Catholic Architect Shows Why Churches Should Be Truly Beautiful

William Heyer notes the force behind recent projects.

St. Turibius Chapel is seen at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio: Top-to-bottom images show what it looked like before and after the restoration.
St. Turibius Chapel is seen at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio: Top-to-bottom images show what it looked like before and after the restoration. (photo: Courtesy of William Heyer )

Churches may be closing to the faithful amid the coronavirus outbreak, but the spiritual sustenance they provide continues with livestreamed Masses, prayer services and processions, which reveal the beauty of sacred art.

Many people would be surprised to learn that the topic of beauty in sacred art is addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the section on the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

William Heyer, however, is not surprised.

The Columbus, Ohio-based architect, professor and father of six has been studying, teaching and designing for years with beauty in mind. Truth — and goodness, its other counterpart in the transcendental triad — would be incomplete without beauty. Indeed, the Catechism says, in Paragraph 2500, that “truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty.”

When an onlooker sees genuine beauty in a church, more than mere glamour (beauty for its own sake) is conveyed. The combination of qualities such as permanence, symmetry, proportion, verticality and coloring (especially in regard to iconography), make a church pleasing to behold, because it is a material expression of spiritual truth.

Heyer has worked on some notable sacred building projects in recent years, including Clear Creek Abbey in Hulbert, Oklahoma, and the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri. Closer to home, he oversaw the restoration of St. Turibius Chapel at the Pontifical College Josephinum, where he has lectured on sacred architecture.

St. Turibius’ feast day is March 23, in the same month that plays host to the feasts of St. Joseph (the 19th) and St. Katharine Drexel (the 3rd), the former being the primary patron of builders and the latter being a patroness of builders. Indeed, a lot of ground is covered in this “Marchitectural” interview, which was conducted before the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S.


What new projects have you completed since our first interview in 2014?

We’ve been extraordinarily busy. In 2015 we completed a new parish church — Sacred Hearts in Cardington, Ohio — replacing one that had burned to the ground. In 2016 we restored and beautified Blessed Sacrament Church in Newark, Ohio, and extended the sanctuary area of the church at Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma. The great Thomas Gordon Smith, my mentor and friend, designed the whole abbey, but when he retired, he recommended I take over for him. What an honor.

In 2017 we completed the restoration and beautification of St. Turibius Chapel at the Pontifical College Josephinum. The before-and-after photos of the sanctuary are quite dramatic. That project was done in conjunction with Evergreene Architectural Arts.


In 2018 we completed the new Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, for the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, and we completed a new campus chapel, the Oratory of St. Francis at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 2019 we completed the beautification of the historic 19th-century St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lancaster, Ohio.

These are the primary projects during that period, but there were many smaller renovations and beautifications which we take equal pride in. Every church counts. Each houses the same Body and Blood of Christ, so every church is important as an expression of the faith.

Looking forward, we are working on an adoration oratory next to the full-sized oratory in Fort Wayne, renovations and beautifications to St. Joseph Cathedral in Jefferson City, Missouri, and master planning projects in the Dioceses of Nashville and Columbus.


The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in Missouri are known for their bestselling CDs, so did you design their chapel with acoustics in mind?

Yes, acoustics were very important for this chapel from the earliest sketches. I understand that some of their recordings are made in the chapel, but the sisters have recorded in other rooms around the monastery, as well, like the chapter room, which we also designed. Mother Abbess, being a professional musician, has a real ear for the best acoustics, no matter what unlikely places may be found for recording!


You are a choir director yourself, so are “organic” acoustics (as opposed to electronic or “artificial” amplification) something you strive to promote? With the use of hard surfaces, ambo placement and surroundings, and even types of paint that help to project sound, it seems like electronic boosting is an expensive and obstructive option.

We have, in all of our projects, quite interesting conversations about acoustics. Sometimes we hire acousticians that have extensive experience with historic churches because most other acousticians primarily understand commercial spaces like theaters and modern Protestant worship spaces. Specialists in historic acoustics are particularly important for Catholic churches where — and you are certainly correct — “organic” acoustics are preeminent.

We strive to design volumetric [carefully measured] spaces, sometimes with vaulting, that lend themselves to beautiful acoustics for pipe organs and choirs. Our clients do not want artificial amplification for singing, since the shapes of the spaces — including recessed sanctuaries, side shrines and side aisles — naturally lend themselves to organ and choir projection.

With the spoken word of one person, however, “artificial” sound amplification can be helpful — even essential, especially in large churches. One of the challenges has been implementing this without intruding on the sacred nature of the building. Thankfully, today there are many technical options for good speaking amplification that do not distract from the beauty of the church interior.


