From St. Catherine's Review, written by Michael Rose
MILWAUKEE, DETROIT, SAN ANTONIO, New Orleans, Memphis, Charleston, W.Va., Kansas City, Kan., Grand Rapids, Covington, St. Petersburg, Colorado Springs, Lafayette, Ind., Honoluluthese are just some of the U.S. dioceses now renovating their cathedral churches. Others like Houston, Oakland, Laredo, and most notably, Los Angles are in the process of building new cathedrals.
According to Father Carl Last, former head of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, twenty cathedrals in the U.S. are presently being renovated. Fr. Last was appointed in December by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland as director of the planned renovation for St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee. His comments came in a presentation to Cathedral parishioners in June. Milwaukees project appears to be the most drastic of the cathedral renovation projects now underway, although perhaps not as controversial as others such as San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio and Covington, Ky.s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.
According to conceptual plans released by Fr. Last in June, the Milwaukee cathedral, which dates from 1847, will be remodeled to square with what he calls "the latest liturgical norms." According to Milwaukees Catholic Herald, plans include removing the fixed wooden pews and replacing them with chairs that can be reconfigured at the whim of liturgists; relocating the choir loft to the front of the church, placing a baptismal pool near the front entrance of the cathedral, moving the tabernacle away from the centrally located baldachino; expanding the current choir loft to accommodate balcony seating; converting the sacristy into a daily Mass chapel; and creating niches to display "ethnic art representing the diversity of the archdiocesan population."
Plans to move the altar into "the midst of the congregation" are drawing the heaviest criticism. According to the Herald, "The chairs would be arranged in community-building fashion," in accord with current archi-liturgical fads advanced by a small elite corps of liturgical ideologues bent on remaking the Mass and redefining the posture of worship for Catholics in the U.S. Since no architectural drawings have yet been rendered, Fr. Last claims that no budget has yet been established for the project, which is expected to commence in August. A diocesan-wide resistance to the proposed renovations is being led by the St. Gregory VII chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, which has already organized a petition campaign.
One of the more contentious aspects of the Milwaukee project is the hiring of liturgical consultant Father Richard Vosko, a priest of the Diocese of Albany who has been on "special assignment" since 1970 renovating (many say "ruining") Catholic churches throughout the country. Fr. Voskos iconoclasm is matched only by his ubiquity. At present he is also "consulting" on the designs for San Antonios Cathedral; providing the education sessions at Colorados Springs St. Marys Cathedral; and serving as consultant for Cardinal Roger Mahonys new cathedral, nicknamed the "Rog Mahal." He recently completed work on Grand Rapids Cathedral of St. Andrew; and is rumored to be in line for a commission at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, N.Y. In recent years he has also served as liturgical consultant for the renovations of cathedrals in Nashville and Seattle, as well as dozens of parish churches.
In San Antonio Fr. Vosko is promoting a similar renovation program for the nations oldest cathedral, calling for rearranged seating around an altar that sits in "the midst of the congregation." Standard fad features such as moveable seating and a baptismal pool near the entrance of the church are also part of the program. Last year the Archdiocese announced a $5.7 fundraising affair to "restore" the 262-year-old church. Warnings from laymen about the possibility of radical alterations have been met with considerable irritation by cathedral rector Father David Garcia, who publicly charged his critics in the citys Express News of "a campaign of distortion and misinformation." In a classic posture of denial routinely assumed by those overseeing church renovations, Fr. Garcia has maintained that the historic architecture of San Fernando Cathedral will be preserved and restored. "Were rearranging furniture, not modernizing the Church," he told the Express News.
Edmundo Vargas, a leader of the renovation resistance in San Antonio wonders why a consultant with Fr. Voskos reputation would be hired if plans were simply to "preserve and restore." Vargas organization Defenders of the Magisterium maintains a website (http://www.dotm.org) to keep fellow Catholics educated about renovation myths emanating from the Archdiocese. Contrary to Fr. Garcias claims, architects renderings revealed in February had no kneelers, no statues and no pulpit. Judging from the steady stream of letters to the San Antonio Express-News, many in the community strongly object to proposals to alter the interior of the church. Hispanic Catholics are especially concerned that the cathedrals Spanish heritage will be lost. Defenders of the Magisterium has organized a petition drive objecting not only to the renovation but also to the dioceses use of the historic cathedral for non-religious events such as flamenco dance performances.
