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Sean SalaiMarch 04, 2019
The dedication Mass at Jesuit Tampa's chapel (Duncan Stroik/University of Notre Dame).

Duncan G. Stroik is an architect, author and professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His completed work includes the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in Santa Paula, Calif.; the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wis.; the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sioux Falls, S.D.; and most recently the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School Tampa, Fla.

Professor Stroik is the author of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternaland the founding editor of Sacred Architecture Journal. In 2016, he received the Arthur Ross Award for classical architecture. I interviewed Professor Stroik by telephone about his work. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

How would you describe the state of sacred architecture in U.S. Catholicism today?

I would say it’s improving, and it’s a very exciting time to be involved in sacred architecture in the U.S.

What positive trends do you see happening in sacred architecture?

I notice the younger priests and bishops, probably 60 years and under but also some older priests and bishops, have grown up with churches built in the 1960s and remodeled in the 1980s. And I think there’s now a general appreciation for some things that were ignored for decades, including a greater emphasis on the Eucharist, resulting in a stronger desire for beauty in the sanctuary and especially the tabernacle. We didn’t see that as much 25 years ago.

It’s a very exciting time to be involved in sacred architecture in the U.S.

What concerns do you have about sacred architecture?

I’m very invested in promoting a Traditional with a capital “T” Catholic architecture, which means not the 1950s, 1650s, or 1250s, but to look at the whole tradition of sacred architecture. We want to have beautiful buildings, but often we’re not spending the money. While architects have good intentions, they’re not trained to do classical or Gothic churches. They strive to do beautiful things, but many of them end up doing them wrong or badly. So there’s a danger that we’re building lots of things that are “traditional” with a small “t” and not very good. We’re too easily pleased by mediocrity as long as it seems theologically and liturgically correct.

How do you define sacred architecture?

Sacred architecture is the buildings meant to honor God and serve his people. That’s not just chapels, churches and monasteries. It’s also school buildings, hospitals and other places which have some religious purpose.

People often have a strong reaction to beautiful Catholic buildings. How do you understand beauty in sacred architecture?

I think for about five decades we lacked an appreciation of some principles of sacred architecture. Beauty is a big part of it. But I focus on what I see as the five principles: verticality, directionality, iconography, geometrical order and durability. If we do those five things right, we have a basis for creating a sacred building that can also be beautiful.

As we try to do what’s liturgically and financially correct, we build a lot of structures that don’t age well.

People also react strongly to sacred architecture that seems ugly or dated. What common mistakes do you see American Catholics making in sacred architecture?

Dated styles have been a huge problem for architecture especially in the late 20th century. As we try to do what’s liturgically and financially correct, we build a lot of structures that don’t age well. Some things which felt cutting edge at the time don’t look that way today.

In more successful sacred spaces, a unique blending of old and new seems operative, especially with beloved structures like Chartres cathedral and the South American missions. As an architect, how do you balance the old and new in a way that doesn’t merely produce a bad copy of the past or become instantly dated?

I think it’s natural and good that we continue to live in, worship in and beautify our buildings. As a classicist, I’m not interested in keeping a historic building untouched without any additions. I’m interested in keeping it free of ugliness, keeping it free of additions which look out of place or of noticeably lower quality than the rest of the space. We see that a lot in historic buildings, for example when they place a free-standing altar that’s not up to the same level as the rest of the church in front of the old high altar. When I do something new in renovating an old space, I want it to look like it’s always been there or even nicer than the original elements. Adding to the past is a good thing; adding to the past badly can be worse than doing nothing at all.

As one of the intellectual founders of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, you train architects to build sacred spaces in neoclassical style. What do you say to Catholic institutions who want to build something beautiful but can’t afford the high sticker prices to create something in this style?

I’m very sympathetic to that. It is kind of ironic because our great-grandparents, most of them immigrants, sometimes had to begin with simple structures. They tended, though, to rebuild or replace with something more beautiful once they could afford it. It’s ironic for us as wealthy Americans to be thinking about simplicity, but we do and I accept that. So I’d like to propose that we consider building beauty on a budget. My short answer is we have to prioritize where to focus our resources to make the biggest impact. In my work that usually means the face of the building, the front facade and its heart, the sanctuary.

Our great-grandparents had to begin with simple structures. They tended to rebuild or replace with something more beautiful once they could afford it.

What concerns do Catholics most commonly share when they approach you about consulting on a job?

The people who come to me usually have seen what we do and they’re interested to have us do that. If they don’t know what we do or how we do it, we’re probably not the firm for them. So our clients’ concerns are normal ones like cost and inclusion of traditional elements. I believe one of my goals in working with the them is to find what works for them in their particular city or religious institution. I don’t have a formula that fits all cases. I’m really trying to come up with something that meets the needs of the particular community, school or religious order.

