Returning beauty and sacredness to churches

Returning beauty and sacredness to churches

Art Lohsen

Throughout his career, Arthur Lohsen has focused on the design of timeless and beautiful projects. The firm that he co-founded in 2000, Franck & Lohsen Architects, Washington DC, has completed a wide range of projects, ranging from large homes and historic renovations to urban planning and civic buildings. A major portion of the firm's work has been for the Catholic Church, in the design of new churches and renovations.

Learning from the precedents of history, Franck & Lohsen designs buildings that are constructed with modern materials and techniques yet are timeless and beautiful. The firm has worked throughout the United States, and prepared designs for projects in Rome, London and The Bahamas as well.

As the firm's president and managing director, Art Lohsen oversees project and financial management and works with each client to be sure that their unique needs are being met.

Art has over 20 years of experience in design and construction, and earned his Bachelor of Science and Master's degrees in Architecture at the University of Maryland.

Raised as a Lutheran, Art was received into the Catholic Church in 2010. He has written this article especially for AD2000.

I had the opportunity to visit Australia for the first time in November 2012, and to lecture on sacred architecture in Brisbane and Sydney. I saw similar patterns in Australia that we saw in the United States about ten years ago. What started here as the question, "Can our church look like a church?", has become the statement "We are going to build a new traditional church." I believe that Australia is at the beginning of that renaissance.

The next decade in Australia will likely see some beautiful churches built, if there are enough people reminding parishes that there is no reason that a church should not be beautiful. In fact there are a host of reasons why a church must be beautiful!

New wave

Meanwhile, it's happening all over America. Parish priests and dioceses are phoning to say that they need their post-Vatican II churches renovated to be more traditional, more beautiful, more Catholic. Whether it is the sanctuary that houses a lonely presider's chair instead of a crucifix and tabernacle, or whether their hexagonal or circular church has neither Catholic identity nor constitutes sacred space, it is apparent there is a new wave returning towards the ancient norms of the Church.

While many parishes were well-intended in fulfilling an initial interpretation of the Vatican II documents, many churches were built in a manner that destroyed centuries of understanding about the impact, meaning, and sanctity of the Mass.

In fact there is actually a keen appreciation for the importance of tradition in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Rather than calling for the wholesale rejection of the past, Sacrosanctorum Concilium calls for the careful preservation of the treasury of Church art and architecture. It goes on to call for "noble beauty rather than sumptuous display". Thus the importance of true beauty, as distinct from frivolous ornament, is confirmed, and it is to this true beauty that priests and parishes alike are drawn.

Beauty has been marginalised as an expensive luxury, not a vital necessity. As the appreciation of beauty faded over the last five decades, the ability to achieve it has atrophied, and parish priests seeking to build a church are often told that beauty is either not important, cannot be achieved on a limited budget, or that a different definition of beauty is now appropriate. Much patrimony has been lost or destroyed but happily the pool of classically minded architects and artists, while small, is growing!

Blessed John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, states, "In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty." Thus the beauty that is perceived by Man's senses is a means of physically experiencing the goodness of God. This is the foretaste of heaven, the ability to perceive in the senses as well as the mind the ultimate perfection toward which Man constantly struggles. A church therefore must be beautiful, or it cannot provide this direct sensory and spiritual encounter with God.

True beauty

True beauty can still be achieved by those who can articulate its true nature and defend its necessity in Catholic worship. While the lack of beauty in most contemporary churches is being broadly lamented, the effort to restore beauty in the Church takes patient endurance. It is possible to bridge a modern church with time-honoured traditions. Beautiful churches are not only possible, they are the most responsible way to build.

Given limited funds - and funds are usually limited - a church should be built to last for the long term, which means it must be aesthetically timeless as well as solidly built. There are architects and artists who understand this, who can work within the traditions of the Church to create beautiful churches that will meet contemporary liturgical and functional needs in a transcendent and truly sacred space. The Church is entering an exciting period of renewal in which beauty will be increasingly appreciated and achieved.

It seems that it is now time to focus on some practical solutions to help pastors, parish committees and diocesan officials achieve this bridge between the awkward churches they have inherited and the transcendent Catholic beauty they desire. Most priests are not skilled as facility managers, and yet are faced with enormous building challenges as they become assigned to parishes. Most understand what it is they need and are willing to undertake the challenge of restoring a sense of the sacred in their churches and other buildings. But they also need professional guidance, which takes time and money - both of which they are generally short on.

A classically trained architect understands the confluence of many characteristics including proportion, scale, symmetry, detail, material, and colour. To that list, one must also add what Pope Benedict XVI deemed as the "hermeneutic of continuity". The direct and literal connection to the traditions of the Church is what a professional can help achieve.

An example of what can be achieved on a modest budget and schedule was the renovation of the chapel of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Life in New York. They had a limited budget based on donations, little experience in construction, and six months to their Dedication Mass!

Sacred space

The Sisters of Life consulted with a classically trained architect, established their priorities, engaged Catholic community service labour, and re-fitted patrimony from local diocesan warehouses and facilities, and the Mary, Mother of the Eucharist Chapel was dedicated by Cardinal Dolan on 11 February 2013, just six months from the start. The total cost of construction was under $150,000. Professional fees and labour, had they not been donated, would have cost about the same as construction. So, for approximately $300,000, the Sisters now have a chapel that expresses a beautiful and sacred Catholic space of noble simplicity in keeping with their community way of life. The before and after views of this chapel are an encouraging example of what can be done with the right guidance and motivation.

The architects, artists and tradesmen capable of producing beautiful churches are out there, and in most cases quite busy. The restoration of traditional Catholic beauty has become a real and growing renaissance, and it is always a joy to see the results reach fruition!

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