Saturday, December 17, 2005

Our Lady, Queen of the English Martyrs

A hypothetical design for a church of the Anglican Use for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago

Pictures available here. Click to enlarge. Picture copyright Matthew Alderman.

This fall, our studio project for the School of Architecture was to design a 500-700-seat parish church for a site at 1500 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, a lot currently occupied by the 1997 Old St. Mary's Church, a ministry of the Paulist Fathers originally founded in 1833. Old St. Mary's was begun shortly before the housing boom in the area led to a massive upsurge in gentrification. Land prices have shot up and a large number of urban professionals and young families have begun to make their home there. As a consequence, any church placed on the site has a golden opportunity to evangelize.

What We Replaced

Old St. Mary's is a standard example of the typical contemporary quasi-Corbusian parish church. While possessing some figural sculpture, it is unabashedly modern, if one defines modern as doing pretty much the same thing as everyone else has done for the past fifty years. Seating is fan-shaped and slightly sloped, and the Eucharist is reserved in a glass cubicle which opens into the church and to a large narthex/gatherine area where there appeared, quite inexplicably, to be a wetbar of some sort. The complex has an unremarkable skyline, low to the ground in an area where dozens of skyscrapers will rise in the next decade.

In all fairness, the complex has some redeeming features, like a courtyard which is surprisingly quiet despite the high traffic noise out on the pavement. In general, the project attempts to hold some portion of the street frontage, if perhaps in a somewhat uninspiring manner, with the exception of the unsightly parking-lot next door.

The Design Brief

Our mission was to design a church for the site which would fit into the urban environment and also provide a true experience of the Domus Dei to a thriving neighborhood. We were encouraged to read The Spirit of the Liturgy by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger and to study numerous ancient prototypes of church architecture, stressing the issues of symbolic eastward orientation, iconography, liturgical considerations and also the importance of popular piety in a parish environment. If we wished, we could invite a new religious order in or even have a different rite of we liked. Each one of us were to design a different solution to the problem, same site and roughly the same programatic requirements. I chose to establish an Anglican Use parish in Chicago for the Catholic Pastoral Provision because of the increasing likelyhood of various breakaway Anglican groups joining with Rome in the near future.

Design Issues: Style

English Catholicism, and the Anglican Use in the United States, has long been associated with Gothic architecture. With the exception of the Brompton Oratory and some of the more extreme members of the high-church wing in Anglicanism, there have been few attempts to introduce continental Baroque into England and English-speaking culture. However, in light that I had the opportunity to work under the tutelage of an enthusiast of the Baroque, Professor Thomas Gordon Smith, and considered myself more competent in that style, I decided to take up the project of starting with the uniquely English Baroque idiom of Sir Christopher Wren and re-imagining it as a Catholic style.

In my research, I discovered England's church architecture and continental Baroque had intersected several times before. The (sometimes quirky) high-church revival of James I and Charles I had used baroque for their choir-screens and altarpieces almost as much as Christopher Wren's preaching-hall City Churches. Some Catholics, come the restoration of the hierarchy in 1840, had argued for following Tridentine models rather than the Sarum Gothic of Pugin and his followers. I learned more about the "Back to Baroque" movement in the Church of England, which I had already known a little about already. While ridiculed in many of the works I had read, I discovered others had more sympathetic views of this exotic ecclesiastical outlier and its most prominent designer, the talented (though agnostic) church furnisher Martin Travers. I found some beauty, and I found some kitsch, and I separated the wheat from the chaff.

While there was room in the world for both Gothic and baroque, I decided to go for Baroque in this context. Our Lady, Queen of the English Martyrs would be in the grand tradition of the immigrant parishes of St. John Cantius and St. Mary of the Angels, examples of a mingled European-Midwestern architectural heritage largely unknown in the city churches of Gothic New York and elsewhere. But I thought it essential to make it a distinctly English expression of Catholic Baroque. This had been done before in Chicago, too, when the great builder Cardinal Mundelein had adapted New England Georgian architecture--distinctly American--to the Catholic liturgy at the seminary that now bears his name. Wren would help, and so would Travers--though it struck me the best way to go about was to imagine what their work would have looked like had they themselves been Catholic. How would English craftsmen have adapted Baroque to their rood-beams and altarpieces, their choirstalls and organ-cases? The result would be a unique mingling of English and Italian forms, showing both the parish's unique Anglican identity and also its loyalty to Rome. The project was, in part, an attempt to prove the relevance and compatibility of Catholicism's Roman heritage to reunited Anglican custom--and to English-speaking American Catholicism in general.

Design Issues: The Urban Landscape

Churches are almost inevitably overshadowed by city skyscrapers these days. While not a high-rise neighborhood, South Michigan Avenue was well on its way to becoming one. Any church placed there had to stand up proud and straight and be recognizable against the titans that surrounded it. I considered Sant' Agnese in Rome, which occupies a similarly awkward block, hemmed in on two sides by palaces and shops, the lofty tower-churches of Guarini, and also the strange American tradition of the skyscraper church that one finds represented in the Methodist Temple in Chicago and Riverside Church in New York.