Your recent work on the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School in Tampa, where a decaying structure built in 1962 to fit the whole school needed overhauling, has drawn a lot of attention. What can you share with us about the challenges of working on that job?

Well, the first challenge was that Tampa Jesuit had the impression they had to add onto the original chapel for cost reasons and nostalgia for the existing building. But the building was 16-sided and it’s hard to add onto that kind of structure. We came up with a design to add onto this very low-ceilinged building, but it became apparent the cost would be high. So we came up with a second simple design, appropriate to the Jesuit tradition, for replacing it. The new structure proved to be cost effective.

So challenge number one was doing away with the idea of renovating a building that wasn’t in good shape. Number two was Father Hermes, the president of Tampa Jesuit, and others wanting to include things that had been in the old chapel. That chapel was centralized, with some large abstract stained glass and multiple doorways for students to enter. We studied a number of centralized Jesuit churches to reproduce that feeling, though we couldn’t include everything they wanted. I never thought we’d do a Jesuit centralized church, but we did it and had a blast doing it. I had been waiting 25 years for a client to hire us to do a centralized church with the requisite height.

Our churches are one of the ways the universal church speaks to humanity, to the unbeliever, to the marginalized and to the poor.

Where do you find God in your work teaching and creating sacred architecture?

It’s my hope that we serve the church and, in our little way, that we help the faithful draw closer to Christ through these buildings. I say that realizing that architecture is only one small part of our experience of the church. But architecture, and art, are a very expensive part of Catholicism that can last a long time. It is always a high point of my life to attend a dedication Mass, like the one at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School Tampa last August, and to see the bishop anoint the altar and walls to set apart as holy something the firm designed.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about sacred architecture, what would it be?

I would say our churches are one of the ways the universal church speaks to humanity, to the unbeliever, to the marginalized and to the poor. So it’s one of the things the Catholic Church has always invested in. We need to continue doing so, whether it’s restoring the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or building new churches in poor regions of the world. I think one of the tangible and long-term ways we serve people in need, on the peripheries, is through sacred architecture.

What are your hopes for the future of sacred architecture?

I hope we’ll find more talented architects doing beautiful things—and not just trying to learn from our forebears, but developing the work to a new level. I hope for artists who will learn to sculpt and paint at a very high level so our churches will once again be places of great artistic quality that elevate people’s spirits.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

What I’ve tried to do for 25 years, and continue to try to do, is to contradict what we’ve been told for 40 years: “You can’t do that anymore. We can’t build things the way we used to build them. We don’t have the craftsmen we used to have.” That’s been my goal, to contradict that “common wisdom” which has really been P.R. to support the modernist architectural agenda. To contradict this iconoclastic agenda, I want to demonstrate the vitality of the church’s tradition through sacred architecture.

Any final thoughts?

Now that I’ve done one Jesuit chapel, I hope I can do others—because there’s a very rich Jesuit tradition, not just architecturally, but also for our urban areas. I love the marriage of art and architecture in Jesuit buildings, whether it be the Gesu in Rome or the mission churches of South America. The high interest in a sophisticated theology can inspire us to do a sophisticated architecture and art. I believe that happened at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School in Tampa because the Jesuits there wanted it to happen. It was an honor to be part of it.

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Bev Ceccanti
5 years 3 months ago

Not a penny till there's confidence the present churches aren't being desecrated with inappropriate flags, liturgies and 'missions'., etc.

Peter Schwimer
5 years 3 months ago

Just imagine how many poor could be fed for the cost of one of the buildings. St. Ignatius taught us to be disinterested and unattached to things. Jesus had no cathedral, he spoke on the mountainside. When did that change?

J. Calpezzo
5 years 3 months ago

It changed when frauds like Roger Mahony were elevated.

Carlo Lancellotti
5 years 3 months ago

What an ignorant comment. In Europe our great cathedrals were built by the poor and for the poor, and they were the home of the poor. Only a crass materialist could fail to understand that the poor are intelligent human beings, and they need beauty as much as they need bread. Rich people can buy beauty, the poor are the one who benefit the most of beautiful public spaces.

Peter Schwimer
5 years 3 months ago

Just imagine how many poor could be fed for the cost of one of the buildings. St. Ignatius taught us to be disinterested and unattached to things. Jesus had no cathedral, he spoke on the mountainside. When did that change?

