When my architect father designed Saints Philip and James Catholic church in Exton, Pennsylvania, it was understood that he would adhere to the three laws of church architecture—verticality, permanence and iconography. This was before the Second Vatican Council, when Catholic churches had not yet discovered churches-in-the-round, bubbling hot tub Baptismals, or suspended-from-the-ceiling UFO-style crucifixes. The church that my father designed could easily be identified as a Catholic church.
The Second Vatican Council of 1962 produced a storm that not only affected how Catholics worship, but the buildings they worship in. That windstorm produced a fair amount of architectural self-destruction. Catholic churches were suddenly getting rid of their high altars and replacing them with circular altar tables. Majestic crucifixes were replaced by plus signs; statues and icons by burlap banners with colorful (but primitive) drawings that looked as though they had been constructed by children.
Michael Rose, author of Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again,” writes that the catalyst for the change was a duplicitous 1978 draft statement by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, entitled ‘Environment and Art in Catholic Worship’
Rose asserts that this document was “cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, implying approval from Rome. But the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilum, which was cited in the draft statement as the reason for the ‘wreck-o-ovation,’ did not call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic Church architecture.
What Vatican II actually said was: “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they can be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained.”
The problem was that many rebel US Catholic bishops apparently wanted to reshape Catholic churches into more people-oriented worship spaces.
In 1952, a booklet entitled ‘Speaking of Liturgical Architecture’ was published by the Liturgy Program in 1952 at the University of Notre Dame. Its author, a Father H.A. Reinhold, was a respected liturgist of his day. The booklet was a compilation of Reinhold’s lectures in 1947 delivered at the University of Notre Dame.’
Reinhold campaigned for a fan-shaped congregation or a church in the round. Reinhold didn’t get very far at the time, but his ideas lay dormant until the so called “spirit of Vatican II” was heard everywhere in the Catholic world. “Spirit of Vatican II’ was used to justify everything in the modern Church from a more charitable attitude towards non-Catholics to the use of Raisin Oatmeal cookies at Communion time. The phrase also encouraged bishops and liturgists to start at ground zero-- architecturally speaking-- forgoing organic change for the rough and tumble world of “let’s just bomb all of Tradition and start over again from scratch.”
This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars with images of saints and angels; carpeted rooms; plain glass stained windows, potted plants in place of traditional Catholic artwork; small and nondescript Stations of the Cross; churches in the round resembling MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes were replaced by geometric plus signs; the traditional baptismal transformed into a hot tub (no splashy weekend nudity, thank you). Older churches, including many cathedrals, were stripped bare as high altars were removed and dismantled, and historic frescoes and icons whitewashed.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the iconoclasts.
In Philadelphia, a number of churches fell victim to the new design.
Philadelphia’s Holy Name parish in the Fishtown neighborhood, founded in 1905, had an architectural wreck-o-vation in the free-wheeling 70s. The project was the brainchild of a Dominican pastor. This was the era of Jazz Masses at the Norbertine Daylesford Abbey in Paoli and guitar Masses in nearly every Catholic parish in the United States.
The pastor, who fancied himself as a kind of Le Corbusier, cut off the high altar and installed a Home Depot style butcher block in the center of the church. Then he hung a 747-sized crucifix from the ceiling. He and his Dominican cohorts then ripped out the marble altar rail and covered the sanctuary in Holiday Inn-style carpet that tends to buckle (and get moldy) over a period of time. When the new pastor arrived in 1998, he looked at the church and commented, “This is a mess!”
The radical Dominicans, unlike the iconoclasts in the 6th and 7th centuries, managed to show some restraint. They left the side altars intact and also spared the statues and even allowed a bejeweled Infant of Prague image to remain in its quiet side altar niche.
Holy Name’s new pastor got rid of the butcher block and replaced it with a real high altar from a church that had closed in the city in 1999. He also painted the church and added ceramic tile to the sanctuary. What he could not replace was the altar rail.
The Second Vatican Council did not issue any edicts calling for the removal of church altar rails. What happened is that in many American churches this was done by design consensus when communion-in-hand became a popular form of receiving the sacrament. The altar rail, traditionally, is the western version of the Eastern iconostasis (a screen of icons that frames the altar in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches). In many modern Catholic churches today there’s no delineation of the sanctuary; an altar rail used to signify that one was entering a place of special reverence. Now the spaces flow invisibly into each other.
In Philadelphia’s Tacony section, the once beautiful church of Saint Leo the Great, recently destroyed by a fire on May 9, 2021, underwent a wreck-ovation in the 1960s. Designed by Philadelphia architect Frank R. Watson and built in 1884, St. Leo Church was enrolled in the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Register of Historic Places in May 2019.
