A Noble Radiance

Recent Episcopal Chapels

by Brian W. MacMichael, appearing in Volume 23

The devout usage of chapels occupies a venerable place in Christian practice. Whether in a university dormitory or amidst a sprawling Gothic chevet, favorite chapels inform the pious memories of many of the faithful. The notion of an intimately arranged chapel summons a certain fascination and esteem, conjuring idyllic thoughts of the zealous knight praying until dawn before battle, or of the instrument of conversion in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Romanticizations aside, chapels are generally regarded as peaceful havens of fervent prayer. At the same time, they can wonderfully illustrate that popular piety and private devotions are not antithetical to the Church’s liturgical life, as was long argued in certain circles. And they may also serve as exemplary models for larger churches. With this in mind, let us examine a handful of chapels recently established by American prelates: four in the United States, and one in Rome.

Fashioning an Ornament

Our first example is the private chapel of the Most Reverend David A. Zubik, Bishop of Pittsburgh. Upon his appointment to Pittsburgh in 2007, Bishop-designate Zubik chose not to stay in the large historic residence of his predecessors at Warwick Terrace. He instead opted to live at Pittsburgh’s Saint Paul Seminary, where he himself had entered priestly formation in 1967, and where his presence could help to encourage current vocations.

In 2008, the Hayes Design Group Architects was commissioned to transform the former Diocesan Purchasing offices at Domenec Hall into living quarters and a private chapel. The chapel is situated at the end of a hallway within the bishop’s apartment, and set apart by decoratively carved wooden screens. It was constrained by the existing building dimensions: a 12-foot width and a 14-foot floor-to-ceiling height. The builders also inherited a pair of full-height windows placed symmetrically at the opposite end from the entrance.

The Private Chapel of Bishop David A. Zubik in Pittsburgh, by the Hayes Design Group. Photo: Diocese of Pittsburgh

A striking feature of the chapel is the swooping bi-level ceiling. Creatively devised by the Hayes Design Group, it transitions from an intimate ceiling height above the nave to an upward, heavenly trajectory above the sanctuary, while maximizing the amount of natural light entering from the windows behind the altar. It also provides a practical solution for concealing ductwork above the lower ceiling.

In order to imbue the room with a sense of the sacred, the Hayes Design Group collaborated with Hunt Stained Glass Studios and New Guild Studio, both local artisans that had done work for diocesan churches. Hunt Studios salvaged and modified twelve stained glass panels from the old Warwick Terrace chapel, each depicting scenes related to the episcopacy. These were then installed in a custom casework and arranged as bay windows in front of the existing windows. New Guild Studio designed the furnishings and vivid finish schemes of the chapel, including a tapestry pattern on the lower portion of the ceiling, and a field of stars on the swooping ceiling plane.

The pre-existing tabernacle of steel and bronze was refurbished and fitted with a new bronze and copper cross. The tabernacle is enthroned on a pedestal before an original oak reredos and canopy, both produced by New Guild Studio. Immediately behind the tabernacle is an exquisite triptych, also an original creation. Executed as an oil painting on wood, the triptych’s center panel depicts the Crucifixion, with the Blessed Mother and Saint John looking on from the wing panels—all encased within a gold-leafed, Gothic wood framework.

The altar, ambo, chairs, and prie-dieux all came from the Warwick Terrace chapel. New Guild Studio refinished and embellished the altar and ambo with color and gold leaf, while affixing Bishop Zubik’s personal coat of arms to the front of the ambo. The four candle holders on the altar were created by Modernist artist Virgil Cantini. The Stations of the Cross were salvaged from a former diocesan parish and fitted against new, cross-shaped panels. Various other items and appointments in the chapel are from the diocesan archive collection of religious artifacts. In a particularly personal touch, upon a shelf on the wall to the right of the altar (when facing into the chapel) rests a vigil candle in honor of the bishop’s late mother, Susan Zubik, along with a bouquet of yellow roses, her favorite flower.

