Context: This is a paper I wrote to explore the re-establishment of the tabernacle and high altar in its rightful place in the sanctuary for a particular Catholic church in Eugene, Oregon. I wrote it for myself, but then gave it to a friend who has passed it along to our parish priest. I don’t know if he has read it. In one way it is an argument, but it’s really a means for me to teach myself about this subject and related church architecture concerns. I welcome feedback as to its content. I could be very off-base, or factually wrong at points. It’s very long for a blog post, but it is originally a paper after all. All inaccuracies are my own.
[Note: Most of the images in this document are taken from the Internet without attribution. My apologies to their creators.]
This paper is a personal exploration of how the location of the high altar and tabernacle at St. Mary Catholic Church in Eugene, Oregon fits into the mission and core values of the parish, and how moving the high altar and tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary might contribute to the fulfillment of the Church’s mission and better align with its core values.
We must also recognize the topic itself is not without controversy. Any discussion of proper liturgy and church design is loaded with recent historical baggage and fraught with competing perspectives. This is neither an unemotional nor a non “political” topic. Nor is it without legitimate debate (far beyond the boundaries of this paper). This paper seeks to avoid the debate and merely argue one perspective.
We might also consider these words from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy:”
Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward god. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.
Thus our first focus is on Christ and living righteously, and secondarily on Church architecture and specifics of liturgy. Our unity as the Church must first be based in love: our mutual love for Christ and our love for each other. Nonetheless, God has built within us both the calling for and the necessity of “cult,” and He has created us with a nature that we all universally share. Questions of proper worship are both a natural outpouring of our nature and ourselves before God, and have been with us since the beginning of creation. Let us seek right worship, and may that seeking not become a source of disunity.
St. Mary’s (full name: St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation, Catholic Church) is an important Church in the Eugene/Springfield metro area. This is true not only because it represents the oldest and most centrally located Catholic parish in the city of Eugene, but also because the church building itself is the most visibly recognizable Catholic structure in the area. Thus it plays a unique role in calling Catholics to worship and proclaiming the Gospel to the community. The building stands as a Catholic witness to the community. This witness is perhaps even more important to the members of the parish who are buffeted on all sides by challenges to their faith.
Some historical background
Catholic missionaries first arrived in what is now the Eugene/Springfield area as early as the 1850’s. They came at the request of Catholics working in the region with the Hudson Bay Company. The first Catholic Mass ever held in the Willamette Valley was celebrated in 1839 by Fr. François Norbert Blanchet (later the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City, now known as the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon) at the church in St. Paul. The Eugene parish was officially established in 1887. It is interesting to consider how pioneering these individuals were.
During this period the region was still very much the wild frontier. Eugene was first named Eugene City in 1850, after Eugene Skinner, who arrived in the area in 1846. Population growth continued quickly apace, and the Catholic community also grew side-by-side with the larger Protestant community.
The first notable Catholic Church building in Eugene was at the corner of 11th and Willamette streets. The building was originally a Methodist church, then purchased and converted to a Catholic church under the direction of Fr. Francis S. Beck (pastor from 1887-1894).
As the Catholic community began to increase in size, there was the need for a larger church building, and greater facilities for a parish school and other parish activities. Property was purchased two blocks away from the original location at what is now the current location at 11th and Charnelton streets.
The current church building was completed and dedicated in October of 1927 (90 years ago as of this writing). The construction was overseen by Fr. Edwin V. O’Hara (pastor from 1920-1929, later appointed Bishop of Great Falls, MT, then Kansas City, KS).
The current building was designed according to a modified Gothic style prevalent of American Catholic churches built during that era. The Church was designed by Joseph Jacobberger (1869–1930), a Portland Architect who designed numerous buildings for the Archdiocese of Portland.
One natural benefit of such a stylistic choice is that the language of the Gothic style speaks clearly that this is a church and not something else. Gothic is certainly not the only architectural language proper to church design, but has consistently proven to be an excellent choice. [Note: every work of architecture conveys a message, sometime multiple, competing messages if the architecture is confused.]
