Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 22, 1999
How to build a church
Guidelines suggest ways to involve community, arrange worship area
By GLEN ARGAN
Canadian Catholic parishes have new guidelines for Church design and renovation covering everything from the altar table to the cloakroom.
The guidelines, recently published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, offer suggestions not only for designing churches, but also for the process of designing a church.
In fact, the director of the National Liturgy Office, Donna Kelly, says that may be the most important contribution of the new 87-page book, Our Place of Worship.
"I hope it would help parishes go through the process (of building or renovating) with a little less pain than at present. Sometimes, building a church can split a parish in two," Kelly told the WCR.
The book is illustrated with dozens of photos from Catholic churches across Canada, including several newer buildings in the Edmonton area.
It offers "important design concepts" such as hospitality, sacredness, mystery, beauty, contemporary expression, acoustics and environmental consciousness to guide church-building.
And it provides guidelines for virtually every element of a church including the gathering space, baptistry, altar table, ambo (lectern), presider's chair, cross and sacristry.
It says the altar table is "intended for the action of a single priest and an assembly" and should be square or slightly rectangular.
"The table form brings to mind most readily the supper of the Lord as the sacred banquet of God's people during the time of the Church, a meal which is at one and the same time the memorial of the cross and anticipation of the kingdom-banquet."
It quotes a Vatican document on the Rite of Christian Initiation which says Baptism by immersion is the most suitable way of expressing the death and resurrection of Christ. The Canadian document then suggests that the baptismal font be large enough to accommodate Baptism by immersion.
The presider's chair, it says, "symbolizes the office of presiding, but it should never suggest domination."
Our Place of Worship also calls for churches to have a Blessed Sacrament chapel "suited to private adoration and prayer, set apart from the main body of the church."
Such a chapel would not relegate the reserved sacrament to an unimportant place, but rather would, "if properly designed and appointed, give it proper reverence and attention."
The document even calls for parishes to have a cloakroom . "As members of parishes grow in their appreciation of the community as the locus of the presence of Christ when it gathers for worship, they may be more inclined to remove outdoor clothing as they come together as a 'family' of the Church."
Kelly said the National Council on Liturgy saw the need for a booklet like Our Place of Worship more than a dozen years ago. Serious work on it has gone on for about five years.
Most of the writing was done by Winnipeg architect Michael Boreskie and Halifax theologian Mary Schaefer.
Kelly said Our Place of Worship was approved by the Canadian bishops' liturgy commission as "an information document."
The book's recommendations amount to "strong suggestions," she said. "You cannot canonize one particular style of architecture or one particular arrangement of the worship space."
The document includes a foreword by Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais, chair of the liturgy commission.
"Our Place of Worship is intended to assist liturgy committees and building committees to explore with their communities who the Church is and what it does before it proceeds to the specific requirements of the community," Gervais wrote.
"It offers a process to help the community achieve its purpose. It also offers principles and characteristics of an appropriate place, always with the primacy of the assembly in mind, and it outlines the requirements of the liturgy according to the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II and the Introduction to the Roman Missal."
The book includes an appendix on the history of church architecture.
It also includes a lengthy section on the building process.
It urges parishes to begin slowly, consult widely and involve the whole parish.
"Good process fosters parish commitment to a project, empowerment of the community and a widespread sense of ownership, healthy fundraising, excellence of design, responsibility in holding to budgets and schedules, and the renewal of community and faith."
The book urges that decisions be reached by consensus rather than by voting.
"The need to hear those with objections is as great as the need to hear those positively disposed," it says. "The community's welfare and decision-making processes are not the property of cliques, and power does not exist to meet the needs of only the majorities."
Kelly said the book was mainly written for parishes planning major construction or renovation projects. But it can also be used in parishes which want to arrange the worship area better without spending any money or which seek to educate themselves on the nature of the worship space.