Completed in late 2009, the chapel seats ten. Bishop Zubik himself was actively involved in overseeing the chapel’s construction and character, says David Miriello of New Guild Studio:

Working on the designing of his private chapel with Bishop Zubik was a rewarding experience. We coordinated with him to develop a design concept that would reflect his personal taste and allow us the opportunity to express our own interest in early Christian art forms. We thought of the chapel’s small space as a jewel box or medieval reliquary. Through the use of deep, rich colors, the space attains a sense of intimacy. The painted decorative patterns on the ceiling and the tapestry pattern of the reredos draw on traditional liturgical motifs and complement the architectural forms of the space.

Honoring Saintly Patrons

We turn now to another private chapel, this one belonging to the Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, IN. After his appointment in 2009, Bishop Rhoades elected to reside in a recently-built rectory located in downtown Fort Wayne, within walking distance of both the cathedral and the chancery. The home did not have an existing chapel, so a parlor near the main entrance was converted into one for the use of the bishop and any visiting family and friends. Aside from the addition of lighting fixtures and a decorative green wallpaper to serve as a backdrop behind the altar, no extensive remodeling was required for the room itself. The dimensions allow for the comfortable seating of a half-dozen worshipers, and plenty of natural light flows in through a large window in the side wall.

Although relatively modest in appearance, the chapel prominently exhibits pieces of singular personal and spiritual significance to Bishop Rhoades. The main crucifix, above the altar, was an ordination gift from his cousins. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, placed to the left of the crucifix and above the celebrant’s chair, is from the rector of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City, given when Bishop Rhoades celebrated Holy Mass there. The image is a replica of the face of Our Lady of Guadalupe as found on Saint Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma, which is housed in the basilica.

Saint Juan Diego in Bishop Rhoades’ chapel. Photo: Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend

Hanging on the wall opposite the window in Bishop Rhoades’ chapel is a reproduction of a famous painting of Saint Juan Diego by the eighteenth-century indigenous Mexican artist, Miguel Cabrera (who himself was given extraordinary access to make three copies of the tilma in 1752). Bishop Rhoades was consecrated to the episcopate on December 9, the feast of Saint Juan Diego. This image was presented to him by the Hispanic Catholic community in his home diocese of Harrisburg, where he first served as bishop.

Out of respect for his deep devotion to the Mexican Saint and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Rhoades’ private chapel is named the Chapel of Saint Juan Diego. The reasons that inspired this selection are explained by Bishop Rhoades:

I spent much of my priestly ministry serving Hispanic communities in my home diocese of Harrisburg. The people’s faith inspired me and led to my devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego. My chapel in Fort Wayne reminds me of the wonderful people I served. Also, the tender and loving gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the image in my chapel gives me hope and confidence as I remember her beautiful words to Juan Diego: ‘Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?’

Saint Juan Diego, a simple, humble Indian is also a reminder to me that God is glorified by the humble. This loyal son of the Church deeply loved the Virgin and was a faithful disciple of Jesus. I see him as a model of faithful and humble discipleship as well as an intercessor, along with the Blessed Mother, helping me in my ministry as a bishop.

The altar, ambo, tabernacle, and sanctuary lampstand in the Chapel of Saint Juan Diego were all appointments that had previously been used by churches in the diocese; the chapel’s tabernacle coming from Fort Wayne’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Thanks to a well-maintained Cathedral Museum in Fort Wayne, some of the more noteworthy items from closed churches and abandoned collections have been preserved, exhibited, and judiciously returned to sacred use in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Both Bishop Zubik’s and Bishop Rhoades’ chapels illustrate the increasing trend throughout the American Church of salvaging sacred items. Whereas old furnishings and other treasures were casually discarded even as recently as fifteen or twenty years ago, today it seems there is widespread recognition that these pieces have, at the very least, some sort of worldly value. Indeed, it is now very much in vogue to seek out restored church goods.

A Vatican Chapel

Our third example of a private episcopal chapel takes us to Rome and the home of His Eminence, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke. In 2008, then-Archbishop Burke of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis was appointed Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal during the consistory of 2010.

