Identity and Longevity

by Fr. Michael Enright, appearing in Volume 6

As a member of the Archdiocese of Chicago's Commission on Sacred Art, I have noticed a couple of areas of church design that are frequently overlooked in the planning.

In presenting these concerns, I have purposely avoided the thorny issues of tabernacle placement, baptismal fonts, altar and assembly, etc.  Liturgists and designers will probably be arguing about these questions half an hour after Christ comes again!  In the meantime, the two issues below need to be addressed before any consideration of the interior designs for churches. They should be addressed because they are not “changeable” elements in design.  Once the building is up, you can change the interior all you want, but you cannot go back and make structural changes.

The first area of weakness in church designs has often been whether the building “looks” like a Catholic church.  During the past couple of years, architects have come to our commission with designs that do not read as churches.  Too frequently the modifications suggested at the commission have been something like, “Why don’t you add a tower here?” or, “Can you include some kind of a sign that identifies this as a Catholic church?”

There is an inherent weakness in a building that needs a sign to be identified as a Catholic church.  There is some debate among designers about exactly what defines a church, and still more debate about what defines a Catholic church.  Still, it is not impossible to design a building that clearly identifies itself that way.  The architect only needs a tiny dose of humility and common sense.  What I have seen too frequently is a building that the architects have managed to “sell” to the pastor and building committee, but that doesn’t look like a church and cannot be identified as a Catholic church without signage.  A church is not a place for architects to feed their egos.

The second area of weakness in these designs has often been that they are not permanent buildings.  One of the questions pastors, dioceses, and building committees ought to ask architects is, “How long will this last?”  A church building ought to be built to last longer than the architect who designed it.  It seems that no one asks the longevity question at the outset, and then the parish is stuck with a building that needs excessive maintenance from the day it’s built.  Many of the flaws in current design lead to new buildings that — almost immediately after the dedication—need new roofs, flashing repairs, or replacement of mechanical systems.  Some require aerobatics to do something as simple as change a light bulb. These buildings are put together with the assumption that someone will always be there to caulk expansion joints in the brick, the maintenance people will always remember to oil the little steam pump in the basement, the ushers will always be sure to keep the snow off of the carpet in the vestibule, etc.

Why not eliminate as many maintenance problems as you possibly can in the original design?  Many of the designs I’ve seen make assumptions about continuous maintenance and the desire of pastors/staffs to keep up with this maintenance that are unwarranted.  Some of the designs make assumptions about the longevity of mechanical systems that are simply asinine.  A pastor of a parish I know told me about an air handler in his church that had to be changed, but couldn’t be.  The mechanical room was under the sacristy and there was no way to take out the old air handler without demolishing the back of the church.

There are horror stories like that repeated all over the Archdiocese of Chicago, and, I’m sure, around the country.  Stories about churches that were dysfunctional from the day they were dedicated, about roofs that leaked after the first rainstorm and have been leaking ever since, about light bulbs that are never changed because you’d have to tape wings on the maintenance man to get to them, about boilers that can’t be fixed or pumps that can’t be accessed.

Architects and designers should remember that someday someone will be stuck with their designs.  I remember being newly ordained and going to a parish on the north side of Chicago. The church was built in the mid-sixties, an “in the round” church with low windows on three sides. The windows were some special kind of glass and black cement. There were a couple of problems, though. The building was oriented incorrectly on the site and the windows were dark blue.  The place was always dark, even on the sunniest day. People couldn’t see well enough to read the songs in church.  The pastor solved the problem by installing high pressure sodium lights in the ceiling.  Now everyone could see, but they were bathed in the blue-white light of a gymnasium.  So much for liturgical colors!

Furthermore, these “special” windows couldn’t be opened.  The designers had figured that the parish would always be able to run the air conditioner.  I figured it had to be broken—that was the only reason I could imagine that the pastor would subject himself and me to the experience of celebrating Mass in this place.  The sanctuary was raised a few feet from the floor of the church, and the roof rose above the sanctuary.  Heat being what it is, on a hot summer day with a full church it was nearly unbearable to celebrate Mass there.  One day I was walking with the maintenance man in the back rooms of the church and noticed the compressors for the air conditioning.  I asked him how long they’d been broken. “Broken?” He looked at me and smiled. “They work just fine. It’s just that they cost too much to run.”  I had some choice thoughts about the people who designed a church with windows that couldn’t be opened!

Someday the new church you’re contemplating may be in a poor neighborhood.  The pastor may not be able to afford to run the air conditioners or pay a maintenance person to scoop the leaves out of the gutters or check the flashings on the roof every week.  The building should remain standing and be usable!

These two concerns—the readability of a church design as a Catholic church and the mechanical-structural integrity of the building, are the easy ones.  Yet they have not been addressed!  Before we even begin the discussion on interior design, let us be sure the building will still be here looking like a church when future generations decide that our tabernacle and font need to switch places!