Tag: Robert Venturi

A Tale of Two Altars

The brass donation plaque on the front of our altar hints at a tale of how two parishes once moved in opposite directions in order to come together.

The story began in 1969, a year of transformational world events, during which local churches were directed to install forward-facing altars for the New Mass of Vatican II.

At Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Monsignor Daly, who had been Pastor since 1940 and would retire in 1970, selected a monumental piece of marble to become a permanent part of his church – emblazoned with symbols of wheat and grapes, and carved with an image of the apostles at the Last Supper. The traditional design reflected both the purpose of the altar – as a table for the congregation to symbolically gather around, like the apostles – and the identity of the parish, focused on the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Reassuringly, in time-honored fashion, parishioners old and new were asked to help fund the addition. The MBS February 1969 Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “Miss Margaret Brooks, our organist for many years, has donated the new altar for the upper church. She wishes this, in memory of her beloved parents, Joseph and Margaret (sic. Joseph and Sarah Brooks, who had lived at 1812 South 56th St.). The cost of the new altar is $3,000. The installation and additional marble will cost an extra $4,500. Miss Ada Schraeder, our housekeeper for many years, has donated $100 towards the alterations in our sanctuary...” The following month, contributions were reported of “$22 for top altar cloth and $50 for help in installing new altar, in memory of P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from Mother and Dad – Mr. & Mrs. Austin H. Gaughan, 5318 Grays Avenue” and  “$22 altar cloth for new altar in memory of nephew P.F.C. Austin M. Gaughan from his Aunt & Uncle – Mr. & Mrs. Michael Hogan, 5348 Grays Avenue.“ (Austin Gaughan had died the year before, at age 19, in Vietnam). More contributions came, in months that followed, to cover the rest of the costs. Each one was individually acknowledged, since it represented a member of the parish, gathered for “supper” around the table. Those offerings and names became part of the MBS, and now our, parish heritage.

St. Francis de Sales, a few blocks away, took a different approach. There, under Monsignor Mitchell, a pastor focused on large social issues, idealistic young priests, recently assigned to the parish and filled with a sense of mission, embraced the new simplified English-language Mass, because it seemed accessible to all. With an evangelizing spirit, they invited world-renowned architect, Robert Venturi, to celebrate with a bold modern statement piece in the sanctuary – a plain, sleek plexiglass altar on a brightly-lit modern platform — symbolically highlighting the new order and thrusting the ornate high altar, and the “old-fashioned” ideas it represented, deep into the shadows. The renovation received a fair amount of press coverage, but parishioners, who did not understand the concept, and who were not involved in the planning or decision making, felt blindsided by the changes to their beloved church, which had been their haven in an age of upheaval. Hurt feelings were long lasting.

Jump ahead to 2007, when two small, diverse city parishes, weathered by time and circumstance, had to come together to survive. Like the neighborhood and the New Mass, the sanctuary of St. Francis de Sales had changed over time. The ultramodern Venturi altar eventually cracked and was quietly replaced by several temporary wooden altars under a succession of short-term pastors. When Saint Francis de Sales Parish became Saint Francis de Sales United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, the sturdy marble altar from MBS, installed as a symbol of unity for the two churches, became a perfect fit for the space, looking as though it had always been there. Since its placement was a committee decision – agreed by the pastor and lay representatives of both parishes – it also offered a chance to come full circle at SFDS, heal an old wound, and open a way to a possible future of better communication between rectory and parishioners. It’s up to us, today, to move that forward!

The Society of Architectural Historians brought Fr. McNamee and Denise Scott Brown back to our church in 2015 to talk about the long-ago Venturi project.
Advertisement

Neon Halo

In 1969, an astronaut stepped onto the moon; the New Mass of Vatican II came into full effect; and Robert Venturi renovated the sanctuary of our church. Nothing has been quite the same since.

De Sales had already weathered a number of alterations: Monsignor Sefton, who was pastor from 1961 to 1967, and assistant for 12 years before that, had provided continuity through the remodeling of the Lower Church, the re-tiling of the domes, and the blue-tile-wall modernization of 1965 (the blue tiles were removed from the nave in the 1990s, but remnants can still be seen above the sacristy doorway). But then he moved on, and the radical New Liturgy of Vatican II was ushered in by new faces in the rectory, just as the parish population was shrinking and its demographics changed.

As with every Catholic church across the country, the sanctuary of de Sales had to be opened up and reconfigured to include a permanent free-standing altar for the New Mass. Father McNamee recommended a friend-of-a- friend, world-renowned architect Robert Venturi to do the work at our church, and months of  planning and discussion followed with pastor Monsignor Mitchell and priests and architects — but, as was typical in those days, without input from the congregation.

Parishioners attending the inaugural folk guitar Mass were startled to find their familiar, ornate, back-facing marble altar thrust into the shadows, “cancelled out” by a ghostly neon halo hovering in front of Jesus’ feet. The white cathode tubing highlighted an elevated platform. Upon this bright vinyl island stood a plain modern altar table made of milk-white plexiglas, as smoothly curved as “bent butter;” a sleek plexiglas lectern; and a presider’s chair upholstered in shiny white patent leather. The center section of altar rail was gone, opening up the space to symbolically welcome priest and people together around the table.

The boldly original design and concept were intended to highlight the spare, simple, modern ideas in the New Liturgy, while paying homage to the past.

The New Mass and the new design were equally controversial.

The Venturi renovation proved, in fact, to be the most divisive episode in the history of our parish! College students, some of whom studied under Venturi, were electrified by the bright new look and the energy it represented. Architectural publications praised the design. Longtime parishioners did not. This was one renovation too many. The neon lights were blamed for migraines and removed as soon as the school year ended. The other furnishings disappeared from the  sanctuary piece by piece over time.

Ironically, in retrospect, Venturi saved our church. Vatican directives said that two altars must not compete for attention. In the 1960s, ” old-fashioned” ornate back altars were often altered,  removed, or covered. Venturi believed our history was important, though, so he left the old fittings in place and used the band of neon light as a form of “electric demolition” or “an editor’s pencil” to cancel them out visually. The old altar remained intact in the shadows, giving substance to the new.

It’s still there today, long after his renovations were removed. And now that the New Mass is old news, and the current forward-facing altar from MBS church symbolizes a new reality for our parish, we’ve restored this interesting chapter to our history.

In 2015, the Parish invited the Society of Architectural Historians to bring Father McNamee (pastor emeritus at St. Malachy) and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown to come back and talk about the long-ago renovations. Feelings still ran strong: longtime parishioners were passionate about the attempt to change the character of their church; while Denise Scott Brown, recalled every carefully considered detail of the design and the pain of losing it: “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.”  But after almost half a century, those involved found common ground in the perspective of time and age, and a whole new group of parishioners, neighbors, and friends heard the story for the first time.