Years before the 2021 fire, the pastor of Saint Leo’s told me that the reformers got to the church immediately after the close of Vatican II. They took out the big marble altar along with the doomed pulpit. Unlike the rabid Dominicans who only half-wrecked Holy Name, the St. Leo reformers dumped all the church statues in the church school. The church’s large sanctuary lamp that looked as though it might have once hung in a European cathedral was replaced with a small, non-descript Martha Stewart/Target-inspired patio lamp. The exquisite altar rail was also ripped out.
When the new pastor, one Father Sweeney, came to St. Leo’s in 2009, he couldn’t get over the incongruity: old Gothic church on the outside, a gutted butcher’s specimen on the inside. He knew he had to do something, but what?
In my interview with Fr. Sweeney at that time, he told me that he threw out the modernist altar table and replaced it with a traditional marble high altar blessed by St. John Neumann. Father Sweeney’s return-to-tradition makeover continued with a vengeance.
“The church went from being a [Lion’s Club] meeting hall to a cathedral in a couple of months,” Fr. Sweeny told me.
Saint Leo the Great, often referred to throughout the years as the “heart of Tacony” was officially closed in 2018 following a parish merger with the Northeast’s Our Lady of Consolation parish. Authorities on May 13, 2021 ruled that the May 9 fire was the result of arson.
Modernist Catholic churches are now the norm the world over. In my various travels around the globe I’ve seen my fair share of revamped Catholic sacred spaces and once grand cathedrals stripped bare.
When I traveled to Eisenstadt, Austria, and visited the so called Haydn Church of the chapel of Mercy Mountain church, a church decorated and embellished by Prince Nicholas III, I was shown a new addition, not far from the Haydn crypt. My tour guide, visibly embarrassed, pointed out the Reconciliation Room, a substitution for the centuries old confessionals. The white plastic and smoky glass construction framed with a few potted plants could easily have doubled as a men’s room. Only the absence of flushing sounds and urinals set it apart as a space for contemplation.
What is troubling is the fact that there is no focal point in the modern worship space. The altar is too low to be visible in most cases, and the priest’s chair, at the level of the congregation, is inconspicuous to all but those sitting or standing in the first two rows. In many modern churches there’s no sanctuary distinct from the nave.
The chief architect of modern church design, Father Richard Vosko, a member of the Diocese of Albany Architecture and Building Commission, has designed/redesigned or gutted over 120 Catholic churches. Father Vosko’s brainchild is Cardinal Mahoney’s Los Angeles cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, also known as the Yellow Armadillo or the “Taj Mahoney.” Cardinal Mahony resigned as Archbishop of Los Angeles on March 1, 2011 and was succeeded by Archbishop José Horacio Gómez in February 2011.
“This cathedral,” Vosko stated to the press, “is of its own time, of its own liturgy, of its own people.” Vosko added that he was not interested in establishing a sacred place like the European cathedrals of past centuries.
Los Angeles’ multi-million dollar conference hall cathedral is usually used as an example when parish committees and pastors inquire about Fr. Vosko’s services. Vosko’s “cookie-cutter” churches all have the same look: they are functionalist with harsh lines and dominated by colder materials such as metal, concrete and glass. They are noted for their off-centered or less-than-prominent altars and, of course, there’s a lack of a clearly defined sanctuary or nave. There’s also a distinct lack of color and sacred imagery.
Vosko likes tabernacles placed in obscure side chapels, away from the main altar. He opts for hot tub baptismal Jacuzzi, the removal of pews in favor of mobile chairs. His message is that everything should be “throw-a-way,” a church should be able to be cleared of all objects and double as a basketball court if need be.
The revolutionary Vosko, who says he gets his design ideas from Edward A. Sovik, author of the Lutheran tome, Architecture for Worship—a book in which Sovik says that it is his intention to “finish where the reformation Protestants left off 400 years ago”—continues to have some success in building Catholic churches that look like upscale libraries or nursing homes.
In 1831, Victor Hugo lamented the destruction of Notre Dame in Paris in his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo was not talking about the decapitated statues or injuries to the old queen of French cathedrals caused by the French Revolution, but to the grave damage that Notre Dame suffered at the hands of school-trained architects.
Hugo criticized the removal of colored glass stained windows, the interior which had been whitewashed, as well as the removal of the tower over the central part of the cathedral. Fashion, Hugo claimed, had done more mischief than revolutions: “It has cut to the quick—it has attacked the very bone and framework of the art,” he said.
Hugo called these school trained architects, slaves to bad taste and said they were guilty of willful destruction.