In response to critics archdiocesan officials continue with a straight face to maintain that the cathedral is not being "renovated," but will be simply a "return to its former beauty and style." This same claim has been made about every historic church renovation in which Fr. Vosko has been involved. The process he engineers includes invariable appeals to the historical and artistic heritage of the church in question. In Seattle, for instance, the pastor of St. James Cathedral assured all that the "beauty and integrity of the old venerable structure" would be respected. Renovation literature for the 1994 renovation also stated that the project would not "destroy the architectural beauty of the church." Yet with Fr. Vosko in command, thats exactly what happened. In 1995 Catherine Ross of Belleview, Wash. told The Wanderer, "They said they were going to reclaim the historical integrity of the church, but they wrecked the design scheme. We dont have an Italian Renaissance church anymore. Our cathedral looks like a reformation-era Catholic church taken over by Protestants who didnt want any popish artifacts."
But this script is not confined to Fr. Vosko; most other "certified" liturgical consultants use similar techniques and rhetoric with respect to historic church structures. In Covington, Ky., for instance, Bishop Robert Muench and architect Bill Brown continue to claim that their proposed renovation of the Cathedral Basilica will be "consonant with the cathedrals basic architectural design and history," despite the fact that the entire sanctuary is being moved out into the "midst of the congregation," the marble communion rail and ornate hand-carved woodwork is being removed, a baptismal pool is being installed and pews are being rearranged.
Detroits cathedral is being renovated by Latvian native Gunnar Birkerts, a Michigan architect of considerable acclaim. Plans at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral call for a $20 million expansion and overhaul. The expansion includes a glass-and-steel transept that will be added to the north side of the neo-Gothic church. "We want to transform this formidable, dark, gray building into something that is much more inviting to people," Birkerts told the Detroit Free Press. "The shadowy stone arches around the altar will be transformed by curving metal-mesh sheets that will form a multi-layer abstract backdrop for the Mass." Judging the project by such descriptions, many Detroit area Catholics are concerned that the cathedral will be transformed into another one of the pieces of flat modern art that dot the citys forlorn urban landscape.
Why the mad rush?
Curiously, cathedral rectors seem to be discovering en masse that their bishops churches are in need of some urgent repaira leaky roof, an eroding foundation, peeling paint, an outdated mechanical system and so forth. In each case these "urgent" practical repairs have led to a liturgical epiphany. Monsignor Anthony Tocco, the head of the cathedral renovation committee in Detroit, explained to the Free Press that Blessed Sacraments "roof was in awful condition to the point that fixtures were harmed and the walls discolored. The bathrooms are inadequate, the lighting is poor, and we have no good gathering areas." This, he said, precipitated the current $20 million project that the diocese claims it will foot. Similarly, Fr. Last told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that "church officials began looking at renovating [St. John Cathedral] only when infrastructure concerns began to crop up." This urgent need to make practical improvements often gives rise to a radical restructuring of the churchs archi-liturgical components, although no linkage logically exists.
Informed Catholic activists, now better acquainted with renovation rhetoric than in years past, are better able to recognize the warning signs of plans to implement a major church overhaul. Activists in Rochester, N.Y., for instance, have seen the writing on the wall for the future of that dioceses Sacred Heart Cathedral. They are acting now to "nip it in the bud" before any of the archi-liturgical plans get underway.
Many have been wondering why, over the past year or so, the church renovation business appears to have mushroomed. It is not so much because the need of repairs has suddenly become urgent as because the renovation environment may soon drastically change. Two important Church documents that may significantly affect church architecture are due out soon. The U.S. bishops are in the midst of preparing a statement on church architecture (tentatively called Domus Dei), to be discussed and possibly voted on at that bishops national meeting in November of 2000. Likewise, the Vatican is preparing to release the third edition of the Roman Missal. Both documents are likely to contradict some of renovation design features highly favored by the archi-liturgical establishment. In fact, last October, church architects, design consultants and quasi-artists gathered in Colorado Springs to discuss ways of getting around the expected directives that may soon be forthcoming. In the mean time, liturgical design consultants are recommending the "Humpty Dumpty" approach: renovate as much as possible at as many churches as possible before the new documents are released. Once millions have been spent to destroy a cathedral, for instance, it will be hard "to put back together again."
Let's hope it changes for the better.
And I do want to say that, whatever Cardinal Law's faults -- and they are grave and public -- at least he hasn't inflicted any "renovation" on us.