At Cardinal Burke’s residence in the Vatican, many of the prelates’ apartments have their own chapels. He arranged for the existing chapel space to be renovated, with design work done by Abbé Alexander Willweber of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. The chapel measures 12-feet-wide by 20-feet-long, and two pews in the back can seat a half-dozen comfortably. For the most part, only the three Sisters who serve in the household are present when His Eminence celebrates Holy Mass, which he offers in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite. There is a slightly elevated sanctuary, and the faux marble altar is set against a brilliant gold brocade that adorns the walls and other fixtures. The tabernacle is elegantly veiled, and two relics rest on the gradine above the altar: Pope Saint Leo the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen, a Western and Eastern Father of the Church, respectively.

The private chapel of Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Vatican City. Photo: Paul Haring, CNS

Upon entering the chapel, two images are particular focal points. The first is a ceiling fresco of the Three Hearts (depicting the Hearts of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), which was painted by artisans of the Gipsodeco Artshop in Rome. The second is a framed mosaic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was executed by the Vatican Mosaic Studio and centrally installed behind the altar. His Eminence graciously shared the following reflection on the history and significance of this distinctive piece:

The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has nurtured my Catholic faith, especially my faith in the Holy Eucharist, from the time of my childhood. When I arrived in Saint Louis to serve as Archbishop, I found in the dining room of the Archbishop’s Residence a most striking image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is among the most beautiful that I have seen and has become my favorite. As I was promoting the devotion to the Sacred Heart in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, copies of the image, in prayercard format (with the Morning Offering on the reverse side) and in larger formats for enthronement in the home, schools, and other institutions, were printed. Eventually, the image was reproduced in mosaic by the Vatican Mosaic Studio for a shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis which was blessed and enthroned on June 17, 2007.

When I was transferred from Saint Louis to work in the Roman Curia in June of 2008, a most kind and generous friend from Saint Louis had the image reproduced as a mosaic, once again, for enthronement in my private chapel. Enthroned above the altar of sacrifice and tabernacle, and behind the crucifix, the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus gives artistic expression to the great mystery of God’s immeasurable and unceasing love for us, expressed most perfectly by Christ’s death on the cross for our eternal salvation and by His making ever present for us the Sacrifice of Calvary through the Eucharistic Sacrifice and by His remaining with us in the tabernacle after the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The beauty of the image draws my attention to the infinitely greater beauty of God’s love as I witness it daily in the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the reposition of the Body of Christ in the tabernacle.

The fresco of the Three Hearts by Gipsodeco Artshop in Rome. Photo: Paul Haring, CNS

Cardinal Burke’s profound devotion to the Sacred Heart is manifested both in the chapel’s artwork and in its title: Sacellum Sacratissimi Cordis Iesu (the Chapel of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus). This chapel is therefore a testament to the fact that the commissioning of remarkable sacred art remains an effective means by which patrons can promote devotions dear to them, while providing the faithful with powerful aids to fruitful prayer and divine worship.

Oratory furnished by the Knights

Inspired by the adjacent basilica by Benjamin Latrobe, the renovated oratory at Archbishop William E. Lori’s residence in Baltimore was a gift of the Knights of Columbus, designed by Rohrer Studio and dedicated in December 2012. Part of the residence dating to 1834, the space was originally the seating area at the top of the stairs on the second floor. The inscription above the altar Sancta Maria Filios Tuos Adiuva, “Holy Mary, Help Your Children,” invokes the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patroness of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. A trinitarian symbol is the focus of the sunburst of gilded wood, surmounted by angels carrying a crown, signifying Christ as King. The altar of sacrifice is constructed of wood with a calacatta marble mensa, inscribed with five Greek crosses symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. The relic chamber at the front of the altar, visible through the bronze grille, contains the relics of seven saints and beati including Blessed John Paul II, who prayed in this oratory in 1995.

Oratory in the Residence of the Archbishops of Baltimore. Photo: Jim Suttner, AIA

“The House of Mary” in Kansas City

We now look at the Chapel of Our Lady of Ephesus, established by Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City – Saint Joseph. Bishop Finn (who was himself consecrated to the episcopate by then-Archbishop Burke in 2004) enlisted William Heyer, a classical architect based in Columbus, OH, to help create the chapel at the diocesan chancery in Kansas City, MO. Completed in 2011, it is not a private chapel for Bishop Finn’s personal use, but is built on a grander scale and intended for the curial staff of the diocese and for the broader benefit of the diocesan faithful.