Sandi Sinor
5 years 3 months ago

The first mistake is assuming that beauty in the sacred tradition requires building expensive and overly gilded large buildings. Honoring God means following Jesus' example - simplicity in creating a gathering space for the community, and caring for "the least of these". He frequently warned against ostentatious religious displays - whether in public prayer, or in dress or in material things. He. didn't much care for all those long tassels. Can't imagine what he'd think about silk and lace and gold rings on clerical fingers, and, God help us, the infamous garment called a Cappa Magna.

It's sad that the church strayed so far from what Jesus taught, through his words, and through how he and his disciples lived. They lived simply, they shared meals and their personal goods with their communities, and nobody lived extravagantly. There were no priests, no bishops, no hierarchy at all. Men invented the priesthood, including the hierarchy. Ignatius of Antioch shares some of the blame for this.

No cathedrals, no silk and lace and gold, no expensive art. After Constantine took power, the church morphed into a similar imperial institution, with a tightly controlled male hierarchy using the money of the people to build palaces for themselves and cathedrals for worship. They assumed control of the eucharist, denying people the tradition of house communities where the leader - usually the head of the household or of the local christian community - not a priest, and sometimes a woman - presided over the sharing of the word and of the sharing of the bread and wine during a real meal of the community. No ordination, no displays of wealth and power.

Not only should the church no longer build ostentatious and costly cathedrals and churches, it should be returning as much as possible to the model of Jesus and the early christian communities. The priesthood should simply be a leadership role (with the leaders chosen by the local community), and open to all Catholics. In the modern era, it might be necessary to have some churches to serve as the center for large parish areas made up of house churches. , The regular weekly eucharistic meals would be in homes, led by a member of each small, intentional community. Other activities could take place at the church or parish center, including large community celebrations such as First Communions, Christmas and Easter.

Jesus told us to care for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, the dying. He never said to build grand cathedrals, or to form a powerful and wealthy hierarchy of men who would live in mansions and palaces, have large staffs of servants, dine in the finest restaurants of the world, wear gold and silk and lace. It's anti-everything Jesus taught. These men should remind themselves that Jesus warned against all the false values they have adopted for the last 1700+ years.

They need to re-read Matthew 23. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the [b]best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, ... [g]Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. ..Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

The most beautiful churches I have seen are extremely simple and extremely elegant - often using natural products like finely polished wood for a simple altar. My favorites are small chapels - one is the chapel at Holy Trinity in Georgetown, where the priests say the weekly masses. Elegant and simple, with light streaming through the high windows. Another is the side chapel in a suburban church. The third most memorable and beautiful church I have seen was a small church in a small and very poor village in the Dominican Republic. Surrounded by the deepest poverty imaginable, this little gem is absolutely elegant - total simplicity - with the altar and chairs for the congregation carved by local craftsmen.

Although I have traveled a lot throughout Europe over many years, and have visited many famous churches and cathedrals, they make me a little sad. I admire the amazing engineering required to build them in an era without cranes. I admire the artistry and craftsmanship of the stained glass and elaborate carvings and paintings and statuary, but the excessive cost, the excessive gilt and grandeur make me feel a bit sick to my stomach. Those who ordered the building of these cathedrals, used the money of relatively poor people who gave partly because they feared that if they did not obey the powerful church they might go to hell, Stained glass and art served a purpose then - to illustrate the bible stories as a reminder to people who were mostly illiterate and who could not afford a bible of their own anyway. Few could. But times have changed and noble and elegant simplicity should guide the construction of new churches. More Cathedrals are not needed. Expensive and elaborate churches and chapels are not needed and are anti-Jesus' teachings.

The most reverent and beautiful masses I ever participated in took place in private homes with a dozen or so people, and, once, on a beach on a barrier island where only camping was allowed. A priest who was camping set up a simple altar on a camp table and said mass for his fellow campers. The most gorgeous setting you can imagine. Human beings can never compete with God's creation.

Jim Burton
5 years 3 months ago

Not wanting to spend money on beauty in the name of "the poor" is not necessarily a sign of holiness.

"Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”"

John 12:1-8

Jose A
5 years 3 months ago

I think money is better spent on building a "real" church by re-building the confidence of the laity with acts of humility and not constructing a building made of "stone."

Sandi Sinor
5 years 3 months ago

Excellent recommendation.

Virginia Bemis
5 years 3 months ago

One important factor isn't in the discussion here: accessibility. Any new church building should have the needs of the disabled as an integral part of the planning and construction. Disabled people want to participate fully in worship, but too often the architecture keeps us out. Entrances, seating, plumbing, and many other things are important "Getting into the house of the Lord" should not be an afterthought.