While the idea of filling up the belfry with office space was unthinkable, the idea of height--of domes and spires, and big blocky ones at that, appeared crucial to me. A lofty dome and spire presented itself as the solution. But like the centralized Sant' Agnese, the dome had to be close to the street in order to be read as part of the facade. Hence, I decided a cruciform Greek cross plan which would give the dome the appropriate prominence as an urban landmark. This would also ensure greater readability in the church's volumes and allow monumentality and a properly liturgical, deep chancel in a site where the length of the church nave was greatly constrained by the shallow depth of the site.

Design Issues: Liturgy and Iconography

Following English custom, I placed an antiphonal choir between the crossing and the high altar, placed against a reredos as customary in the Anglican Use. The choir allowed a certain sacred distance to be placed between congregation and celebrant and making up for the lack of procession possible in a centralized plan. A rood-beam (the only Baroque one I know of ever to be proposed) marks the dividing line between chancel and nave. Seating for 450-500 was possible in the nave and transepts, though the deep chancel did not allow sidelines as perfect as I would have preferred. Side-altars, shrines and two confessionals adorned the transepts and aisles, ample enough also for the traditional singing of the Litany in Procession before high Mass.

An elaborate chronological iconographic program was proposed. Beginning in the narthex and baptistery, early English saints and martyrs were depicted, showing the country's early fealty to the faith, while over the confessionals were placed statues of SS. Gregory and Augustine of Canterbury, showing the ties between Roman authority, the power to bind and loose, and the missionary beginnings of English Catholicism. The transept altar of the Lord's Death, with images derived from medieval devotional images of the Mass of St. Gregory, was also adorned with depictions of the martyrs of the Henrican and Elizabethan persecutions. Over the high altar was an image of the Virgin in martyrial scarlet and royal gold, holding the Christ Child who bears the nails and thorns of His own death, linking the sacrifice of Calvary with the martyrdoms of Thomas More and John Fisher, whose figures stand on either side of the altarpiece. The theme of sacrifice is continued by the Throne of Grace Trinity at the top of the reredos.

The altarpiece, as the site of the Eucharist, also symbolically represents the reunion of the Anglican Use with Rome, and the papal keys are shown on a bracket holding up the crucified Christ. The insignias of the archdiocese of Chicago and the Pastoral provision are depicted on the predella. The themes of reunion and of Marian devotion continue in the Lady Chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham--the greatest shrine of pre-Reformation England and today focus of English Catholic devotion and ecumenism, and the female martyr Margaret Clitheroe. The Lady Chapel was designed to serve also as a daily Mass and Adoration chapel with three confessionals and access from an outdoor parking-lot when the remainder of the church is locked.

Design Issues: The Parish

A covered from one of the transepts to the Parish Hall and the school above allow access in winter, while parents can drop off their kids at the front lobby safely under the eye of the front desk secretary. While not included in the final presentation due to time constraints, the 5-story school block is able to serve K-8 (2 classes of 30 per grade), and has a rooftop playground, underground gym, library and cafeteria. On the ground floor are housed the parish offices. On the right side of the church is the smaller Rectory block with room for several clergy and guest apartments and common rooms, as well as a small office for housekeeping staff. A proposal to include two large apartments for married convert Anglican clergy was scrapped due to the impracticality of such an option.


Our Lady, Queen of the English Martyrs is, by its nature, something of a fantasy project and its budget would be beyond the scope of a normal parish. The Greek cross plan is, in the end, more suited to oratories than parishes, and I would in retrospect have preferred more seating. This is, however, a very appropriate project to explore in an acacemic environment. Someone has to begin to push the envelope if we are to revive the craft traditions that modernism has almost completely stamped out. Such a paper project allows the exploration of important design issues, such as the question of how to handle a city church in today's environment. If faced with a real project, I might have handled it somewhat differently, but many of the lessons I have learned as a consequence of this design would nontheless be of great merit to me. It has been an immensely enjoyable semester, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to undertake such a project to the glory of God and His Church, for the promotion of reunion and ecumenism, to learn from my mistakes, and for the opportunity to sharpen my own skills a little bit more.

Many thanks to all who helped me along in this exercise: to Professor Smith, my studio critic; to Michael Djorjevitch, Joel Pidel and Matt Enquist for architectural critiques and moral support; to my parents for input on my presentation and for being there; to the Shrine's Emily for helping me sort out the nitty-gritty of the acoustics, the school, and the parish offices; to Lucy of Lux Fidelis for additional help with the parish plant layout and for being a good studio buddy; the Shrine's Dan for dropping in for Lucy's and my reviews; and to Jane of Catholics, Musicians, Students, for helping me out with the particulars of how to lay out a workable antiphonal choir.

(Cross-posted to The Shrine of the Holy Whapping).

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