Last year, right around this week in December, I had my second phone interview for the position I now am blessed to hold at St. Clare of Assisi Parish. I had sent my resume to dozens of open positions, and every single response indicated that I was overqualified. Ready to give up, I decided that it was time to explore a different career.
There was a program at City College of New York which offered a five-year architecture degree with a flexible admissions policy. After some discernment, prayer and exploration, I chose not to go back to school again. It became clear that there was a place for me at St. Clare which would free me to live as I was called to be. Although I did not apply for the M. Arch I program at CCNY, the architectural history of sacred spaces continues to fascinate me.
For several centuries in ancient Rome, it was not legal for Christians to assemble and worship. They would gather in secret, in homes and sometimes even in tombs, until Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D. Over the course of the latter part of the first millennium, private homes, public buildings and pagan temples were transformed into churches as Christianity flourished. Some of these buildings were basilicas.
Pertaining to the Roman Catholic tradition, a basilica has several meanings. Originally, a basilica was a place where Roman elected leaders gathered, and the architectural specifications were applied to the design of Christian buildings. Canonically, an architecturally distinguished worship site with a vibrant liturgical life might be elevated to the status of basilica. This elevation endows certain ecclesiastical privileges to the space and to those who are entrusted with its care. Ultimately, Roman Catholic architectural aesthetics are rooted in the architecture of buildings constructed for civic or secular purposes.
The transformation of a building is not a practice limited to the early church. Two of my favorite worship spaces were not originally intended to be churches. One of the largest parish communities in the Brooklyn Diocese worships in a church that was once a single-screen movie theater. Savvy parishioners purchased the building during the 1950s and made some modifications. Unless someone pointed it out, you would not notice that the church has absolutely no windows. It is located in a noisy, densely populated part of the city, close to an airport and two elevated trains, but a feature of its original design renders it vault-like and sound-proof.
I encountered the second of my favorite churches a few years ago, when I was visiting Seattle, Washington. I attended Mass in a parish which gathers in the banquet hall of an old hotel that had been converted into affordable apartments.
Over the last few months, I have had many opportunities to pray at Mass in different places. We have three worship sites in distinct architectural styles, and each one reflects a chapter of our story. Over the summer, we visited a few local farms where we celebrated Mass with the workers in their barns and on picnic tables. In September, I attended Mass in a sports arena, and in October, I attended Mass in a large conference center. Last week, I assisted the music ministry at a local Catholic high school where Mass was celebrated, quite reverently, in their field house.
My experience of God’s presence was different in each place. In the high school and on the farm, it was particularly intense, as the fellowship, preparation and intention were high values.
Since I arrived at St. Clare, my appreciation for sacred architecture has advanced in the way of understanding. Perhaps architecture and liturgy are more similar than we might think. They are both arts of home building. Architecture uses algorithms and formula to design spaces where humans can live. Liturgy takes the gift of human hands and hearts to house the presence of Christ among the faithful. In a few short weeks, our parish will once again be worshipping like our Roman ancestors and perhaps even some of our parents or grandparents did, when it will transform a secular space into a holy place for Christmas Masses at Kingsway Regional Middle School. I’m looking forward to the warm, welcoming ambiance created by our liturgical ministers that will engender a phenomenal Christmas experience.
Do you remember, “Here is the church, here is the steeple”?
Well, I used to think this rhyme was quite silly, but especially in light of our upcoming Christmas celebrations, it’s a humble statement of our ecclesiology. Bricks, glass, steel and marble can tell much about our past, but the church of the future relies on something more. The church of the future relies on your hands, your heart, your faith, to open doors, to see people and to let them know, Christ is truly present here.
Elena V. Brandt is pastoral associate for music and liturgy, St. Clare of Assisi Parish, Swedesboro.