The story behind this chapel is truly fascinating, and has its origins in Ephesus, Turkey. According to tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary last resided in Ephesus under the care of Saint John the Evangelist, until the time of her Assumption (or her “Dormition,” as the Eastern Churches refer to Mary’s falling asleep and subsequent bodily resurrection). Some 1,800 years later, Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey (+1915), a French noblewoman who joined the Daughters of Charity, was sent to nearby Smyrna (now Izmir) to work in a Turkish hospital. While there, she encouraged an expedition to find the ancient home at Ephesus, and with the assistance of a Vincentian priest, she eventually succeeded in identifying the “House of Mary.” After purchasing the land with family money, the house became a shrine and popular destination for pilgrims.

One such pilgrim was Bishop Finn, who celebrated Mass at the shrine a few years ago. While visiting Ephesus, he met with the Archbishop of Izmir about the canonization cause of Sister Marie. Not long thereafter, on account of limited resources and other challenges in Turkey, the Archbishop asked whether Bishop Finn would be willing to adopt Sister Marie’s cause officially. This was approved by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in January of 2011. Thus, in an interesting turn of events, the Diocese of Kansas City – Saint Joseph now oversees the cause for sainthood of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey. It was only natural, therefore, that the new chancery chapel would be informed by this connection, and by Bishop Finn’s special devotion to Our Lady of Ephesus.

Chapel for the staff and faithful at the Diocese of Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: Diocese of Kansas City

In 2010, the diocese had acquired the historic New York Life Building in downtown Kansas City. Constructed in the late nineteenth century and located just a couple blocks from the cathedral, this brick and brownstone Neo-Renaissance building was the first “skyscraper” in Kansas City. A massive bronze eagle sculpture, original to the building, still stands guard over the main entrance and makes a most appropriate icon. The eagle, of course, is the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, the adopted son of the Blessed Mother. According to legend, Saint John built the home at Ephesus himself.

The chapel is found at the heart of the chancery on the ground floor, occupying the space of a former conference room. In another happy coincidence, the room had already been outfitted with classical elements—an ideal style with which to invoke the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. The pilasters and existing entablature were repainted and gilded during the restoration and conversion into a chapel.

New chandeliers and custom woodwork were ordered for the project, and niches were installed for statues of Saint Paul and Saint John. On an easel in the sanctuary below Saint Paul rests an oil painting of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey, depicted holding a miniature version of the home at Ephesus. The tabernacle was obtained from a diocesan parish, while a number of other items, including the high altar and pews, were acquired from recently closed churches in the Diocese of Cleveland.
Bishop Finn collaborated with Heyer’s firm in the design process from the beginning, and the result is some extraordinary symbolism. The freestanding altar designed by Mr. Heyer’s office is a scale model of the house-church in Ephesus, complete with a blind arcade to represent the façade and doorway. A new terrazzo floor was arranged in a geometric pattern to recall the temple of Jerusalem, with a highly symbolic emblem of Our Lady of Ephesus placed in the center. Mr. Heyer provides the following account of how the emblem was devised:

The rose at the center is from the ionic column capitals on the (destroyed) temple of Artemis at Ephesus and an ancient Church symbol of Mary’s purity. The surrounding outer line is symbolic of tower embattlements as they would be seen from above—a direct reference to the headdress of Artemis of Ephesus and symbolic of Mary as ‘Tower’ of Ivory and ‘Tower’ of David. The lilies are Greek symbols of Artemis and ancient Church symbols of Mary’s purity. The alternating pomegranates are classical symbols of fertility and symbols of Mary’s singular fertility in delivering the God-Man, Jesus Christ, to humanity. The crescent moon is an ancient symbol of the goddess Artemis, but transferred to the Virgin Mary as she is the ‘reflection’ of her Son as the moon reflects the light of the sun. Thus the emblem is a representation of the Virgin Mary as would be understood in light of ancient symbols of the Church, and particularly those symbols significant to the ancient culture of Ephesus, Turkey.

