The first meeting I had after being appointed to my Catholic parish was with a leading lay man who turned out to be the chairman of the Building Committee. The people had been planning to build a new church and was I in favor?
Not bothering to examine the question further, I agreed with enthusiasm. There began a fascinating adventure of building a Catholic church in modern America. Unless you have been through the process you may not realize the complexity of the problem. The first question is what style the church ought to be. Will it be a modernistic, upside-down flying saucer? Will a pre-fab warehouse be sufficient? If traditional, are we aiming for Baroque or Byzantine, Gothic, Neo-Classical or Romanesque? Is the choice of style simply a matter of flipping through a church builder’s catalogue and choosing what the people like best?
Not really. Gothic and Baroque seem too ornate for modern America. Neo-classical fits. If there is a historic American style for churches it is arguable that eighteenth-century neoclassical is consistent. On the other hand, the austere simplicity of Romanesque—a precursor of neoclassical might be even better. Romanesque also has the advantage of being universally recognizable as Catholic. There are Romanesque-style Catholic churches everywhere around the world.
To build a modern church, finances and practicality demand that we build with modern materials. However, an ancient Romanesque church was built with primitive materials and methods. Solid masonry columns held up stone arches that supported the high walls above. Windows were small, and light was limited. When the churches were built, they did what they could, but the effect today is one of vast, dark spaces punctuated with light where God can dwell.
Still using masonry, the Gothic masters transcended their materials to create impossibly delicate interactions of light, glass, and stone that are still breathtaking in their beauty, their aspiration, and their absolute expression of divinity dwelling within temples that reach up to heaven itself.
They built with stone and glass. We have steel and glass. What sort of structure utilizes steel and glass to God’s glory? Perhaps Christ Cathedral (formerly the Crystal Cathedral) in Orange, California is the epitome of a modern church? It uses modern materials to achieve a soaring space for divine worship that speaks of another world in an ambitious modern idiom.
The conservative flinches at the thought.
He wants an church that looks like a church. That is what my building committee said. Having seen the attempts at modern churches in other parishes since the Second Vatican Council they were firmly convinced that their new church would be built in a traditional style. But how is this accomplished? Purists sneered at using modern building methods—a steel structure clad with an exterior veneer of brick and a plaster-board interior skin. “That is simply a pastiche!” they cried. “It is a pretend, artificial confection similar to Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland!”
I had to agree with them when I visited a new church built in Texas in an English Gothic style. The stone trim was plastic. The carved wood was molded resin. The steel frame was designed in such a way as to give the walls “the illusion of depth.” The limestone exterior was no more than a thin veneer. Was this a house of God with integrity or just another example of Disney-fied America—where every other building is fabricated in an artificial style? Drive around America and see: here a fake Tudor mansion, there a pretend hacienda; here a mock English castle, there a faux fisherman’s cottage. The whole suburban landscape is like one huge theme park. As a dour Englishman commented on his return from Orlando, “It’s quite amazing what the Yanks can do with plastic!”
So I found a young architect who shared my views. He designed a church built in the Romanesque style with modern building materials: cement block. He had the idea to cover the cement block with modern stucco product and he equipped our church with modern facilities. Here was the answer: to build a traditional church in a traditional way but with modern, affordable materials. The problem was that we still could not afford it.
A new architect was hired, and he explained that while cement block was cheap, labor costs were not. The conventional method of steel framing with a skin inside and out was practical, affordable, and would yield a pleasing result. So the compromises were made, and the steel frame of our new church has been erected.
The purists are not pleased, but on pondering the question further I came up with an even more problematic viewpoint. Were not the conservative purists who sneered at the pastiche dreaming of a church which would also be a pretend old church? Although it would be built of older materials would it still not be a reproduction, a curious work of antique architecture re-created like one of those re-built colonial homes you see in National Parks with hidden electric light switches? The only alternative seemed to be yet another suburban teepee church— a church that was unashamedly modern and consistent with the age in which we live.
Then I stopped and pulled my beard again. Like it or not, in modern America we are all used to living in buildings that are reproductions. We don’t have old stuff, and the old churches we do have were themselves built to reproduce the European style. Within the last two hundred years the architects and builders copied the old European styles with the materials they had to hand. St. Patrick’s Cathedral—that great Gothic monument in Manhattan—is not built of solid stone as such a building would have been in the Middle Ages, but in sensible brick clad in marble.
So in the end, a Romanesque church, built with modern materials and affordable methods is consistent with the world in which we live. That’s the way life is, I shrugged. We live in an eclectic, plastic and pastiche culture. America is a melting pot not only of people but of cultural and historic styles. The shopping mall is populated with little shops that are made to look like Grandpa’s General Store, Ye Olde English bookshop, or a French chocolatier. The restaurants in our suburban centers mimic a Tuscan villa, a Japanese ryokan, a Mexican hacienda, a New York Pizzeria, or an Irish pub.
A Romanesque church is recognizably Catholic. The style is universal and it makes for a simple, dignified, and commodious temple for God. We built ours, as our ancestors built theirs, with the best and most affordable materials and methods at hand.
As with any church building, it will be up to us to make it even more beautiful and authentic by the quality of worship, the reality of our life in Christ, and the eternal presence of Christ the King.
If you would like to learn more about Fr Longenecker’s project to build a traditional church in South Carolina go here.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.