J. Calpezzo
5 years 3 months ago

And maybe Catholic architects would like to donate their services, an developers their time and treasure for the Most High? If not, the money is better used for the poor, not for the egos of pastors, bishops, and certainly not to line the pockets of architects and developers.

Suzanne Tamiesie
5 years 3 months ago

I agree with most of my the previous comments. This is not the time to be building multi million dollar neo-classical or any other type churches. Now as our government continues to turn away from those who are lacking health care, food, a roof over their head and work at a decent wage; our monies should go to those among us suffering from lack of those things. Jesus did not tell his apostles to build a grand temple he said feed the hungry, cloth the naked ..... That is our responsibility as Catholics. Christ was born in a stable and laid in a manager not in vast marble Roman villa. That is a clear message to His followers as to what is important when it comes the use of our monies.

Suzanne Tamiesie
5 years 3 months ago

I agree with most of my the previous comments. This is not the time to be building multi million dollar neo-classical or any other type churches. Now as our government continues to turn away from those who are lacking health care, food, a roof over their head and work at a decent wage; our monies should go to those among us suffering from lack of those things. Jesus did not tell his apostles to build a grand temple he said feed the hungry, cloth the naked ..... That is our responsibility as Catholics. Christ was born in a stable and laid in a manager not in vast marble Roman villa. That is a clear message to His followers as to what is important when it comes the use of our monies.

Bennett Kalafut
5 years 3 months ago

Is the construction of church buildings preventing you from doing corporal works of mercy?

If that isn't the case, and one doubts that it is, one should be reminded that it was Jesus who reiterated the commandments to love both God and neighbor--not setting these in conflict--and none other than Judas who objected to spending money on the former of these.

Will Nier
5 years 3 months ago

Why to be lead by abusive clergy

Crystal Watson
5 years 3 months ago

I agree with most of the comments - the money used to build expensive churches would be better spent on the needy. Medieval scholasticism hijacked the idea of what's important .... beauty is nice but it won't "save the world". Love will. And as Ignatius said, love is best shown in deeds, so use that money to help the poor. I think that's closer to what Jesus would want.

Kester Ratcliff
5 years 3 months ago

The most beautiful church I've been in is the silent chapel at Taizé, in France. It's extremely simple. It has symbolic elements- altar, three windows into the sanctuary space, reserved sacrament, a crucifix and an icon of Mary the Theotokos, but no ornamentation.

Beautiful and simple are not opposites. Complexity can be good too, if all the complexity means something relevant and is not just ornamentation for distraction, pompousity and directing people's attention to themselves or power relations with other people.

I don't like gold frilly churches. Many icons and much symbolism is good. But not just ornamentation and complications for their own sake. I like the small chapels in Greece, which are often in wild places on the coast or in fields or in villages, especially the simpler ones.

Kenneth Wolfe
5 years 3 months ago

What a terrific interview of a man who clearly understands beauty. Having seen the new chapel in Tampa, I can easily say it was built for the greater glory of God. May there be many more beautiful churches like it, which will lead souls to our Lord and to Heaven.

Craig B. Mckee
5 years 3 months ago

Doctor WHO has just landed his phone booth in liturgical WILLIAMSBURG whose ecclesiology reflects a VATICAN ONE outlook toward the past, not the future of Roman Catholicism. No surprise the blueprints came from South Bend.
How many of THESE men prayed there:

Tom Poelker
5 years 3 months ago

Unlike many others who meddle in Liturgy, Stroik gives his game away by saying "I’m very invested in promoting . . . architecture, " Artists of all sorts seek church commissions using their misleading claim that the church has always supported the arts. More accurately, the hierarchs of the church have always displayed their power and accepted gifts from the wealthy to do so through the arts. It was not the poor of the middle ages who built the churches but their ecclesiastical rulers who put their contributions to those uses.

Stroik wants his magnificent architecture and others want their magnificent music without any regard as to how what they do aids the first goal of liturgical practice: the full, conscious, and active participation of all present. Nor does he refer to the call for "noble simplicity" instead of cultural display.

The sanctuary and the tabernacle are not the focus of a liturgical worship space. It is the people who are called together to pray and learn and support each other. They gather around the table of the Lord. They need good sight lines and acoustics for the proclamation and sharing of the word. The very term "sacred architecture" shows a mindset toward display instead of "liturgical architecture" which is about action.

In our mobile society, it is a mistake to build ecclesiastical monuments when demographics can change so much in only a generation. Better to build [or lease] structures which can be left behind when the need comes.

