An Architecture for the Poor

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 38

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Photo: K. Burian


Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Photo: L. Lu

When some of us think of architecture for the poor, we think of the Los Angeles Cathedral. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels looks like a building for the poor: simple, low, concrete, and not gaudy. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, on the other hand, is grand Gothic, with a high ceiling, and ornate with statues and stained glass. Yet it was built by the poor Irish in New York.

These two cathedrals represent two very different ideas about architecture for the poor. Not just for church buildings, but for schools, rectories, retreat centers, hospitals, retirement homes, and any building in which the Church’s work is done. One is a type of Catholic building that is stripped down and functionalist. The other is a type of Catholic building that is rich, beautiful, and built to last.

Saint Francis and Saint John Bosco

Some would question why we should spend great sums of money on architecture when what the poor really need are buildings that meet their functional needs. And yet if we follow Saint Francis, Saint John Bosco, and other great saints, to help the poor means serving not only their material needs, but their spiritual needs as well. One of their spiritual needs is for beauty, and particularly beauty in their churches.

Saint Francis of Assisi was an educated, well-off nobleman who had a conversion and decided to live in poverty. There are a couple of architectural images associated with him.

One is a famous painting by Giotto of a moment in Francis’s conversion. Francis was praying in front of the crucifix in the little church of San Damiano, which was falling down. Suddenly, Christ spoke to him and said, “Francis, I want you to rebuild my church.” Francis took that as a word from God and physically rebuilt the little church with his own bare hands.

God meant him to also rebuild the Church, the whole Church. That is represented in another painting in which Pope Innocent III dreams about the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran, which is falling down. Yet there is a little man holding it up, and that man is Francis.

What is the architectural corollary of Saint Francis of Assisi’s holy poverty? Is it the shantytowns of the third world? Or is it the stylish minimalism of first-world condominiums and the Los Angeles Cathedral? Or the beauty of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City? When we build churches, schools, and soup kitchens for the poor, should they be cheap or should they at least look cheap?

In Turin, there is a famous shrine built by another saint who worked with the poor: Don Bosco. A nineteenth century saint, he spent his life serving orphan boys by giving them a home and helping to convert them. He served the poorest of the poor and educated them and gave them a craft. At the same time, he spared no expense to build the magnificent church of Our Lady Help of Christians.

Santa Maria della Pietà in Venice offers another example of architecture for the poor. It is famous for being the home of Vivaldi, who was the priest and composer-in-residence (writing music for a double choir of young girls) in the early eighteenth century. One of the four Ospedale Grande (great hospitals), charitable hospices that served the needy of the city, it offered a home for orphaned and abandoned girls to preserve them until adulthood. Some became nuns, but most got married, and La Pietà gave the brides a small dowry.

La Pietà had great success as an orphanage and promoter of music. In 1760, donors made it possible to build an even more splendid church and residence. This ovular interior was protected from the sounds of the city by a full narthex. It has a grand high altar and two side balconies for the orphan girls to sing during liturgies, with frescoes by Tiepolo and other great artists.

The Basilica of Our Lady, Help of Christians, built by Saint John Bosco in Turin. Photo:

The Needs of the Poor

Good architecture serves the material and the spiritual needs of the poor. It provides buildings and rooms for people to live in, study in, and work in, while doing it in a way that can inspire. Do the poor need architectural beauty? Yes, maybe even more than other people do. Their surroundings may not inspire them. The buildings they inhabit may be in poor shape or brutalist in style. The poor need beauty to ennoble them, to raise them up out of the morass of this fallen world.

We see the desire for beauty and tradition expressed in the parishes and schools built by poor immigrants in previous centuries, such as the ethnic churches in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Poor, working people built these grand piles full of statues, paintings, and architectural decoration that embodied their faith and their dreams. Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art rich in iconography and richness.

Why do we build beautiful buildings for the poor? When we welcome the poor to the homeless shelter, the school, the soup kitchen, the medical clinic, the pregnancy center, or the unwed mother’s home, we welcome them to our home. Nothing less than the best is acceptable for a guest. We roll out the red carpet since we believe “as you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”

This is particularly important when we build schools in working class neighborhoods. Poor children spend a lot of time in these buildings which can, through quality of design, inculcate a sense of the importance of learning. Likewise, our hospitals should not be merely functional processors of the sick but should, through their lobbies, furniture, artwork, and public areas, offer hope to the suffering and their families.

