Monday, June 21, 2010

When Church Architecture Sends a Message

Just read Nick Wagner's provocative post about church architecture on the Today's Parish blog - and upon reflection, I realized something profound about my parish - that the architecture, especially the baptismal font in the main entrance is literally shouting about who we are as a community.

I have actually been aware of the font's message for a long time - ever since I first walked into the worship space for the first time.  When I first brought my sons to this parish 8 years ago as young adults and asked them about what the coffin-shaped lower pool of the font meant to them, my oldest responded slowly: "....Dying to old life, rising to new life?" Indeed. And as I reflect today, that is pretty much who we are today as a parish.

St. John the Baptist community was founded over 150 years ago in inner-city Joliet, and has had a history probably typical of many urban parishes - beginning with German immigrants. As the neighborhood economic demographics changed, the immigrants built up a stable well-to-do middle-class neighborhood and a vibrant parish. In more recent years, however, the neighborhood has declined in economic status and housing values dropped as the neighborhood's original families moved away to be replaced by those with lower incomes. As a result the parish school was closed, and over the past 15-plus years, the parish has transitioned to its current state as an 80% Hispanic community.  Most of the white parishioners no longer live nearby, but are committed enough to the parish to stay despite the challenges. 

We continue to struggle to bring the "two cultures" together - and issues of leadership, stewardship, parish economic reality and more make daily life at St. John's an interesting challenge. We have tried several things, including the Parish Assessment and Renewal (PAR) process, which was minimally successful, and have recently looked at reources about structuring multi-cultural parishes. There is no "magic bullet" - no instant cure for our issues. As is sometimes said the way through it is the only path.

We are indeed being called to "die" to the old familiar vision of St. John's - a once-thriving white parish with many ministries, parish retreats and activities, a strong community in a very white, middle class mold - to become who we now in reality are: a community privileged to have the riches of two cultures, one "European American" (as one of our older parishioners who dislikes the term "Anglo" likes to call it), the other Hispanic. Our faltering steps toward this new version of St. Johns are actually a form of Paschal Mystery - dying to familiar ways is never easy - and it is mirrored in the shape of that baptismal font, which literally shouts its message about who we are - "dying to old life, rising to new life."


  1. That article was really interesting. I think the lack of faith in today's Catholics (the drop in Mass attendence, the people who don't believe in the Real Presence, etc) can be linked to the fact that our churches don't look like churches. I don't want to worship God in a spaceship or a barn, and I'm not drawn closer to him when I see abstract art that can't catechize me because I can't even tell what it is! : )
    Denis McNamara is doing incredible work in this field. Bring back the churches that look like churches. Once our churches catechize us on the Real Presence, we'll begin to see people remember what liturgy is all about in the first place!
    Unfortunately, I've been to too many churches that look like they should be the Jets football stadium! haha!

  2. My stake in St. John's parish goes back 150 years. I do not have the feeling that "I paid for it; it's mine". I do feel, however that I belong. I do not remember the old German parish. It died with WWI. I do remember its reincarnation as a middle-class white parish of Americans of assorted national backgrounds. People who loved the RC church, where Pius XII would be pope forever, the US, the flag, and the Cubs, or was it the Sox? I adhere to a faith mined as gold by the Sisters from "Father Faber's Catechism", and I believe that that faith requires me to die daily to the old life, and rise again to new life in Christ. I am trying to make a place for myself in the newest reincarnation of my parish, and to share in a culture somewhat different from that which I'm used to, spoken in a language which I loved in high-school. I quite agree that the only clear way is to get through. I do feel that is incumbent upon all of us to give up some of what we are comfortable with, in order to forge a new, stronger, unified parish. I am sensitive to the feelings of those people who feel uncomfortable and alienated at present. I'm a little uncomfortable myself, at times, and wonder if I truly belong. My better self knows that this is not the DAR, or a country club, but rather the Body of Christ, of which we are all members, trying to help each other to live the life the Gospel calls us to. For patience, kindness and forgiveness....let us ALL pray to the Lord!

  3. Joan - I agree that many modern churches are too stark and lack a sense of mystery, symbol and tradition. Yet, some modern art can speak to people, and does. Architects need to find a balance between the familiar things that connect people to faith and the need for flexible spaces where the people are the focus.

    Tom - what a wonderful, authentic testimony! I am so glad you admitted your occasional discomfort even it you are inclined to accept the current reality. That's why it's about Paschal Mystery - it can be uncomfortable, and sometimes downright painful to give up the familiar. Glad you are a companion on this journey!