Bennett Kalafut
5 years 3 months ago

I see: the faithful, gathered at the foot of Calvary, need good sight lines to participate (in the sense of "participatio actuosa") in the unbloody re-presentation of Christ's once and for all time sacrifice. Fair enough. But our forbears participated with rood screens in place--and before that, the templon--and our Eastern brothers still have the iconostasis. Perhaps they were more liturgically capable than us moderns. Different architecture for different times.

One wonders why also this should be done without emphasis on the sanctuary where the sacrifice is offered. A line of sight directed at what, if not the sanctuary? And the objection to the term "sacred" is strange, too? The antonym of "sacred" is "profane", not "liturgical." The architecture is to be sacred precisely because it has liturgical function.

Bennett Kalafut
5 years 3 months ago

Splendid interview--but I'd love to hear more about the design of Holy Cross Chapel, perhaps element by element. One good turn deserves another!

Ronald Myers
5 years 3 months ago

The job of the architect is not to decide for the parish what their worship space should look like but to understand what is required to make their focus be on the critical aspects of our faith and to guide them to find a desingn that not only engages their faith needs but also consider the parishes long term building needs and responsibilities. The replication of the western European worship spaces or the antiseptic worship spaces that were the vogue in the 60's should not be the goal. Building technology, materials and engineering design have advanced greatly since these designs were in vogue. It seems that the article describes the revision of places which were designed to meet building code standards that met but did not consider the longer term demands of Catholic churches which will be used for much longer duration's than typical commercial buildings. Thus you find churches which place more importance on appearance while skimping on unseen foundations, walls, roofs, plumbing, and energy use. Some of this is the fault of the pastoral staff and parishioners active in the design. Parishes should engage an architect firm that will spend time to engage all members of the parish, educate the parishioners on both appearance and structural building design aspects that allows them to make a reasoned decision on the worship space that fits their needs and is within their budgetary limitations. In some instances, the parish may choose to invest more of their treasure to have a building that lasts longer than the typical minimal code compliant commercial building or may be more visually notable building.

Charles Dunn
5 years 3 months ago

There is no reason in the Catholic World why Bishops cannot live in the Rectory Homes of their Parishes. Have we forgotten the Vatican Bank Scandals that soon ? Alexandria concrete coatings.

Sean Salai, S.J.
5 years 3 months ago

Thanks everyone for reading. I appreciate the concern for poverty and other issues. Just to make sure we're not dehumanizing particular people and situations, since I taught four years at Jesuit High School Tampa, I will add a little context not covered in the interview: Jesuit Tampa, founded 1899, built St. Anthony Chapel for 500 capacity on its new Himes Avenue campus in 1962 -- the school has always had a centralized worship space that fits the entire student body and faculty for daily convocations and other special events, a real spiritual heart of people's experience there.

By the early 2000s, the school had expanded to 750 students and was bursting at the seams in all of its facilities, and the new capital campaign to expand naturally included the chapel as well as theater and other non-sports areas. (As often happens in public and private schools, the sports facilities had been updated ahead of everything else, with new football and baseball fields being more than ample.) In a process that included full participation from everyone in the community, as well as consulting several architects, the school discovered that expanding the 1962 chapel-in-the-round was not a feasible option -- the chapel's materials were both dated and deteriorating, with kids regularly fainting during mass because it was so poorly ventilated in the Florida heat. This new chapel, pictured above in my interview with Duncan Stroik, fits the needs of a school currently expanding its existing usages to a fixed target enrollment. While it costs money to build a worship space for 950 boys and faculty/staff, this new Chapel of the Holy Cross still includes multiple entrances and has better handicapped access than the old St. Anthony Chapel, and it greatly pleases a community where families have long enjoyed having weddings/funerals and other services in a large campus worship space allowed by the local pastor.

The chapel's cost is not out of proportion with other buildings (administration, theater, arts, etc.) being erected on Tampa's modular campus as part of the new master plan; I don't know why it would particularly offend anybody that this school community has chosen throughout its history to spend a comparable amount of money on the space where it worships together as on the spaces where it plays football and saxophone. The inside of the new chapel has a strong verticality and centralization, but it is not covered in gold, it does not look like the shrine in Hanceville, Alabama, or some of the ornate gold churches of South America.

During Lent, I find it helpful myself to remember in reading online comment boxes that I am talking about real people when I express opinions about things, and to remind myself of Scripture: Judge not, lest ye be judged. And that includes, for me, not falling into the loop of judging people who strike me as judgmental. I hope that's helpful. Let's continue to pray for one another and for our Catholic Church during these difficult times.

Sean Salai, S.J.
5 years 3 months ago

Some more background on the Jesuit HS Tampa chapel project: https://www.jesuittampa.org/page.cfm?p=832

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