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Friday, October 12, 2012

Renewal or rupture?

Or, "Hey, a Catholic post!"

After we moved from our two-bedroom fridge box to the Burrow in 2010, we started attending the nearest parish. Eventually we registered at the new place in 2011, and have been happy parishoners since. One of our concerns early on was that the inner ring suburbs had taken it in the shorts during the last round of parish closings/consolidations, and we were afraid of that happening again. Father assured us that it wasn't likely to happen again, and offered as evidence the fact that the parish was getting a new altar. This year, it most certainly did.

Now, there are two critical facts to keep in mind (I know you really want to skip down to view the pictures, but bear with me): (1) the parish church was built in 1956, and cost was apparently no object. The stained glass was imported from Munich, or was commissioned from talented local artisan, Mary Giovann (I prefer her figural work, but she had the knack). Before he blew up at me and deemed me a nonperson, Jeffrey Smith indicated that he thought the BVM and SH mosaics (below) were from the craftsmen who were usually commissioned by the Vatican. Longer term parishoners have narrowed it down to either Italy or Poland. So, yeah. Note also the baldachin, which wasn't exactly a standard issue requirement back then. The parish was making a statement in 1956.

(2) Unfortunately, another statement was made in the (early?) 1970s, with a misguided renovation.  The decision was made to put in a wooden table and wooden ambo in the transept, on a raised platform. The said platform was covered with gold plush carpet. No, I don't know what they were thinking, either. Smoky basement scenes from "That 70s Show" leap to mind, but otherwise, it's inexplicable. In all fairness, however, I can't be mad at them, because it wasn't one of those wholesale "Lash Out At Tradition In An Iconoclastic Frenzy" hatchet jobs that have become justly infamous.

Here, as with the King's Men on Numenor, the renovators retained a certain holy fear, and they quailed from defiling Meneltarma--i.e., assaulting the high altar, baldachin, mosaics, statuary, altar rails and so forth.  Minimal hammering, thanks be to God.

The old renovated altar, after removal for installation of the new (sans the dread carpet--gah!) 
The question that should always be foremost with respect to Catholic art and architecture: 
"Is the best we can do?"

Behold the new (and restored, and original):

The new altar, on the new marble platform--complete with fascinated toddler. All of the stone was obtained from the same quarry as 1956.

The old ambo, which had been in storage until the KofC broke it out for a 
state officer installation ceremony--and everyone insisted it stay out.

The BVM altar mosaic. 
Suitably Byzantine for my tastes.

I know, you can read--but for the record, the Sacred Heart altar mosaic. 
The picture doesn't do the gold justice.

The high altar, tabernacle and baldachin.  

A close-up of the tabernacle on the high altar.

The same, from the right.

Four of the altar relics, which were re-placed in the new altar by Bishop Byrnes. I'm sure you can figure out which Saints are which. We also have a piece of the True Cross, but that was NOT displayed for public view for obvious reasons. And permit me to detonate the tired argument that you could build a ship with all the relics of the True Cross bouncing about in Catholic churches: 

So, in response to all of this resplendent Catholic glory, Hilary said: "So, the altar in the nave and the Mass being said outside the sanctuary doesn't bother you?"

After chewing on it for a few weeks, I have to admit she has a point. Not that it's a bad renovation--far from it. It's about the best I've seen. I think it's beautiful, and the kids find something new to examine every time we're there.

Bottom line: it is still a change, isn't it? One that kinda-sorta ratifies the initial rupture-redo. The best rejoinder I've come up with is that had the original renovation been done this way, it would have shown more continuity--a change, yes, but one with a distinct effort to connect to the past, and which does not express embarrassment for the past, and doesn't convey "Eh--it'll do." And better late than never. 

That's good, but it isn't quite dispositive. I guess I keep coming back to my wife's friend, who never made the connection between the Mass and the Sacrifice of the Cross until she saw The Passion of the Christ. And then there's the constant need to tack against the winds of discontinuity.

Rome, we have a problem.

So, yeah, a lot to ponder. 


  1. For a church built in that era... could have been worse, much, much worse. There are some beautiful elements there.

    You pose good questions about tradition and continuity. My own $0.02 is this: It is important to be aware of such things, but at the same time, be also aware that it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming a connoisseur and a critic of churches and masses, which is contrary to worship. If it goes too far, you have people (and I fell into this trap for a time myself) who go to Church and worship the building, or the way Mass is said, rather than worship at a church through the actions of the Mass, which is a rather ironic form of idolatry.

    You mention Jeff Smith: any idea if he is still with us? His blogs seem to be dormant.

  2. Jeff is on Facebook and very active there. He de-friended me after a minor disagreement, which is truly regrettable. I still respect him and his intellect greatly.

    And please do not get me wrong--I love the parish church. It's a stunner. I think the renovation (2012) was done with great care, taste and regard for the rest of the building. I am helping to pay for it, after all. :) The fact is, I was thrown by Hilary's question, and it provoked more thinking, which continues. Especially given the fiftieth anniversary of something which was a couple of days ago.