Editorial: Deus Fundavit Civitatem in Aeternum

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 18

“Dear friends, today’s feast celebrates a mystery that is always relevant: God’s desire to build a spiritual temple in the world, a community that worships him in spirit and truth. But this observance also reminds us of the importance of the material buildings in which the community gathers to celebrate the praises of God. Every community therefore has the duty to take special care of its own sacred buildings, which are a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we call upon the intercession of Mary Most Holy, that she help us to become, like her, the ‘house of God,’ living temple of his love.”
—Pope Benedict XVI on the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, 9 November 2008

It is well known that the conventional wisdom on building churches is in disrepute. Even the unwashed masses are revolting against the dictates and iconoclasm of the past fifty years. Yet, there is still some bathwater that needs to be emptied. Not only did the modernist project break with two thousand years of sacred architecture, it also rejected the traditional city amongst which the temple stood a witness. The resulting churches turn their back on the street or sit like a doctor’s office in the middle of a sea of asphalt. One of the most insidious strictures of the conventional wisdom mandates that any new church needs twenty acres. This twenty acre rule reminds me of the sixty-five foot rule that necessitates building theatre churches according to some liturgists. Where to find twenty acres at an economical price? Why, the cornfield, of course. The reasons given for the necessity of a large tract of land are playing fields, convenient parking, and future growth. Yet these factors should not be seen as the primary goals in building a house of God, but should be balanced with the rich history of churches built in the midst of our towns and cities.

Ideal City, Galleria Nazionale, Urbino. Photo: wikimedia.org

To put the twenty acre rule into context, consider that a traditional parish church in a small town with 800 seats, a grade-school, a playground, a rectory, and on and off street parking typically takes up three to six acres. Surprisingly, one of the most well known and largest of American cathedrals, Saint Patrick’s, sits on a block in Manhattan of only two acres. The reality is that twenty acres is the equivalent of a small college campus – for instance, “God Quad” at Notre Dame includes the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Golden Dome, and seven other buildings. In fact, the greatest church in all of Christendom, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, sits on only nine acres while its piazza takes up an additional nine acres. Twenty acres are huge, but what are the reasons for not building in the cornfield?

First, by placing the church out in the cornfield the parish gives up its role in the public square. In historic cities and towns, a church is a beacon of hope and a place of conversion. In locating outside of town the church inadvertently becomes a privatized institution like a country club. This is the architectural equivalent of hiding its light under a bushel. The parish also gives up its physical role as leaven in a neighborhood. The awareness of the needy and the ability to serve the poor and the unchurched on a daily basis dissipates in proportion to the distance from the center of town. Alternatively, the presence of a church improves the safety and the harmony of its neighborhood.

Second, if an existing parish decides to move out of town it abandons holy ground. Our churches are the sacred places in which generations of the faithful have been baptized, married, and buried. This schism between past and present is often accompanied by a physical splitting up of the parish. For instance, often times the school remains in the village while worship moves to the fringe. This is particularly disruptive to the interaction between church and school that makes for a vibrant parish. After all, the school may not move out to the new land for decades.

Third, building out in a cornfield normally costs more than building in town. Start with the cost of the land. Then add the cost of providing water, sewer, storm-water retention, streets, and parking. The additional expense of building on virgin farmland can quickly cost as much as a million dollars (plus the cost of the land) more than building in town where utilities and drainage already exist—not to mention the sustainability issues inherent in paving local agriculture.

So, if you have an existing parish and the experts tell you that you need to buy a cornfield, buck the conventional wisdom and consider the benefits – communal, spiritual, and monetary – of staying in town. Alternatively, if you are founding a new parish, consider being part of a village, even locating in a new urbanist community (which often have favorable land and parking costs), or at least try to create a spiritual place within suburbia by being integrated with the community. More than parking and playing fields, your parish should be a light to the nations and a city on a hill.