CODY, Wyoming — When the monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel wanted to design a new church for their Wyoming home, they turned to a building style just as ancient as the 800-year-old Carmelite order itself — Gothic architecture. Designed by Jim McCrery of McCrery Architects in Washington, D.C., its plans call for towering spires, flying buttresses, twin bell towers, wooden trusses, rose windows and more of what typically might be found in Europe’s greatest spaces of worship.

The monks are not alone. Parishes and religious orders across the United States also are turning to traditional design for new churches and renovations.

“That is an enormous change from 10 years ago,” said architect Ethan Anthony of HDB/Cram & Ferguson Architects of Concord, Mass. “I’ve seen it go from nobody even thinking about this to it becoming kind of a cause. It’s a big deal things are happening.”

The trend pushes against the modernist architecture that frequently typified church construction in the second half of the 1900s — and returns to design seen in the first half of that century. In the United States, traditional architecture gave rise to churches such as St. Florian in Hamtramck, Mich. Built with a penny campaign and dedicated in 1928, it is a “most spectacularly huge,” Gothic church, according to Anthony.

It is as much statement as it is stature. St. Florian was designed by renowned Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram (a founder of Anthony‘s firm). The St. Florian website notes that “Cram rebelled against the hard-nosed social Darwinism of the Industrial Age and sought to reclaim the beauty and spiritual values of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.”

Not long thereafter, though, such churches became a thing of the past.

First the Depression strapped parishes and put church construction projects on hold, Anthony said. World War II caused another interruption, and Anthony said men returned from the war “really in love with science.” That, he added, coincided with “a huge secularization, even in the Catholic Church.”

Architecture, meanwhile, began to emphasize “basic, simple, modern, straightforward” design. More changes were sparked by Vatican II, especially the document addressing art in churches, Sacrosanctum Concilium. That document, though primarily about the reform of the liturgy, also spoke about church architecture. Some church designers, though, went farther than the document itself.

“People within the various dioceses in the United States seized up on that because they wanted to promote modern architecture in the Catholic Church and said, ‘Well, Vatican II said we have to tear out all this old furniture because it’s old,’” Anthony said. “What a terrible destruction happened.”

Duncan Stroik, an architect in South Bend, Ind., said, “The misinterpretation of Vatican II was like Pandora’s box in which architects and clients thought that it meant anything goes. Anything as long as it was not traditional styles.”

That spawned what Stroik called the “consistently dull” suburban churches of the late 1960s and 1970s.

“Cheaply built, ugly, dysfunctional and iconoclastic,” Stroik said. “If they had been built as commercial or residential buildings they would have been torn down by now. There are some churches designed by famous architects which, though sophisticated, are rather poor places of worship.”

He mentions Seattle University’s Chapel of St. Ignatius, the Chapel of St. Basil at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. He also cites the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, which some locals refer to as “Our Lady of Maytag” because its dome looks like the agitator of a washing machine.

“Interestingly, they all received awards from the architecture community,” Stroik said.

But beginning about 20 to 25 years after Vatican II, Stroik said, laypeople and younger clergy started to question modernism and began asking for “churches that look like churches.”

The trend, he said, is “almost only in the Catholic world” and is driven “by a sacramental sense that Catholics have and an inherent understanding that churches should be beautiful because they reflect the Creator.”

That means rejecting radically sloped floors, auditorium seating in the round, a “big-box-church type of mentality” and other fare of modern architecture that Anthony mentions. Instead, Stroik said, clients are seeking “beauty, verticality and traditional iconography.”

“There are those who want simple elegance and others who believe in rich colors and decoration,” Stroik said. “Both are part of our artistic patrimony.”

The South Rises

Anthony said he sees this trend to tradition “everywhere,” including in his home Archdiocese of Boston, where he said modern architecture especially took root.

“The local people here, the grassroots people here, are working to try to break that down from the bottom up,” Anthony said. “The fact that the people here wanted to do what they consider more church-like architecture is a huge thing, a huge change.”

But where traditional church architecture is most prevalent today, Anthony and Stroik said, is in the South and Southwest.

Traditional work there would include HDB/Cram & Ferguson’s Benedictine Syon Abbey in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Designs for the Gothic church and monastic buildings were inspired by a study of ruined English monasteries. Completed in 2007, its features include a facade of Spanish limestone, arched windows, marble tile flooring and a massive, 80-foot-tall bell tower.

Other projects Anthony’s firm have completed include Houston’s Our Lady of Walsingham (completed in 2003), which replicates the carpentry and stonework of churches near the site of a shrine destroyed by Henry VIII. Gargoyles stand guard on the four corners of the Gothic church’s tower. In Farragut, Tenn., Anthony designed St. John Neumann Catholic Church (completed in 2008), inspired by Romanesque churches of France’s Burgundy region.

McCrery’s firm has been involved with more than a dozen liturgical projects across the United States, including significant works in the South. His Chapel of St. Cecilia in Nashville, built for Dominican nuns, was inspired by Roman basilicas. In Charlotte, N.C., McCrery’s St. Ann Catholic Church expanded on a church that for more than 50 years had celebrated Mass in the basement of a never-completed building. The new design was so popular that donors responded with enough funds to add mosaics, statues and inscriptions. A new bell tower is in design. In Linville, N.C., McCrery’s St. Bernadette Church added to a metal building with a major interior renovation featuring wood trusses and grooved wood ceilings in the nave.

Stroik’s firm has completed churches in Covington, Ky., (All Saints) and Bullhead City, Ariz., (St. Margaret Mary) and designed others, including St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg, S.C. Design of the latter, modeled on U.S. Catholic church and Lombard Romanesque architecture, “will incorporate forms and symbols that make it unmistakably a Catholic church.” His firm’s 16 church projects also include a “creative restoration” of St. Joseph Cathedral in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“We are committed to a restoration of the sacred and a new renaissance of church architecture,” said Stroik, who in March received a Palladio Award from Traditional Building and Period Homes magazines in recognition of outstanding work in traditional design.

Beautiful Gates

What’s behind such a trend to the traditional? There seems to be plenty of praise to go around.

Anthony, for one, credits Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, in his 1986 book The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, “tried to take the bitter edge off of a lot of the rhetoric” regarding church architecture post-Vatican II. Anthony recently wrote the final chapter exploring new Gothic and Romanesque architecture in North America in a forthcoming book of essays, Benedict XVI and Beauty in Sacred Art and Architecture: Proceedings of the Second Fota International Conference, 2009. Fota is a small island in Cork Harbour, Ireland.

McCrery also praised Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, saying both have “encouraged a re-inspiration, a rededication to the Church’s tradition in theology, in philosophy, in liturgy, in the arts and in architecture.”

Anthony also said the return to traditional church architecture was a grassroots movement, one influenced by laypeople who travel to Europe, see the great churches there, and then develop “a yearning for great architecture.”

No matter who’s to credit, Anthony said it’s important that beautiful churches be made.

“The primary starting point has to be that when you see the building or when you enter the space that you absolutely know exactly where you’re at every moment,” Anthony said. “That you are seized with emotion and with an emotion of wanting to enter and wanting to go pray and wanting to be closer to God, understanding that you’re in God’s space; you’re in God’s house. This is the gate of heaven.”


Register correspondent Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.