Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A New Gothic Church For Lafayette, Indiana

An impressive new parish church is soon to be under construction in the diocese of Lafayette in Indiana. It is the brainchild of the local bishop, the Most Rev. William A. Higi and the parish priest of St. John Vianney, Fr. Brian Dudzinski. With this act, Bishop Higi has become one of a small but growing number of episcopal patrons of traditional architecture in the United States. Several local architectural firms have been engaged to build a parish life center which will serve as a temporary church and in time will be incorporated into a larger complex that will include a youth building, grade school, high school, rectory and convent, and most promisingly, a 1,500 seat church designed by HDB/Cram and Ferguson of Boston, the successor firm to that founded by the titanic Ralph Adams Cram, America's single greatest neo-Gothic architect.

The massiveness of the parish plant is encouraging--there are plans to link it with Gothic cloisters, and the local firm of K.R. Montgomery and Associates appears to very open to exploring tradition--but even more exciting is the size and scope of the enormous parish church commission, and that it has been given to a national firm of some repute with considerable experience in the field, and all with the approbation and asistance of the local bishop.

The plans and models at present are strictly schematic and presumably will not reflect the quality level of the completed design, but they look quite promising. First, rather than the usual banal cost-cutting measure of covering a large, broad nave with a low roof, the church will be laid out with a traditional cruciform plan, and given a loftily-roofed nave to balance out its breadth. Mr. Ethan Anthony of HDB/Cram and Ferguson has indicated this to be a priority in the design: “We want a very high elevation — 55-foot high vaulted ceilings will allow thoughts to go upward to heaven [...] The traditional idea of the front of a church is a gate to heaven, and the church will have a sense of elevated space, a sense of the exalted.”

Some naysayers will point to the canted pews in the design, but I would assume this was not Mr. Anthony's choice. In any case, the strikingly long, high nave of the church will compensate for this, giving it a feeling of monumentality and Christological orientation along the long route to the altar. I will also note that it appears the plans we have been given are still somewhat schematic, so the sanctuary design will probably be developed further. We hope the patron and parish planners will develop a fully traditional chancel arrangement--adapted discretely to current conditions, of course--to complement the church's highly directional nave; certainly HDB/C&F would be well-equipped to provide it, judging from their work at Our Lady of Walsingham in Texas. The crossing would certainly make a very fine spot for a baldachino.

There are plans for an adoration chapel--presumably behind the altar, in the apse, to facilitate a two-way tabernacle--an ambulatory of other devotional chapels, and, of course, the west front with its two towers. At this stage I am not sure how the basic design of the principal elevation of the church will be fleshed out but HDB/Cram and Ferguson's design appears Gothic and traditional but not by any means slavish or stereotyped, which is certainly what the firm's founder--one of the most inventive of his day, especially when working within a great tradition--would have desired. Undoubtedly this is a project worth watching.

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