Gem of the Boston Archdiocese: St. Catherine of Genoa

by Milda Richardson, appearing in Volume 6

Facade of St. Catherine of Genoa by Maginnis and Walsh. Photo by author

St. Catherine of Genoa on Spring Hill in Somerville, Massachusetts—designed by the Boston firm of Maginnis, Walsh and Sullivan over the period 1907-1920—is a seminal building in the development of early twentieth-century Roman Catholic church architecture in America. With its sand-grey brick and glazed white terra cotta exterior, St. Catherine became a paradigm for the promulgation of the Italian Lombardian style, which was advocated by Charles D. Maginnis (1867-1955) because of its association with Early Christian architecture, the flexibility of the style, and the design possibilities of using brick rather than more costly stone carving typical in Classical or Gothic buildings.

Often referred to as the “gem of the Boston archdiocese,” St. Catherine of Genoa owes its generously-funded commission to members of the O’Brien family, especially to Hugh O’Brien, the first Catholic mayor of Boston (1884) and uncle of the pastor, Rev. James O’Brien. As secretary to the Bishop of Hartford, Rev. O’Brien had traveled extensively in Europe studying churches and collaborated very closely with Maginnis on this project, making changes to the plans almost daily.  The success of the endeavor was due in part to the fact that both Maginnis and O’Brien shared a similar architectural philosophy: the belief that this building should connect American immigrant Catholics to the European Catholic aesthetic and spiritual experience.

Although the original conception included a campanile to the right of the facade, its elimination from the plan allows one to focus more on the symmetry of the facade, which is loosely derived from the eighth-century church of San Pietro in Toscanella, Italy.  The tripartite arrangement of the church with a tall nave and lower side aisles is reflected by the projecting pavilion on the facade.  A double granolithic staircase leads to the elevated main entrance with its landing masked behind a brick parapet containing a central entrance to the lower church.  As was common in America, the plan included a lower and upper church to accommodate double masses for the grow-ing numbers of Catholic immigrants—although the entrances to the lower churches were usually subsidiary.  Maginnis decided not only to make the lower entrance prominent, but also incorporated it into the vertical axis of the facade, com-posed of the two central arched entryways and rose window, each element on a discreet plane. The horizontal axis consists of an open arcade, decorative cornice, and inlaid panels.  A life-size terra cotta figure of Christ, modeled by Hugh Cairns, stands at the crossing of the axes, under a projecting arch-way.  The resulting cross functions as the organizational principle for the sculptural plasticity of the facade as a whole. Delicate accents of the white glazed terra cotta trim enliven the overall surface.

Paying homage to the intricate brickwork seen throughout the Boston area since the era of Charles Bulfinch, the exterior of this steel-framed building is artfully laid in common bond, 1:5, with simple geometric motifs (repeated on the interior) of rubbed brick throughout the wall spaces to relieve potential monotony.  The upper section of the gable is emphasized with projecting courses, which allow for a play of light and shadow.  In his desire to convince leaders of the Catholic Church that the Church had established itself firmly on American soil and, therefore, it was no longer necessary to build big to make an impression, Maginnis argued strongly for small parish churches built of brick:  “Such is the alchemy of art that an unpretentious brick church with the mark of gifted hands upon it, may have more artistic value than the cathedral.”

The supreme artistry of the lavish interior, recently restored by J.W. Graham Inc., reflects the architect’s leadership role as founding member of the Catholic Federation of Arts, the Liturgical Arts Society, and the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts.  The eclectic interior, based on Byzantine precedents, is a premier example of liturgical arts in the Boston area.  In the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement, Maginnis firmly believed—and worked to convince his patrons—that the architect should be responsible for all aspects of a church design, including the coordination of the liturgical furnishings, to achieve a total unity of the arts.  To this end Maginnis insisted on working with master craftsmen of inter-national repute; for example, Angelo Lualdi, who carved the Stations of the Cross in white alabaster, with the provision that the models for the stations were never to be used again.

The pulpit, erected in memory of World War I veterans. Photo by author

Johannes Kirchmayer, trained in Oberammergau and also associated with the architects Ralph Adams Cram and Henry Vaughn, carved the pulpit, five pictorial panels, and smaller liturgical objects. The marriage and death of St. Catherine are depicted on the large panels carved in low relief on the rear wall of the church.  The panel above the altar in the Holy Family Chapel shows Mary with the Christ Child and St. Joseph standing behind them holding a carpenter’s tool.  The facade of St. Catherine church itself appears as a detail in the background.  The pulpit was erected to the memory of parishioners who served in World War I.  Kirchmayer carved the patron saints of the Allies around the pulpit, with St. Catherine representing the United States.  Throughout his carvings, Kirchmayer used gold, touches of color, and different shades and textures of wood to highlight details.

Both Rev. O’Brien and Maginnis were enthusiastic about exploring modern materials, particularly the creative possibilities of stucco to effectively emulate stone as had been done in Europe at significantly less expense.  The interior—essentially a basilica plan with barrel-vaulted ceiling—is sheathed with Rose Tavanelle marble up to the height of the gilded Romanesque cushion capitals, adorned with eagles, li-ons, birds, shields and engravings of verses from the Psalms.  The entire wall surface above is decorated with elaborate designs in stucco modeled by Hugh Cairns, who also prepared the models for the stone carving and woodwork, which was executed by Irving and Casson.  The ceiling coffers in dull green and gold contain the main color scheme, which is repeated in the muted gold of the aisle domes and through-out the detailed carvings of plant motives, interlace, and arabesque patterns.  Together with the ornamental bands and cornices, the complex grisaille and multi-toned details result in a deeply layered surface texture which envelopes the interior.  Touches of blue and red hint at Romanesque vibrancy.

For Maginnis, worship at the altar was a fundamental architectural demand.  In his words, “The lines of the interior must contrive to secure a befitting aspect of solemnity—an atmosphere which shall stimulate religious emotion and comprehension of the mystery that the altar is theologically the Church, because it represents Divine Presence.”  Maginnis designed every detail to focus on the semi-circular apse containing the alabaster and onyx altar, modeled by Hugh Cairns, with flowing vines and birds copied from the sarcophagus of Archbishop Theodore at Ravenna.  The altar contrasts effectively with the deep hues of the purple and gray Fleur de Peche marble used in the freestanding curved colonnade behind the altar and the bookmatched marble slabs of the sanctuary walls.  The columns of the colonnade are made from the cores of the strongly veined marble nave columns which had been cored and split to fit around the steel posts.  Maginnis tipped the sanctuary arch to create an uninterrupted flow from the nave to the sanctuary space and downward over the apse painting of God the Father with his arms outstretched in blessing, Enthroned Christ in a nimbus, and the Dove of the Holy Ghost. The figures of Mary, the Archangel and saints are arranged around the edge of the semicircular dome, which was painted on canvas by Alexander Locke, a pupil of John LaFarge.  The gold-plated bronze capitals of the columns rising from the center of the reredos were made by Tiffany Studios.  The upward thrust of the small gold baldacchino dome over the tabernacle, with mosaics by the Waldo Brothers, creates the perfect balance of this masterful interior.

St. Catherine represents a collaboration between two men who shared spirituality and piety, one bringing resources to the project, the other providing design talent of uncommon quality.