Another benefit is that, if church architecture is a language of theological and liturgical form, then the design of a place of worship cannot help but have a significant effect on the formation of those who worship within her walls, including St. Mary’s. Poor church architecture will inherently lead to poorly formed worshipers or, at least, create an unnecessary hurdle in their formation. A church “in the round” conveys a different theology and a different conception of “the Church” than does a basilica form.
According to Michael S. Rose (author of “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces ─ and How We can Change Them Back Again”), a Catholic church must follow three natural laws of architecture in order to be considered truly Catholic in terms of its architectural message:
- A Catholic Church Must Have Permanence
- A Catholic Church Must Have Verticality
- A Catholic Church Must Have Iconography
Fortunately, St. Mary Catholic Church has all three. Though not endowed with an abundance in any of these categories, it is a church that certainly embodies the principles of traditional church architecture, which is to say it speaks the language of Catholic worship through architectural form.
It is, in fact, the only church in this region that is somewhat close in structure to a traditional basilica in form. That alone makes it a unique and special place of worship and a witness to the community.
The aerial views shows the traditional Latin Cross plan, with a long nave crossed by a transept. This is the only church in the Eugene Springfield metro area that follows such a traditional and historically important Catholic plan, thus linking it more closely to the to the Church throughout the centuries than any other local church in terms of its architecture in the area.
Again, no other church in this region follows this identifiably Catholic, historical, traditional, and sacred plan. This is one reason St. Mary’s can be seen as a kind of “jewel” of Catholic worship (and even evangelization) set within the surrounding area ─ a building most decidedly not secular, and therefore a “sanctuary” from the secular. Just how much our society, both Christian and non-Christian, longs for such sanctuaries from the ravages of our modern world cannot be understated.
We know that many traditional Catholic churches went through design alterations beginning in the 1960’s, including removing the high altar, shifting the tabernacle to a side location, removal of altar rails and statues, painting over murals, carpeting wood and marble floors, and more. Although St. Mary’s experienced some of these changes, the overall architecture and traditional design elements of the building itself prevented many changes that might have otherwise altered the structure from its fundamental purpose as a place properly suited to the worship of Christ, who is our king and lord.
We also know that the often repeated perception is that these kinds of recent changes reflect the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.” However, careful attention reveals that such changes have either taken the stated dictates of the council too far, or have directly contradicted them. Regardless, it is arguable that the issue today is not about rehashing well worn debates, but about growth in holiness through authentic worship, and asking what kind of church design best supports that goal?
Traditional Catholic Church Design
As already mentioned, St. Mary’s follows fairly closely the traditional cruciform church design. This is a design developed over centuries, with deep roots in Jewish temple tradition, and designed to conform to Catholic theology, including a biblically rooted anthropology.
Notice several obvious elements (so obvious they don’t really need to be pointed out):
- The floor plan is in the shape of a cross
- The sanctuary is clearly separate from the nave
- The altar is in line with the natural orientation of focus down the nave to the sanctuary
- The lectern and pulpit do not compete with the altar
Each of these elements arise from and contribute to the Church’s understanding of Christ, the Gospel, the nature of the Church, and the key characteristics of proper worship, and much more. The arguments in favor of traditional church design from a biblical and historical, not to mention phenomenological, perspective are numerous and easy to find. This is not the place to restate what has already been stated much better by many others.
What is important to say here, however, is that the call for a more traditional approach to church architecture is not a call for a slavish return to the past, nor is it merely a question of style or one personal preference over another, rather it is a call arising naturally from a proper understanding of worship rooted in Holy Scripture and Tradition. Though the past provides untold riches from which we can learn, the call is fundamentally to holiness. However, it is fascinating that again and again the pursuit of holiness (personally and corporately) leads us to rediscover what has been understood for centuries ─ that what we call traditional is also timeless.
Thus, we hear a call that looks to the past, yet is present with us today, and also looks toward the future. Though the Church allows for innumerable small variations in church architecture, significant deviations continue to fall by the wayside with each passing year as examples of poor theology, a faulty anthropology, and passing fashions ─ written, as it were, in stone, masonry, and wood.
