House Chapels: An Expression of Catholic Identity

by William J. Turner, appearing in Volume 8

The dissatisfaction that many Roman Catholics have expressed concerning the renovation or construction of church buildings within the last thirty-five years has often been attributed to the eye of the beholder. In liturgical circles it has been said that Catholics need more education so that they may better understand the documents and the spirit of Vatican II. The Council brought about a new approach and emphasis. At the very least, the renovation and construction of many churches has taken the dinner away from a starving lion. The former diet has been replaced with vitamin pills that contain all the necessary nutrients, but little of the taste and flavor that would have made dinner such a meaningful and cultural event for Catholics. In light of such lack of flavor, the lion has responded with his claws. The human response to the new diet, whether it is real or perceived, is to take action. While liturgists and architects were about the business of trimming off the fat and providing what they believed would be a more nutritious, albeit bland, diet-conscious and sometimes minimal dinner, some Catholics have decided to create a dinner of their own. The wonderful thing in their minds is that at their dinner, in their private sacred space, they will neither be told what must or must not be present for it to be truly sacred, nor will they be told what or how much they can eat or how it will be flavored. They have made these choices, drawing from their history, their culture, and their Catholic identity. 

It has not necessarily been the raison d’etre of the liturgical movement to place the concern for Catholic identity in the forefront of liturgical renewal. As that movement entered the new millennium, it faced the rejection of its methodology. Many Catholics had always refused to be enthusiastic about the reform as it was presented to them. Finally, liturgists received a great blow from some of the American bishops in the form of a seeming lack of confidence. The reaction of liturgists has moved from the initial grave disappointment to a call to promote the reforms at all costs. War language has now replaced the former journey in loving devotion to liturgical reform.

Amid the dust created by the current struggle for reform has risen up, or as I prefer to say “resurged,” a construction of “house chapels.”  This is not truly new, as indeed “nothing is new under the sun,” but rather it is a striking reappearance of the manor chapels found in Europe in the pre-Reformation era. In those times, the wealthy, who often lived in the country, built lavish chapels on their estates and often were buried there. These chapels became monuments to the history of their families. One would never think that there would be a return to such a practice in this age, where distance is no longer a barrier. Yet it has returned in the United States and elsewhere. Upon interviewing the owners of various chapels, it became evident that the personal chapel met a need that was not addressed in the local parish. Religious symbols were important to them and brought them closer to God. In some cases the owners wished to preserve the visible elements of what they had seen in their churches before the reform. They had even “rescued” from destruction what they felt was sacred to them. They then gave what was sacred to them a place in their homes.

 Preservation is not a new concept. There are many such examples of the faithful storing in their homes — tabernacles, crucifixes, Stations of the Cross, baptismal fonts, sanctuary lamps and the like — only to produce them proudly on a priest’s visit to retell some of their sacred history. In the 1970s, Catherine Doherty’s community in Combermere, Ontario became a refuge for such artifacts, waiting for the day that their value would become known. In the early 1980s, many people purchased much of what had been preserved, reclaiming these noble accoutrements. Church renovators appealed to the past as they searched for more rich and noble materials to replace transitory decorations created in the mid to late 1960s. 

John Henry Cardinal New-man once said: “Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still, long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to un-settle and dislodge the religious principle itself.” The preservers of sacred things have reacted to what they see as the widespread desacralization of their churches. They have been safeguarding the sacred, taking it underground for a time, as if they lived in a state of religious persecution. As they erect a house chapel, these Catholics restore and make holy again the tangible objects of their faith identity.

Three examples of house chapels created in recent years will be noted here, although many others exist and more are currently being created. 

A house chapel in Minnesota, built circa 1975, includes a round tower and a stairway. An eighteen foot altar made from old timbers was brought from Germany. The family allows the occasional priest visitor to say Mass there, but no tabernacle has been allowed by the local bishop. The family has also created a small chapel in their winter home in Florida.

A chapel has been created at a new residence in Nebraska. Here is found a vaulted nave, a domical sanctuary, a marble high altar, Corinthian columns, bronze crucifix and mahogany woodwork throughout. It has been used for prayer as well as special liturgies.

A chapel has been constructed and attached to a house in St. Paul, Minnesota. The sanctuary contains a tabernacle from Barcelona, upon an altar that is of traditional style, so that Mass may be said with the priest’s back to the congregation. The dimensions of the chapel are 18’ wide by 25’ long, the sanctuary being 10’ X 10’. The Polish artisan Lech Polawski created the altar rail. It was the intention of the family to also use the chapel as a burial site, but local restrictions precluded that possibility.

When Catholics create a chapel in their homes, they make a proud statement of the elements that are important for them in a sacred space. A strong distinction is made be-tween the latter-day term “worship space,” which may tend to deemphasize the domus Dei, and “sacred space,” which consecrates a place for sacred use. The struc-tural renovation of a church building that focuses chiefly upon ritual action, i.e. the sacred space, clearly does violence to how so many Catholics perceive their identity. They will reach out to protect that identity, and if they fail, they will create it elsewhere in some form. What I would propose is that a “sacred place” needs to be created, established, and then made permanent by those who fashion the domus Dei. It is my belief that the house of God and the ritual carried out within, as presented to us in recent Church documents and proposals, form no dichotomy. Permanency may take many forms and ironically may even include change. When the Catholic identity of individuals and a group is engaged and respected, when concern for persons surpasses concern for any reform, and when the past and present are respected rather than seen as opposing positions, renovation or construction will no longer become a battle ground. Such a wedding in the liturgical reform, which creates or renovates church buildings and all they contain, would emphasize the permanency, nobility and art elements of the past, used in such a way that the mission of the post-conciliar Church may advance in spirit and in truth with the conscious, living and active participation of its members. These words have been the rallying cry of the reformers. Such advancement in the Spirit, that blows where it will, may take the reform and the reformers alike to a new level and methodology in reformation. 

The building, its parts, and what occurs there, especially in the light of this passing world, focuses the people of God on the mysteries of the Kingdom. The baptized should see the symbols of their faith assist-ing them in their journey.

It may be said that St. Peter strove to become the first Christian architect in proposing that he build the first house for the Lord. At the Transfiguration he uttered it well: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”  If one does not have that sentiment come to mind on entering a church, if one is not encouraged by the good and noble striving of the People of God who have used the best gifts that have been received, that building could be in vain. Perhaps the dream of every architect, builder and liturgist would be to overhear a slight change in Peter’s enthusiastic words. Faithful pilgrims would enter such a church, and be so inspired by what has been created, as well as what occurs there, that they would not fail to pray: “Lord, it is good that YOU are here!”