This article originally appeared on Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog “Standing on My Head,” and is reprinted with permission. Visit his website, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.
Okay, this is a must read if you or your parish are planning to build a new church or planning to renovate an ugly modern church.
I learned these things through building the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church at OLR:
1) Beauty doesn’t need to be expensive
When we got started and I was talking about a building a beautiful church I could tell my building committee was uneasy. When I said “beautiful” they saw dollar signs.
However, very often in America when Catholics tried to make a church beautiful they did what they did in their homes–they filled it with beautiful (and expensive) stuff like Italian marble, mosaics and all that stuff. If you make the architecture of the church beautiful however, you won’t need to spend all that money on marble and brass and pretty stuff.
2) Make it beautiful from the ground up
You’re going to spend X amount of money anyway to build or renovate this church. Decide that the money you will spend will be invested in a church that is beautiful in itself, not just a building full of pretty stuff.
Our architect observed, “To build a church to seat 500 people, (assuming that you were going to spend a certain amount in good materials and craftsmanship and not just erect a pre-fab warehouse) you will need to spend a certain amount of money. Why not spend that money to do something beautiful for God?
3) Simplicity is cheap
We built the new OLR in a Romanesque style, but were inspired by the austere beauty of the Cistercian churches and the Romanesque monastic churches of France and Italy. They were simple, but they were breathtakingly beautiful. The astounding thing about going down this route is that the simple austerity of the Romanesque and Cistercian monastic churches is that they are also less expensive.
The beauty of a soaring vault, a graceful arch or a lofty ceiling is not that expensive. You’re spending the money anyway. Spend it on architectural beauty.
4) Avoid modernist architects
No offense intended, but find an architect who doesn’t give two hoots about his reputation or doing “something significant in the modernist style”. Find a good Catholic architect who understands the great tradition and submits himself to it in humility.
Also, you don’t have to hire a famous architect who will be a prima donna and demand that you raise more money to fulfill his grandiose dreams. Go for the little guy. Go for the person who has travelled to Europe and understands the great tradition.
5) Get someone on the committee who knows what he’s talking about
Unfortunately, too many building committee members and pastors in America are ignorant of the great tradition. They have not been to Europe. They have not visited the historic churches. They only know the big fan shaped church in the neighboring American suburb.
Find somebody who has lived and worked in and visited the great churches of Europe. Draft a Catholic professor of Art History. Search for somebody in the know. Research these people. They are out there. Listen to them and learn from them.
6) Avoid the enthusiastic amateur
Sylvia who has an interior design company may be a very sweet person, but if she is not knowledgable about liturgy, architecture and church history she is not really the expert you want. George who is a civil engineer may be terrific to help with the parking lots, the drains and the traffic flow systems, but he may not be the person to advise on color schemes, liturgical arrangement and historic church architecture.
You get the idea. Again–get people who know what they’re talking about. If you want some names, send me an email.
7) Use old stuff
To tell you the truth there is a glut in the market for old church stuff. You can get baldachins, altarpieces, statues, stations of the cross and stained glass windows for a fraction of their worth, but you must not add these things as pretty furniture to the building you’ve managed to erect.
Instead, find these items at the beginning (especially the big architectural items) and plan your whole church around them. Otherwise they will look like a diamond set in a plastic ring out of a vending machine.
8) Modern materials make beauty affordable
If you keep to a simple architectural style and use new materials and new building methods you can afford a beautiful church. Let’s say you need to build a church that will seat 1500 people. You could build a beautiful neogothic church using modern materials (steel and plasterboard) at the same cost as building a hideous warehouse type building. Really.
Find the right architects and you can do this. Think what would happen if you built something beautiful in your community rather than a utilitarian preaching hall with extra Catholic pretty stuff.
9) Use experts
Don’t fall into the trap of American Amateurism: “How hard can it be to build a nice church? You just put in seats for X amount of people and get a good sound system right?” No. Not right. Think it through.
Consult experts on liturgy, on church history, on evangelization of the culture, on architecture on what the whole point of building a Catholic Church might be. The experts are out there. They are passionate. They want to help. They can help. Drop me an email if you want some contacts.
10) Do what is beautiful, good, and true
Don’t skimp and save. Build a temple that is a beautiful and fitting place for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This is important.
It is a public witness of what is important to us as Catholics. Catholics build beautiful churches. It’s what we do. This is a witness to our children, to ur community, to the world. Let’s do it right!
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