Here is a newspaper clipping showing 1927 interior of St. Mary’s:
The main altar was built by hand in Italy using Botticino marble, with a reredos of red Verona marble, and then carefully shipped to Eugene. Originally, a large crucifix was mounted above the altar and backed by a dark blue and gold brocade drape. The overall design had a simple elegance.
Notice the design was naturally suited to the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass (now Extraordinary Form) universally celebrated in that era (in fact for the preceding four centuries prior to the Mass of Paul VI promulgated in 1969) with the altar and reredos in the center and against the back wall of the sanctuary/apse, with the tabernacle also centered under the crucifix, and the altar rail for receiving communion and creating a clear separation between nave and sanctuary. The eye is naturally drawn to the altar, tabernacle, and crucifix at the same time.
Let us now consider one significant change to the interior design of St. Mary’s that was executed since Vatican II ─ the moving of the high altar and tabernacle to the side of the sanctuary. [Note: This author does not have any information as to the decision process and reasoning behind this particular move. It is assumed the decision merely followed the trends of those years following the council.]
St. Mary’s church interior today:
At some point in the history of St Mary Catholic Church (late 1960’s?) the high altar and tabernacle were moved to the alcove in the right transept (or is it still part of the sanctuary? It is confusing). Also, the current altar was brought forward towards the nave in order to facilitate the versus populum orientation of the priest of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The large crucifix was lowered, and the wall behind the altar was painted gold. The original altar rail and baptismal gates, which had been crafted by hand, were removed altogether. The center aisle was also carpeted.
What appears to be marble flooring of the sanctuary in the 1927 photo, has now been replaced (perhaps only covered over?) with carpet and inexpensive tiles ─ neither of which are beautiful. This move most likely coincided with the liturgical beliefs of the post-council period that saw a need to emphasize there are no barriers between God and man, thus moving towards a sort of de-sacralizing of the sanctuary. Naturally this begins with moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary.
Remember, all these moves have their origin in theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical debates that have occurred (even raged) from decades before Vatican II and continue today. It is not the focus of this paper to deal with those debates, but it is important to recognize that what might seem obvious to one Catholic can be a very different matter in the eyes of another.
Something to consider: It was not uncommon for Catholic churches to go through design changes over time. A church would be built with available funds and resources according to certain traditions and accepted norms. Later, perhaps decades or centuries later, more funds would be raised to finish work, or improve the design with mosaics and murals, statues, stained glass, pipe organs, a domed roof, and other expensive projects. Many of the world’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals look the way they do today because of centuries of incremental improvements as both resources and the desires of the faithful changed and grew. In this light, it is particularly ironic to think that just about the time when St. Mary’s might have gone through upgrades to enhance its traditional beauty, for example with beautiful murals on the sanctuary walls to enhance the call to worship the believer’s mind before Christ, or additional iconography throughout the building to reflect the deep theological riches of the Church, it is arguable that the church was instead “abused” according to the typical post-conciliar fashions of the time. Fortunately, for St. Mary’s the changes are relatively minor and easy to fix ─ and may even present opportunities for surpassing the original design with upgrades.
The high altar and tabernacle as it stands today in the right transept:
As one can see, the high altar and tabernacle is not overly fancy and ornate (as compared to many others in older churches and cathedrals), but it is sufficiently beautiful to declare the glory and presence of Christ. In many ways it speaks well of the probably unsophisticated yet obviously deep faith of Catholics in Eugene circa 1927. It is also a link to our local forebearers who worked to build a proper Catholic place of worship and a presence within this community. These were, for the most part, humble people with limited funds. Most churches of the past, those we love for their timeless beauty, were built by poor immigrants for their communities because they knew the value of what they were doing.
It interesting to consider this particular altar being the focal point of Catholic worship for Eugene during the years of the Great Depression, the troubling years of World War II, Korean War, economic boom, and the vast changes wrought by those and other events. And then (arguably) only to be set to the side when the spirit of the 1960’s seem to demand a focus more on the people in the Church than on Christ ─ perhaps more “spirit of the world” than of the council? Is this argument fair? Many would say yes.
What might it look like to move the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location?
This is an architect’s rendering of how the sanctuary would look like. Notice a few things:
- The change is both significant, yet simple.
