A Return to ‘Noble Beauty’

Church Renovations Enhance Sacredness of Sanctuaries


Rising to the beams of the modern, wood-paneled ceiling of St. Theresa Church in Sugar Land, Texas, are gold marble columns, a peaked baldachin and white arches — the renovated church sanctuary at this suburban Houston parish.

Motivated by the church’s acquisition of a new organ whose pipes would be placed on either side of the sanctuary, in 2005, the church’s pastor, Father Stephen Reynolds, and parish leaders consulted with Duncan Stroik, an architect and University of Notre Dame professor, to transform the formerly stark sanctuary so that the altar, unified with the tabernacle and crucifix, would be the church’s true center. The renovation was complete in 2007.

Influenced by a return to tradition and a desire for the sacred, parishes around the country are bringing elements of ancient Greek and Roman architecture and Christian history into their unornamented 20th-century churches. Renovators seek to increase the centrality and sacredness of Christ’s incarnation, the Eucharist and the liturgy in their churches in a way that is both transcendent and beautiful.


Churches That Look Like Churches

People want churches that look like churches, said Stroik, whose South Bend, Ind., firm has done classical renovations in many churches, along with new church designs. Restoring sanctuary features such as the altar, tabernacle and crucifix to prominence is a popular renovation route.

“Not everybody can afford to build a new building, but they want to beautify the place of prayer and the place of the liturgy,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of small projects to renovate and beautify churches.”

Rediscovering tradition is gaining in popularity, agreed Denis McNamara, associate director and assistant professor of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.

“People are using finer materials for their altars, moving tabernacles back to the center axis and beginning to understand figural art’s role in giving people an image of the population of heaven,” he said. “People are also rediscovering the importance of flooring in sanctuaries and churches, removing the industrial-quality carpet and using higher-quality materials like stone.”


Understanding Vatican II

Modernist churches built in the past 50 years represent a theological and architectural break with the past often wrongly attributed to the Second Vatican Council, Stroik said. 

The language of Vatican II’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, isn’t prescriptive and, unfortunately, was misinterpreted, he said.

“It didn’t say we must white-wash interiors and get rid of the traditional art,” Stroik said. “It didn’t say hide the tabernacle or move it out of the sanctuary. It didn’t say we should gather in the round or that the most important goal is to see other people, which happened in a lot of places. I think that’s one of the great myths of what we say Vatican II said vs. what it actually said.”

According to McNamara, the Vatican II document actually “turns men’s minds to God and his glory.” It states “that churches should be composed of ‘signs and symbols of heavenly realities,’ that they should be worthy and decorous and possess a ‘noble beauty.’”


Showcasing the Sacred

Making sure churches reflect heaven is a way to evangelize, said Father John Paul Erickson, director of the Office of Worship for the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese. “The current movement to classical forms, I think, is part of a wider phenomenon of not abandoning our dialogue with the world, but we can’t forget who we are and where we come from.”

Church architecture is not only beautiful, but sacramental and educational, Father Erickson said. “With a religion like ours, that is so deeply embedded with symbology, we need to be very careful and clear about the symbols we use. A beautiful sanctuary ...  contributes to the theological education of the people.”

Along with the liturgy and other aspects of parish life, church buildings assist in the New Evangelization, Stroik said.

“Over the period of years that you go to that church, you’re learning about and deepening your faith, and so it’s worthwhile to have the architecture be an appropriate sermon, as it were.”

A church should reflect theology rather than simply reflect an architectural style, McNamara agreed. It “should be thought of as sacraments are thought of: Humans use material from the earth with the help of the Holy Spirit to reveal the things of heaven. A church building is an image of Christ’s mystical body glorified and perfected, compared in the Book of Revelation to the ‘city’ of heaven with golden, jewel-covered walls. It is filled with heavenly beings and centered on God. If the church building appears empty, arbitrary and dull, rather than populated, theologically intentional and radiant, people intuitively know something is wrong.”

Renovators should make ancient principles contemporary to us, Father Erickson added.

When the Carmelite sisters of the Monastery of the Infant of Prague in Traverse City, Mich., asked Stroik to redesign their chapel sanctuary in 2010, they adorned the simple 1960s-era chapel with a few high-quality materials: rich-colored marble and alabaster, mahogany columns and a large crucifix.

“If you have something valuable, it’s going to last forever,” Mother Mary of Jesus said. “If we hadn’t been able to afford it, we would have done the best we could [with less], but the Lord kept providing the money.”

In 2011, Father Bob Schwartz, now-retired pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, Minn., wanted the church’s renovated sanctuary to enhance and strengthen the previous design.

With a plan by Minnesota liturgical designer Father James Notebaart, the parish installed an arched stone entry leading to the tabernacle. The parish also had a light-colored stone floor installed in the sanctuary to further highlight the tabernacle.

The renovation shows the centrality of the Eucharistic celebration while also reverencing the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, Father Schwartz said. It places a distinct focus on the Eucharist but doesn’t disrupt the Georgian-colonial architecture of the 28-year-old contemporary church, he added.

“There is a sense that this is a sacred space, and you can come here anytime as a sacred space,” Father Schwartz said. “The Eucharist is the reason that it’s a sacred space.”

St. Theresa parishioners near Houston are pleased with the renovation of their church and chapel (also renovated in a classical style), Father Reynolds said: “I think people appreciate it.”

Whether or not they “update” their church sanctuaries with elements reminiscent of Roman cathedrals, Catholics are seeking in sacred renovations what they’re not finding in “modern” churches: beauty and transcendence that offer a foretaste of heaven, Father Erickson emphasized.

“While the earthy and the earthly need to be certainly addressed in the liturgy, the elevation of our minds, of our hearts and of our souls to heavenly things is a critical part of the liturgy, and beautiful spaces help us with that,” he said. “They more accurately portray as much as we can this side of the veil what is really going on in the sacred liturgy.”

Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.