The primary concern in making sanctuaries more traditional in recent decades has been the central placement of the tabernacle. Now there’s interest in bringing back other traditional furnishings, such as tabernacle veils, reredos, Communion rails and altar canopies. Along these lines, The Liturgical Altar and A Guide for Altar and Sanctuary are now back in print from Romanitas Press, but are altar canopies, for example, required today?

The canopy over the altar — whether in the form of a baldachin, tester or crown — symbolizes many things: the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit at her Son’s conception, Mary herself with her newborn Son at the Nativity, Mary with her defiled and dead Son at his descent from the cross (the Pietá), the cave/shed of the Nativity at Bethlehem, among others. It is a beautiful architectural element for expressing the centrality of the miracle of the Eucharist through any of these symbols. It is not currently required in practice by any Church authority, but it is highly recommended — in any one of the forms I mentioned.


Have you noticed that architecture can become part of the rite — for better or for worse? I know of a church with a large, transparent window in the sanctuary, through which parishioners can watch sail boats and seagulls during Mass.

Liturgy, when done well, is beautiful, even if offered on the back of a military jeep during wartime. I was always impressed with photos of this from World War II. Liturgy can be beautiful when offered in the remains of a burnt-out cathedral; we saw this recently in pictures of a Mass in Notre Dame de Paris after the fire. Even liturgy offered beautifully in a heinously distorted Modernist church can take our minds away from the ugly surroundings and lift our hearts to heaven.

In a way, this dynamic is a powerful parallel to our faith in the midst of a fallen world. We are meant to bring goodness, truth and beauty into situations that lack it, rather than sit back and wait for everything to be just right until we start in with our own work. We have to work with what we’re given, so that can mean functioning in less-than-ideal circumstances.

With all that said, truly sacred architecture should support the sacred liturgy and, through all the forms and symbols, assist us in worship and inspire us to heavenly thoughts and aspirations. That’s what my life’s work has been about, and that, thankfully, is a growing trend in new church buildings over the past two or three decades.

Fulton Sheen said that when faith in the spiritual is lost, architecture has nothing left to express or symbolize. Thankfully, we’re witnessing the opposite shift now: More people see that physical expressions of the faith — found primarily but not exclusively in church buildings — are important forms of communication. Spiritual meaning is conveyed through physical matter.


With more people heeding the Church’s command to remove unworthy art (No. 124 of Sacrosanctum Concilium and No. 2503 of the Catechism), has your work included making Stations of the Cross more visible, for example, after they had often become smaller and more abstracted in the 1970s and ’80s?

At William Heyer Architect, we enjoy designing stations that are properly visible for this centuries-old public and private devotion. Sometimes we design frames for smaller existing stations to give them more presence in the church. Some historic churches have amazing monumental stations inside or outside, which dramatize how we are to sanctify suffering in this world — a topic that touches everyone’s life.


The Catholic Artists Directory was launched last year on Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of Mary. Have you worked with members of the CAD and have you considered joining yourself, since they are now looking to add architects and other artists — including goldsmiths, glaziers and even candlemakers? 

Yes, I have worked with several of these artists, such as Andrew Wilson Smith and James Langley — even before this directory began. Andrew and James are wonderful artists to work with, so if the CAD is adding architects to the mix, I would be happy to be among them. I love to advance the cause of sacred art and making God’s presence understandable through material and craft.


The Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin’s cathedral burned down in March 2005, so would you be open, after 15 years of no cathedral, to designing a new one for them?

It would be quite an honor to design a new cathedral for Madison after the sad demise of St. Raphael’s, due to that devastating fire. There are many beautiful houses of worship in the upper Midwest — the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee is one example — and it would be humbling to take part in that beauty.


You appeared on EWTN Radio’s The Good Fight with Barbara McGuigan last year to talk about the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Would you recommend that archived show to people who want to learn more about sacred architecture? 

Yes, that was a fun interview with Barbara. She directed the conversation in a way that gave the listener inspiration and hope out of the ashes. People might not initially think of architecture as being part of a battle for good over evil, but that interview helps to show the eternal significance of how we build.

The question I always get after I give a lecture is, “What book can I buy that has all this stuff that you spoke about on sacred architecture?” Well, there is not currently one grand book, dissertation, paper or lecture, but we are working on a list of outside resources that will be added to our website soon.


Are you hopeful for the future of sacred architecture overall?

When I teach, 100% of my audience is open to a return of real beauty to our churches. Just based on that percentage, I have great hope for the future!

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.