- The high altar and tabernacle seem to fit well in the space. This is because they are now where there were originally designed to be. (Of course they fit.)
- The crucifix has to be raised to accommodate the altar’s height, but the change is minor, and may be a better placement as well.
- The focal point for those entering the Church is now where the eye naturally goes, and draws one into the worship space more naturally. (Of course that is where our Lord is.)
- There is a kind of “completeness” now in the church design, with the tabernacle being at the head of the cross (in this cruciform church plan) rather than in one of the arms (transept).
- When the church doors are open, one can now see the tabernacle from the street ─ a powerful visual drawing the gaze into a holy space.
- The sanctuary now looks more like a sanctuary ─ the holy of holies on earth in Catholic theology. (Though there is still more to do in this regard, re-centering the tabernacle is the most significant requirement.)
- It restores a more proper sense of glory for what should be a glorious place ─ a Catholic place of worship.
- The priest now has the option to celebrate Mass ad orientem if he so chooses.
- The priest now has the option to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form if he so chooses.
- …yet the priest can continue to celebrate in the Novus Ordo form without problem ─ assuming the current altar remains where it is, out front of the high altar. (I do not know what is proper with having two altars in the sanctuary.)
- There is now less confusion for non-Catholics in wondering why Catholics believe in the Real Presence yet put Him to one side. This is an evangelistic move. The same is true for Catholics. This is a New Evangelization move (perhaps its most significant contribution in today’s climate).
St. Mary Catholic Church in our community
One could argue there are several reasons that the St. Mary Catholic Church building plays an important role in the life of local and regional Catholics, as well as the community as a whole:
- It is located in Eugene, the second most populated city in Oregon, and near the University of Oregon, the largest university in Oregon.
- It is the oldest Catholic Church building in the area, and thus exudes a sense of substantiality and permanence.
- It is directly linked to the earliest Catholics in the region, and thus has a profound provenance and important place in local history.
- It was built in a modified Gothic style with connections to the Romanesque style, thus it proclaims its connections to Church history of centuries past.
- It is the one Catholic Church building in the region that looks most like a Catholic Church, thus functioning unambiguously, merely by its architecture, as a witness to the faith.
- It is the only Catholic Church in the area that has a traditional pipe organ (and perhaps a choir loft?). The organ dates to the 1927 erecting of the church ─ this alone is a special fact.
Let’s pause a moment and remember three key points:
- The true Church is not the building. Rather, we are the Church, the Body of our Lord. If we do not “embody” the Church in our lives and community, then no mere building will do that for us.
- The building itself is to first serve in the worship of believers. To put it crudely, the church building is a “tool” for worship, used by the faithful in their pursuit of holiness. We must remember that we are not considering architecture or church design except as it is related to our consideration of the Real Presence of Christ and our proper orientation towards Him.
- The church building only secondarily serves as a call to non-believers ─ regardless of how powerful that may be. The best evangelical witness is to be fully and unabashedly Catholic.
If we remember these points then we should be able to keep in balance our desires and decisions. And, of course, our motivations must first be for the Kingdom of God (and all these things will be added).
Looking a little closer at St. Mary’s and its parish life and commitments, we find the following:
Mission (from the website)
“St. Mary Catholic Church is a Sacramental community united in Christ, proclaiming God’s love through liturgy, prayer, education, and service to others.”
Comments: This mission will be seen and understood in how the Church body loves each other and those outside the Church. However, it will also be powerfully expressed and seen by how the Church body worships. These two things, worship of Christ and love of each other cannot be separated. Proper worship should lead to a better understanding of love, and our love should add to the depth of our worship. Even if many Catholics struggle with believing in the truth and power of the Sacraments (perhaps viewing them as mere symbols of their Catholic identity), the Church must believe and act in accordance with the truth. This is particularly crucial in regards to the Blessed Sacrament.
Core Values (the first two listed on website)
Tradition – We are a Eucharistic community committed to the sacred traditional liturgy, music, and sacraments of the Roman Catholic faith.
Education – We are a community dedicated to making available high quality religious education for all parishioners, returning Catholics, and those interested in the faith.
