When renowned architect Duncan Stroik first saw the images of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning, he could not believe what he was seeing. Here, in contrast, he suggests that we should “see what we are believing.” That is, we should be able to find today, in visible form, the teachings of Christ passed down through his Church.

These “sermon in stone” sentiments are present in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and are reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, yet it has taken a while for much of the Church to carry them out.

Stroik, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1990 and founded the Institute for Sacred Architecture in 1998, considers not only statuary, stained glass, mosaics and frescoes to be artwork, but also the very foundations, walls and ceilings of churches themselves. He thinks that, far from being based merely on seating capacity, a church’s configuration should declare that one is in the presence of Almighty God.

Stroik has used this philosophy while designing places of worship such as the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

Here, Stroik shares his memories of another building named after Our Lady — Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris — and the traditional architectural ideals that are regaining prominence.

 

What were your initial thoughts when you first heard about the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris burning?  

As with the World Trade Center collapsing, Notre Dame burning was hard to believe. The French government was saying they did not know if they could save it. Many were assuming all was lost. However, I knew how well built the Gothic cathedrals were, so I was optimistic that whatever damage it sustained, it could be resurrected and restored, like the enormously beautiful Amiens Cathedral after World War I and the Beauvais Cathedral after World War II. 

 

Do you have personal memories from visiting the cathedral?

Notre Dame is to Paris as St. Peter’s is to Rome. I always make it a point to visit the grand cathedral on a trip to Paris. Even better is to visit during Mass, to see it used in all its glory with its magnificent pipe organs and singers filling the nave with beautiful and powerful sounds. I visited it recently with my grad students, and we had a wonderful time. We will certainly cover the importance of Notre Dame in the next issue of the Sacred Architecture Journal [the publication of the Institute for Sacred Architecture].

 

What magnitude of loss is this in historical, architectural, cultural and spiritual terms — and do you see it as symbolic of the Church receding?

The symbolism can apply to whatever view one has of our modern predicament. I see the fire as a warning to us, at one level to protect the temples of God, but also to protect Catholic culture and civilized culture generally, which is so fragile and being attacked from the outside by many. How can we on the inside, like the sandbags within the cathedrals during World War I, shore up the monument — or the culture — for future generations?

 

Do you have a plan of how you would redesign the cathedral with different materials, building techniques, etc., or replace it with an entirely new one that looks nothing like the previous one? 

It should be rebuilt using modern machinery such as cranes, but the modern machinery would be used to fasten traditional, hand-crafted materials together. Given the strength and longevity of these materials that have lasted from the Middle Ages, I believe it would be the wisest way to rebuild. We should be very careful not to insert modern structural elements into the traditional walls and vaulting, as this often causes devastating problems.

Oftentimes we assume “modern” is always “better,”’ but that is not the case. I can point to many examples of traditional churches that have lasted centuries, while many modern ones have needed fixing just decades after their construction.

 

What are your thoughts on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame in Indiana, and is the architecture/art of the basilica anything like that of Notre Dame in Paris?

Our chapel at Notre Dame, whose original name was Our Lady of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, is not especially based on Notre Dame de Paris, although it feels like a French Gothic church. It is cruciform and has a nave and side aisles, groin vaulting and a square crossing. Other than that it is generally different than Notre Dame de Paris in construction, style, materials, stained glass, geometry and proportion. 

I jokingly call it “a fancy Midwestern Gothic-esque church.” It was not designed by an architect per se, but by the Holy Cross brothers because Boston’s Patrick Keely, an amazingly prolific 19th-century architect who designed every Catholic cathedral in New England, had a price they thought was too high. In any event, the university has made a generous gift toward the restoration of the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

 

Do you think Catholics everywhere should take this as inspiration to build their own churches, not necessarily on the same scale, but at least approaching what the cathedral was?

Unequivocally, yes. What is our century currently building for the future? Massive museums, football stadia and office buildings. These all have their place, but we Catholics should ask ourselves: What is most important to us — what do we want to stand as enduring monuments long after we’ve left the earth? Let those things be expressed in architectural and artistic terms, so they can speak to people today and long into the future.

It has been said that a church building is supposed to be a sermon in stone, so we should see to it that what can be expressed verbally is also expressed materially. That’s the incarnational outlook the Catholic Church has always had and that we should take upon ourselves to preserve today.

All sacred architecture — which, to me, includes not only cathedrals, churches, monasteries, convents and shrines, but also hospitals, schools and other buildings that in some way have a religious connection — should point beyond this world to the next. If there’s nothing spiritual to point to, all we’re left with is functionality: a purely pragmatic construction process bereft of any notion that man is meant to spend eternity elsewhere.

 

Do you think most Catholics are unaware of the admonition from Sacrosanctum Concilium and reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that bishops are to promote genuinely sacred art and remove from churches “those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth …”?

The average Catholic probably doesn’t know that, since he would take his cues from what he sees before his very eyes: sub-par architecture that has dominated the scene for the past half-century. On the ground, things have often not been pretty, but the Church still officially endorses truly sacred art and architecture.

Not all artwork is of equal worth, so we should ensure, as best we can, that what we use in worship is not faddish or incoherent, but enduring and enlightening. I like to say that we should be creative, but within an already-existing language. When we set out to write a poem, we don’t make up our own words or grammar, and when we set out to design a church, we don’t make up our own symbols or church layout. Those basics have been handed down to us, so the creativity for us is making them come alive in new ways.

 

In that vein, you recently won the “Palladio Award” for your completed Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida. Do you have other projects — maybe even Gothic cathedrals — in the works?

We are working on a pretty substantial chapel at Hillsdale College in Michigan and are in the fundraising stage of a chapel for the Carmelite Hermits in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. No Gothic cathedrals on the slate yet, but we are certainly open to the possibility. It would be wonderful to create, within the already-existing Gothic framework, something new for the glory of God and eternal good of the faithful.

While Americans have many magnificent churches in the states, the ones closest in spirit and size to Notre Dame in Paris are the National Cathedral in D.C. and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Both of these Episcopal structures were built generally in traditional masonry, as done in France and England.

Catholics have St. Patrick’s in New York City, which is the first great Gothic cathedral in the U.S. The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. was the Catholic answer to the National Cathedral and Byzantine Romanesque, in contrast to the Episcopal cathedral. But does the Church in America have the heart today to build such things for the glory of God?

I believe in the resurrection of the human body, and I also believe that magnificent buildings can be resurrected out of the ashes as new creations, while others still can be brought into existence for the first time.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.