For religiously affiliated hospitals, artwork that speaks to healing, suffering, and resurrection can be especially palliative. When we are sick we are poor and in need of assistance.

Ennobling Housing

When most people think of architecture for the poor they think of housing, which is fundamental to life and is a major part of people’s identity. A house can ennoble its inhabitants or keep them down.

Some years ago, my students designed and built a house for Habitat for Humanity next to Notre Dame. One of the leaders of the organization visited the house and was shocked to see brickwork below the front porch, which matched the older houses in the neighborhood. He said, “You can’t make this house nicer than the other Habitat homes. You will make the other owners jealous.”

In his view, the poor deserved the minimum that everyone else had. The house was meant to provide for their material needs, not to beautify or dignify their life. Unwittingly, our students were imitating Dorothy Day, who once gave a diamond ring to a bag lady. The staff at the Catholic Worker house said, “Wouldn’t it have been better to sell the ring and use the money for the poor?” Dorothy said to them, “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

The Human Scale

Do the poor need a different or lesser architecture than other Americans? They, too, can feel the solidity of brickwork, the generosity of a porch, the human scale of a baseboard and a cornice. They too can appreciate the quality of natural materials.

Likewise, they too are affected by mechanistic façades and oppressive interiors that do not elevate the spirit. Think of the famous Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in Saint Louis, opened in 1954. Before, the neighborhood was made up of low-scale slums with townhouses and tenement buildings—low quality and decrepit, but traditional in its urbanism and human scale.

The city of Saint Louis hired architect Minoru Yamasaki to design a brave new world for the poor. He turned the city grid into a field of thirty-three almost identical super blocks. The complex totaled 2,870 units, one of the largest in the United States. The eleven-story buildings had eighty deliberately small apartments with elevators that stopped on every third floor. Hundreds of people used the same stairs.

The poverty and the architecture led to an increase in crime, gangs, drugs, and vacancy. The pre-existing problems of the neighborhood were increased and exacerbated, and Pruitt-Igoe, which cost sixty-percent more than other federal housing at the time, had to be demolished sixteen years later in 1971.

The housing authority and the architects put the poor in buildings that they themselves wouldn’t want to live in, in a complex of 2,870 units, rather than in a neighborhood. Not the way to think about housing for the poor.

A House for the Poor

A house for the poor should not be a modernist structure inspired by the machine, for the poor are surrounded and even enslaved by the machine. After World War II, many promoted the idea that the worker was a new type of man. Moderns saw the worker as a different kind of creature with new, mainly functional, needs.

One of the resultants of this philosophy is that it rationalized inhuman places to live and worship. This modern man needed to have factories which looked industrial. And when he left his job in the factory he should come to a house that looked industrial. And when modern man went to worship on Sunday, it would be appropriate that his church also look industrial.

While it’s one thing to work in a factory, it’s another to live in one. And while modern man may be willing to work at a machine, it’s another to make his place of prayer mechanistic.

The Church has had limited effect on housing. But she has a lot of control over her churches and schools. A church for the poor should not be a machine for worshipping in. Instead, it should be a building inspired by the human body and the richness of creation. Those who live with anxiety and suffering do not need a building which exhibits disharmony and atonality. They need an architecture of healing, which through its proportions, materials, and spiritual light brings joy to the heart.

For example, one of the most popular side altars at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin belongs to Saint Peregrine, patron saint of cancer sufferers. Saint Peregrine was praying in front of an image of Christ, and Christ reached down to touch him and healed his legs. So it has become a popular shrine to pray at for loved ones who are suffering from various diseases, especially cancer. As at Lourdes in France, and at Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, one can see all of the crutches left by those who were healed at these shrines.

The altar of Saint Peregrine in the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe at La Crosse, Wisconsin. Photo: Spirit Juice Studios

A Church for the Poor

What about how we design a church for the poor? We all know that the poor need food, clothing, decent education, and good jobs, but what about their spiritual and cultural needs? Can a church building serve the poor spiritually through its design and materials? It is an expensive proposition, but I would suggest the answer is yes.

First consider what a church for the poor is not. It is not a place for ascetic monks who take a vow of poverty, who spend their days in prayer and prefer the simple beauty of the cloister to the chaos of the world. This is not what the poor need.

A church for the poor should be a place for full-blooded laypeople who need to be drawn into the building through material and tactile means. It is a respite from the world that offers a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem to all of those living in Nineveh.

A church for the poor does not have paintings of abstract or ugly figures. It is full of beautiful images of holy men and women who overcame their sinfulness to draw close to God. Even more importantly, a church for the poor shows the poor their Mother who comforts them and their God who forgives.