Comments: These values can be lived out best by actions that are expressions, and flow from, of a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Any Church that claims such belief but acts contrary creates a tension in the hearts of both its members and those outside looking in. Though unfortunately minor in many eyes, placing the tabernacle in the center-back wall of the sanctuary (apse if it is a curved back wall) is a significant move towards expressing belief in the Real Presence. Placing it to the side is arguably an expression of diminished belief (at least outwardly) in this truly unfathomably powerful reality. Whether actual belief is diminished or not for a given individual member or priest of St. Mary’s, it is arguable the physical expression itself has no place in a Catholic Church. Start with the Real Presence and all else follows. (Consider this the passionate perspective of a Protestant, and formerly deeply anti-Catholic, now a convert to the Catholic Church who cannot live without the Real Presence.)
More thoughts on the mission
St. Mary’s is a Sacramental community, thus it places a strong emphasis on the fact that the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1113)
We know it is all too easy for any of us to take the sacraments for granted, and to treat them lightly and with less respect than is their due. We are sinners, after all. But doing so we deny ourselves the fruit of those sacraments because of receiving them with poor dispositions. We must be reminded, and remind each other, of what sacraments are, of how we should think of them, and of what our dispositions should be.
Lest we forget, or have not paid attention, and lest we fall into chronological snobbery, we should consider the centuries of liturgical practice and formulation that have come before us. Could it be that older forms do a better job of preparing us to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist? Although this is not the place for an historical unpacking, it can easily be noted that Church architecture and design, including such things as the historically traditional location of the altar and tabernacle, did not come about because of passing fashions, but because of thoughtful understanding in light of Christ’s commands, the traditions of the early Christians, deep examination of Holy Scripture, and a clearer (pre-modern) understanding of Human Nature. In the eyes of this author, it is obvious that more traditional forms of liturgical celebration represent a more substantial understanding of human nature and human needs than do more contemporary forms.
This is not to argue that only in the past will we find the proper way to worship. Nor is it to say older forms are necessarily more holy. However, just as blessed John Henry Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” one might then argue that to be deep in Catholic traditions is to better see the poverty of much of contemporary worship and liturgical practice (to cease to be slavishly contemporary). The implication is that to lack an understanding of what has come before will more likely lead to conclusions that what should be obviously poor expressions of worship are, in fact, good. The past fifty years seems to prove this point.
Simply, a proper understanding of (and actual belief in) the Real Presence and true, properly formed worship would likely have prevented the moving of the high altar and tabernacle from its original location at St. Mary’s. This is a rather sharp claim, but it is, at least, a valid question.
However, perhaps the right question is not about tradition, or tabernacles, or high altars, or even Latin and altar rails, but to ask: What is the best way we know to show our reverence and devotion before the Real Presence of our Savior and King, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, making truly present the proper graces pertaining to that Sacrament? Notice, the question asked is what is the “best way,” not what is the minimum that must be done, or what is merely licit, or what best suits the current tastes of the broadest number of folks (many of whom may be poorly formed, ignorant, or merely pursuing fashions). Of course one may find an image of a priest celebrating mass in wartime, using the hood of a jeep as an altar, both heartwarming and heroic. But no one would argue that jeep hoods should become the standard for altars in Churches. It is the ideal that should be normative if at all possible. And only because of that ideal can jeep hoods become powerful, temporary substitutes.
Consider how the role that St. Mary’s, and in this case specifically the church building itself, functions as an icon of the Church in time and space within our community. In our post-Christian age, where so many have no knowledge of even the basics of their Christian heritage, including many (most?) Catholics, St. Mary’s can function as something wholly other from the prevailing message of the world. Even in her form and structure it can teach and encourage. It does so now, and it may be able to do so even better in the future.
Finally, consider how strange it is that moving the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location could be considered controversial by some (I don’t, in fact, know if that it is the case at St. Mary’s, but it has been elsewhere). Perhaps with another church, built according to a non-traditional form, this might not be an issue, for then it might feel forced as it might be counter to the architectural design. However, with a combination of clear theological, pastoral, and architectural reasoning, there is no actual controversy with such a move at St. Mary Catholic Church.