need?” she said.

“Because they don't know and understand, they won't listen to it. They still want to look back at that tabernacle where the body and blood of the Lord from the last Mass has been put.”

Sister Arlene said directives in the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal provide that the tabernacle be in a separate chapel, “if possible.”

Yet, because of parishioners’ objections at St. Francis Xavier, a lattice wall that was to have divided the tabernacle area from the Mass altar has been eliminated as part of the $3.2 million plan.

Instead, there will be two lighting systems so that during Mass, the altar will be illuminated, and after Mass, the tabernacle will be lit.

Duncan Stroik, associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Institute for Sacred Architecture, said projects that draw the greatest opposition are those that fail to respect original architecture and artwork.

No one, he said, seems to complain about new churches designed in a traditional manner or historic churches that are being restored.

Repairing the Damage

He said many churches that were remodeled after Vatican II now are being re-renovated to put things back to where they were.

One such example, he said, is the recently restored Gothic chapel of Emmanuel College in Boston, which was built in 1915 and renovated after Vatican II.

Stroik said any renovation should work aesthetically with what is already there.

Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., agrees with Stroik.

Parishioners once thought there was nothing they could do about impoverished renovations, said Bishop Burke. “Now,” he said, “people won't accept that.”

Canon law encourages the laity to engage themselves in this way.

“The Christian faithful are free to make known their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires to the Pastors of the Church. In accord with this knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred Pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church” (Canon 212).

“I think that what is so needed in our time is to respect the tradition of Church architecture and not to have it be such a rupture with everything people associate with sacred art and architecture,” he said.

“We need to find that continuity. It doesn't mean that some new art form can't be introduced, but we need to respect the tradition that has been handed on.”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.