In short, a church for the poor is full of signs, symbols, and sacraments: outward signs of inward grace. Those signs and symbols should be physically beautiful as well as spiritually beautiful. The church cannot be a place where the sacrament of salvation is hidden away; it should be raised up like Christ who mounted the cross to offer his body for our healing.

A church for the poor should not be a theater church in which they are put on stage. The poor are not necessarily the people who want to sit in the front rows. The poor and the outcasts, the drug dealer, the gang member, if they come to church, will often not sit in the front, and they are not there to be looked at by others. They need to have the option of sitting in the back, in the shadows. They can have a place of their own, even sitting in the narthex if they wish. In many Hispanic churches, the young men come to church and stand outside—they may not come inside, but at least they came. We need to make it possible for the poor and those in need to feel welcome. That does not mean making them sit up front, or hold hands, or speak in public. Their dignity is respected by allowing them to sit where they want, even if that means in the back or in a side chapel. The lighting cannot be so bright that one is on stage. There should be a places for private prayer.

That being said, a church for the poor is not hidden away in the suburbs or on a highway where it cannot be seen and is difficult to reach. Think about all the great religious movements that sought to help the poor. The Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Jesuits always built in the towns and the cities. They went where it was tough. Their churches were in places where the poor already were, such as poor neighborhoods and downtowns, as well as next to public places where the poor could go, such as parks.

Think of the great cathedrals in our downtowns like Saint Patrick’s in New York City. The poor go there. They are comfortable. The downtown cathedrals are open all day in cold and inclement weather, and the poor are welcome.

The Chapel of the Virgin with a relic of King Saint Louis IX at the Cathedral of Saint-Denis. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

An Open and Beautiful Church

A church for the poor does not get shuttered because it doesn’t bring in enough money each week nor close its school just because it is under-enrolled or in financial difficulty. Caritas understands that service to those in need is neither optional nor is it cheap. How can dioceses find creative ways for inner-city parishes and their schools to remain open even when the financials argue otherwise.

Our Lady of the Angels was in the worst part of Chicago: gunshots every night, murders all the time. The parishioners were so few that the church was closed in 1990. Then Cardinal Francis George reopened the church to be a light in the midst of darkness. It was a bad financial idea, but a good Christian idea. Rev. Bob Lombardo, CFR, heard the call and with the help of kind souls developed a mission with a food kitchen and sisters and brothers who minister to the neighborhood.

A church for the poor should not look impoverished. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money are always welcome to enter. The poor may not often visit the art museum, the symphony hall, or the stately hotel. A worthy church can give the poor the experience of art, fine music, and nobility that the rich and the middle class are able to pay for.

In this way, the Church acknowledges that high culture is not just for the wealthy, but also for those who have nothing. Of course, a church for the poor does not charge admission.

Saint-Denis, the first Gothic cathedral in France, was built by Abbot Suger. Suger had the idea to build and invest in beautiful altars, reliquaries, vessels, and statues in order to draw the gaze of the common folk towards the mysteries of faith. The common people love these things. They cannot own them for themselves, but they can “own” them as part of the Church. Beautiful objects and architecture give the common people an intimation of the heavenly realities.

A Church for Everyone

A church for the poor is not only for the poor. It is for all, both rich and poor, proud and humble. It should not only serve the poor, but remind wealthier members of the needs of the poor—and of their own spiritual poverty. We are all the poor who need beauty in our churches, even if we’re blessed to have more of it in our lives than the materially poor.

Perhaps we need more images of poverty in our churches. Poverty in the lives of the holy saints, such as Francis, Dominic, Mother Teresa, and many others.

Along with these, we need murals, stained glass, and side altars portraying the centrality of poverty in the life of Christ. The King is born in the stable. His family must immigrate to a foreign land to survive. He displays compassion for the poor, the leper, the widow, the mother, and the children. He heals the sick. He raises the dead.

Christ lives like a mendicant friar, reliant on the generosity of others for food and lodging. And he takes food and lodging from priests and tax collectors—even from sinners. He introduces parables, like the widow’s mite and the prodigal son, that speak powerfully to all those in hunger and poverty. These stories should be present.

So how do we create an architecture for the poor? First, we must reject the common wisdom that the poor need cheap, impoverished architecture. Secondly, we need to embrace our tradition and, following the saints, build worthy buildings with beautiful art that welcome those most in need.