Emblem of Our Lady of Ephesus in the terrazzo marble floor. Photo: Diocese of Kansas City

Fittingly, the chapel was dedicated on August 15, 2011—the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nonetheless, it is still a work in progress: for instance, there are plans for a future reredos portraying Our Lady of Ephesus, which would take the place of the current Coronation of Mary scene above the altar.

Holy Mass is currently celebrated about once a week in the chapel, with seating for sixty. The Mass is celebrated in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, with the latter being offered at the high altar. A wooden altar rail is available for anyone who wishes to receive Holy Communion in that manner, and chant is the preferred style of sacred music. In fact, music at the Dedication Mass was chanted completely a cappella.

Some Practical Considerations

The points concerning the presence of altar rails and the use of chant lead us to a couple general observations about trends in Catholic ecclesiastical design.

Until quite recently, it was extremely rare—even mistakenly considered forbidden—to (re)install altar rails in a church, whether new or as part of a restoration. Although no official Church documents ever mandated the destruction of altar rails, the practice was rampant after the Second Vatican Council. This was in spite of the outcry of many of the ordinary faithful, whose pious sensibilities rebelled against the notion, but who had no real recourse presented to them.

In the United States, the norm of receiving Holy Communion while standing was often cited as proscribing altar rails (arguments in favor of their graceful demarcation of the sanctuary notwithstanding). The previous English translation of no. 160 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, although not forbidding reception while kneeling, did discourage the practice: “Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.”

However, the current translation of this passage (revised with the new Roman Missal) simply states: “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling.” The communicant’s right to kneel (affirmed in the 2004 Roman document, Redemptionis Sacramentum) is reinforced, without qualification. Perhaps this subtle shift will contribute to a re-evaluation of the potential merits of the altar rail in future liturgical designs.

Another critical question in future church construction is the tasteful placement of musicians. This is all the more true for small chapels that experience frequent communal use, where it would be especially unseemly to cram a piano or other musical paraphernalia into the only open space available (i.e., the sanctuary). Time and again, the Church has upheld Gregorian chant and chant-like compositions as the musical style that most properly complements the liturgical action of the Roman Rite. In many ways, chant also most properly complements the Church’s sacred architecture. For the sake of both aesthetics and acoustics, when a place set aside for divine worship is limited in size, the accommodation of a small yet talented schola, comfortable with singing the Mass a cappella even from the pews, would seem an excellent option when feasible.

Concluding Reflections

This modest sampling of new chapels shows that it is possible to maintain a sense of intimacy without necessarily forsaking a degree of splendor. Moreover, we are reminded that the incorporation of a personal spirituality does not hinder a worshiper’s ability to engage in a sacramental encounter with Christ, but rather nurtures it and lends a unique appeal. As Monsignor M. Francis Mannion wrote, “the restoration of the devotional will render church architecture more genuinely popular; the devotional serves as a key conduit to the liturgical.”1

These and other general considerations surrounding sacred architecture are of increasing importance during this time of ongoing liturgical renewal after the Council. Indeed, with the heightened sense of reverence being cultivated by the new English translation of the Missale Romanum, there should be greater impetus to assess how every facet of divine worship could be rendered more transcendent. Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 34 instructed that the liturgical rites “should be distinguished by a noble simplicity”—a characterization that came to be applied to the sacred arts in addition to ritual activity. However, “simplicity” was overemphasized, while the original Latin phrase—ritus nobili simplicitate fulgeant—was overlooked. Fulgeant (from which we have the English “fulgent”) means “let them flash” or “lighten” rather than “distinguished,” and implies that our worship should shine or “flash with illuminating straightforwardness.”2

Sacred places intended for divine worship need not evoke the opulence of Cluny, but they also cannot embrace iconoclasm or disorder and still lay full claim to being a sacramentalization of art and architecture. A noble radiance that fosters an encounter with Christ must permeate the domus Dei. Otherwise, monumental churches that inspire the fascination of our culture yet lack evangelizing beauty may struggle to outshine even the most unassuming of chapels in what matters most.