Saturday, July 01, 2006

Christ the King Seminary, La Crosse, Wisconsin

A hypothetical proposal for a new American seminary for the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest by Matthew Alderman

For a student who knows what he likes--Baroque, and lots of it--it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to design for my thesis project, the culmination of my studies at the School of Architecture. Some friends of mine had doubtlessly been mentally creating theirs since the moment they arrived at Notre Dame, while others went into the spring semester still a bit hazy on what they planned to do. I figured it out sometime in between, and I remember the day vividly. It was my first real bricks-and-mortar, real-life encounter with the Institute.

I was roadtripping through the hill country of central Wisconsin, thick with vivid fall colors, and had just come back from a serene, silent low Mass and a long, talkative private tour at the splendid German Gothic St. Mary's Oratory in Wausau. I saw the low knobs of hill bright in the sunlight and the wistful ghost of an idea formed in the back of my mind. A little less than a year later, I started prepping for the project. I phoned the North American Superior in Chicago and found him very happy to give me the knowhow to make my imaginary project feel a little more real. A site for the project came via Professor Duncan Stroik, who suggested I consider the area round LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where the Institute's great benefactor Archbishop Burke is in the process of raising the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While this project is not connected with the shrine, a site visit arranged by local architect Mike Swinghamer served as a real jolt to the creative process.

Christ the King Seminary. Valley view. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

The new seminary stands on an 80-acre site nestled amid the bluffland of La Crosse, looming picturesquely on a long narrow promotory overlooking a thickly forested valley. The complex is divided into two principal parts, the seminary with its classrooms and dormitories, and the chapel and its associated dependencies. The layout of the design is inspired by both seminary models such as the great Roman colleges, and the typologies of the isolated princely abbeys of the German Baroque.

Christ the King Seminary. Window detail, west wing. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

The geography of the site--as well as the cultural makeup of the area--suggested I look in particular at Melk Abbey in Austria both in terms of plan and ornamentation, while the ultramontane and specifically Tridentine charism of the Institute meant that the architectural vocabulary I would choose should reflect, or at the very least, harmonize, with the great churches of Rome. The result was an interpretation of Baroque drawing on the vigorous muscularity of Juvarra and Rainaldi, the classicism and imperial iconography of Fischer von Erlauch, and the local beaux-arts tradition of nearby Minneapolis exemplified by such minor masters as Emmanuel Masqueray. In using this vocabulary, rich with history and royal iconography, I sought to create in stone a building which would not only form a suitable backdrop for the priestly formation of its inhabitants, but also play a real and active role in that development, through its mirroring of heavenly realities and its ordered disposition.

Christ the King Seminary. View of chapel and piazza. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

The seminary's public face is represented by the entry sequence into the chapel. The spacious oratory, seating over 400, is intended to serve both the seminarians in their public and private worship, and also as an outreach to the local faithful. Given the great interest that has inevitably accompanied the Institute's celebrations of the the Tridentine rite, in addition to the large number of parents and other visitors likely to attend the ordination of new priests and other similar public ceremonies, it struck me as important that the Institute's chapel be grander and more elaborate than most other seminary churches, instead drawing on the typology of the monastic church, in keeping with the Benedictine charism the Institute practices.

Visitors enter up a grand public staircase decorated with images of the patriarchs and prophets, culminating in a fountain representing the Tree of Jesse and a gilded image of the expectant Virgin of the Apocalypse standing on the horns of the moon. The front elevation of the church continues this apocalyptic theme, derived in part from the traditional tympanum iconography of mediaeval churches, but adapted to the Baroque language of the design. At the summit of the church facade is Christ the King seated in judgment, flanked by two angels bearing instruments of the Passion. By passing over this symbolic, eschatological threshold, the pilgrim enters into the eternal world of heaven beyond.

Christ the King Seminary. Longitudinal section through complex. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

The twin themes of Christ's kingship and Christ's priesthood are threaded together throughout the complex. Crowns, regal stars of David, and other courtly images are common, while Christ the High Priest is referenced through the repeated iconography of the heavenly mass. Throughout the church, angels are shown in liturgical vesture, bearing the instruments of the Passion as the deacons, sub-deacons and acolytes of the eternal liturgy. Rich marbles in strong, masculine, imperial colors predominate--reds, amber-browns, golds and yellows, a palette rich in symbolism derived from Melk and Munich's Assamkirche and reminiscent of the churches of northern Italy.

Christ the King Seminary. Section showing ornamentation of side-chapels. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

Within the church, six chapels with side altars are dedicated to the order's various patron saints, while the choirstalls for the clergy are placed under the dome, with two galleries above for the pipes of a chancel organ intended to sustain the chant and set pitches. (This arrangement, with the galleries occupying shallow transepts, is derived in part from the local precedent of St. Mary's Basilica in Minneapolis, though domed chancels of various type are not unknown in the German roccoco.) A larger organ with positive is placed in the choirloft over the narthex of the church, for the use of professional choirs and visiting orchestras. The high altar stands in the curve of the apse, a great mass of gilding and golden marble serving as the culminating moment of the entire design. Christ is depicted with arms outstretched in the vestments of the eternal priest, hovering over the altar in silver and gold against a background of gilded mosaic. (In retrospect, the image of Christ the King is perhaps more reminiscent of the so-called "resurrexifix" than I might have liked. But that's one small detail, and the idea remains potent and easily able to be re-cast.)

Christ the King Seminary. Transverse section through chancel showing dome and high altar. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

The seminary proper is arranged around two primary courtyards. The church's apse is ringed with a series of sizable sacristies designed with the large volume of seminarians and clerical visitors likely to be in attendance during the Divine Office and Mass. The public and private apartments of the rector and vice-rector are located above, allowing some measure of privacy and also the ability to be equally close to guests and professors. A small guest wing, located close to the church for the convenience of visiting prelates, is tucked into the curve of the hill on the east flank of the church. The farther end of the east wing is occupied by classrooms on the first floor, with the second and third floors house the two-room apartments of the professors and priest-students.

Christ the King Seminary. Principal floor. Matthew Alderman. May 2006. (East is approximately at the top).

The west wing, closer to the church, is occupied by the administrative offices of the seminary, while the remainder holds classrooms with four floors of student dormitories, two above and two below. Two transverse wings holding the refectory, a large assemby or chapter hall, and an audience hall for visiting prelates, define the larger seminary and smaller sacristy courts. A sizable public entrance is located on the western side of the seminary, leading to an elegant public staircase, marble hall, and the entrance to the refectory.

Christ the King Seminary. Typical upper floor. Matthew Alderman. May 2006.

This project was a fascinating opportunity to spread awareness of the Institute, to explore a fascinating web of differing functions and needs required by such a complex. The ordered hierarchy of such a structure serves to create a practical environment for the education and formation of future priests, but beyond that, the seminary becomes an icon of the invisible reality of the heavenly Jerusalem--solemn but joyous, ordered but not merciless, splendid but appropriately sober and severe, with beauty given back to the public and austerity provided for the seminarians in their private cells, like a prelate clothed in cloth-of-gold with the rough fiber of a hair shirt underneath. This project is, of course, only hypothetical, but such exercises serve to generate fruitful discussion, and I hope that these explorations may inspire us to demand more in church architecture--to return to an architecture which truly speaks of transcendent realities, of the realm of the King and Sovereign Priest, Jesus Christ the Lord.

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