Monday, June 15, 2015

Strange Churches: Pius XII Edition

The list of architecturally deficient Catholic parishes in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex seems inexhaustible. Just the other day, I thought, dear reader, that we must have seen at least every style of bad ecclesiastical architecture available somewhere in this area until I re-visited a church I last saw on Good Friday—St. Maria Goretti, which was hosting relics of the True Cross that morning.

St. Maria Goretti in Arlington is a strange artifact from that transitional pontificate of Eugenio Pacelli, an age in which everything looked stable and constant on the surface, but a violent storm brewed beneath Pius' Italian crust. I last saw a church approaching this style—merging traditional concepts with modernist and minimalist art and materials—at St. Bridget in Cheshire, CT, my original parish. It, too, was built during the Pacellian era and it too represents that transitional period.

Minimal lighting, indiscernible stained glass, and varnished wood are the choices in this eclectic contribution. The shape of the church is something between thatched hut and collapsing log cabin. 

Other than Stations of the Cross, the church has one place for private prayer. Even the kitsch plaster statues have been hidden atop the confessional boxes. When the faithful added chapels to the ancient Roman basilicas, they intentionally put them throughout the temples so that nothing would detract from the integrity of the sanctuary. In St. Maria Goretti, the sanctuary has an altar and all other manner of thingamajigs with only one concession to private prayer.

Perhaps there is additional lighting in the ceiling that was not illuminated, but through the natural glow of the sun, St. Maria's is gloomy.

St. Benedict? Infant of Prague? Franciscan crucifix? St. Maria Goretti? Whichever you please....

The church was built c.1952 for the old Mass. The sanctuary is alarmingly original and un-"Bugninized" from the 1960s because it was already quite bad. Other than the movement of the altar, I cannot definitively say anything in the sanctuary is new. The altar was clearly atop the footpace at first and has descended to become a "forward" altar for versus turbam Masses, but the back wall, Crucifix, carpeting, altar rail design, and the rest are all quite of the age.

There are three ambos. Why, pray tell? Are three different people really speaking during the Mass? I know!—they are for the deacons to sing the Passion during Holy Week!

A Ukrainian Catholic deacon I know one complained that the Roman Church seems to have no sense of joy. One enters the church and sees only a crucifix. This is actually a relatively new phenomenon, and an unhealthy one at that. The gigantic crucifixes that now dominate the eastern walls of Roman parishes result from brutalistic styling that minimalizes decoration and resorts to the crucifix as the one external sign of the Catholicity of the building. Previously, churches would present images of Christ ruling, the Virgin, the patron saint or mystery of the parish, or just a stylized wall.

Also interesting is the pseudo-canopy. The 1950s saw a very brief and half-hearted revival of the baldachin, a cover over the sanctuary that all the Roman and Eastern churches possessed in the first millennium. The open gothic style of the Latin middle ages and the creation of the iconostasis in the Greek church during the decadant Palaiologan dynasty meant that only the far Eastern churches retained the tradition when constructing new edifices, St. Peter's in Rome being a famous exception. The 1950s resurgence rarely resulted in a full baldachin, only strange sounding boards hanging from the ceiling, as at St. Bridget's.

A side altar for daily Masses. St. Joseph and Our Lady watch over the two additional altars, each flanking the sanctuary.

Alas, a traditional church in DFW!


  1. Imo, those side altars really discourage priests from saying their private Low Mass (1962 or previous) in that church. I know an SSPX priory here in Europe that has side altars in that style. I have never seen them celebrate there, they would rather say their private Masses in an oratory in the priory building.

    1. The Norbertine run parish which I attend on many Sundays has the perfect side altars to celebrate Mass. I am not sure how to explain it but it seems like the architecture of the Church gives the impression that the side altars have their very own intimate territory. Nevertheless, I have not seen a Mass being celebrated on those altars but it would be really nice to see.

  2. The wooden structural elements have a counterpart in St. Luke's parish in Irving (built 1953-4). A few of the stained glass windows there are decent, but the rest are generically abstract.

  3. "Traditional church"? Surely you mean a conservative or traditionalist church? No tradition would stand for this!

  4. I think that this is the sort of design that might qualify for what the lads at NLM call "the other modern" - admittedly, a gloomy and not terribly engaging exemplar of same. There's worse out there from the 50's. There's also better. It wasn't a good decade for aesthetics.

    One other comment. "One enters the church and sees only a crucifix." The relentless iconoclasm which started overtaking Catholic architecture even before WW2 created all sorts of unresolvable tensions. Some wreckovators were quite aware that stripping away virtually all ornament but the sanctuary crucifix had the unintended effect of communicating a bleak message, even with brighter interiors than St. Maria Goretti. Once the felt banners came and went, other things were tried: an "Eastern" icon crucifix (left sadly alone), or even a "resurresifix." The latter hasn't caught on, and many new conservative pastors have been left to slap on band-aids of a few new statues and less industrial carpeting, without really addressing the sterility of what they inherited, because they have no real formation in the architectural or artistic tradition of the Church, or even adequate budget to do so even if they do.

  5. P.S. It's well known that a lot of this sort of thing in the Age of Pacelli was a conscious reaction, at least in North America, to the neo-Gothic kitsch a couple grades below Pugin that was generally the norm in Catholic parishes.

    Well, sign me up for the kitsch. You can at least work with that. It's easier to remove or replace plaster statues than it would be to make something movingly beautiful out of a church like that.

  6. the three ambos like in san clemente. pretty traditional if you ask me. actually anti OF, since the OF rubrics demand only one ambo.