build or restore?

Oct 26, 2016

The gift of Tradition

In recent months I have been invited to meetings at several Christchurch Diocese parishes which are facing the building or restoring of churches damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 – 2011. My role is to assist them with the design and liturgical aspects of their new or restored church building.

The task of restoring or rebuilding a church is a huge mission, even for a large parish. In some local situations parish churches were completely destroyed by the quakes. Other churches suffered less damage. In each of these situations the decision is relatively clear: a church that has been completely destroyed needs to be replaced. If damage is minor, repair is an obvious choice. A number of parishes have already completed repairs and others are currently in the process of designing new churches.

However in some of our affected churches the damage is significant and repair costs are comparable to that of constructing a new church. This situation makes for a more complex and difficult decision and one that can test and sadly divide the healthiest of parish communities.

I have noticed that some parishes in this situation see the answer in an opportunity to build a church that is more simple, modern, comfortable and low-maintenance. The argument in this direction is usually supported by the desire of some to use the opportunity (and funds) to add social spaces with meeting and office facilities. A parish that takes this path ends up with a church that may be adequate and comfortable, but which lacks the beauty and prayer-filled heritage of the old church. The beauty that is found in century-old churches is often considered to be impractical and unaffordable and such beauty is rarely obtained or even desired in a new building.

It is significant that the rebuild option is generally supported primarily by older parishioners. Younger parishioners very often have a stronger desire to retain and restore the old. This is evident in the number of young people who restore old houses, polishing wooden floors that their grandparents covered with carpet “for practical reasons.”  A bride will almost always choose a traditional and historical church over her modern parish church.

Young people have an innate appreciation of the gift of tradition.

Expense – or holiness

Only since the Reformation has beauty has been associated with unnecessary expense and extravagance. Before the Reformation beauty was associated with holiness and therefore considered to be an essential component of every parish church.

Those who lead the move to demolish the old and build new and modern churches are often committed and practical parishioners who bring business minds to the discussion. In the face of such secular common-sense the perspective of faith and tradition is easily overlooked. Modern Catholic churches are usually designed by architects who have little if any first-hand experience of Catholic worship and no substantial knowledge of the needs and potential of Catholic church architecture.

It is ironic that today builders, architects and engineers are considered to be the church-building experts. Until the middle of last century people of faith including builders, architects and engineers were the expert church-builders. Their motivations were not centred on practicality and affordability but on the will of God expressed through the life of the church and especially in the liturgical needs of the worshipping community. Beauty was never an optional extra, but an essential characteristic which enabled the architecture of the church to be the built form of sound theology and liturgical practice.

God’s Dwelling Place

Church buildings were always constructed to be God’s dwelling place in our midst. This singular clarity is often disguised in a modern church construction where the church itself visibly appears as just one part of a parish “complex” rather than an unambiguous sign of the faith of the people of this place.

Our nineteenth-century New Zealand Catholic ancestors often lived in great poverty but they were rich in faith and understood that no expense was to be spared in building God’s dwelling place in their midst. I am currently serving in the Hurunui district where our six parish churches (built between 1866 and 1956) are among the most beautiful churches I have ever prayed in. Back then church architects and builders followed timeless principles of church architecture personalised for a location by professional church architects. These churches were built of quality materials, wood, marble and stained glass, constructed using classical tried and tested proportions with arrangements determined by the liturgy (which is the central use of a church) rather than by subjective likes and dislikes. Today marble, slate, quality wood, stained glass, columns and even cathedral ceilings are more likely to be found in a domestic dwelling than in God’s dwelling place.

Formation is essential.

Even when an experienced architect is appointed to a church building project, control of the project is usually taken by a well-intentioned committee motivated more by a desire to create a modern church facility rather than to build (or rebuild) a house of God. Sometimes these committees enthusiastically leap into the design process without taking time for essential study and formation. I spent time with one such committee who were considering design options for their church, but only two members of the committee had read the documents published by Bishop Barry Jones (The House of God and God’s Dwelling Place), and no one knew of the series of three-minute video clips from Dr. Denis MacNamara which provide easy and attractive formation for individuals or committees.

Instead of beginning a discerning process with sound formation it is more likely that the first meetings of a building / restoration committee will be taken up with a needs assessment in which parishioners’ likes, dislikes and preferences are shared. Too often these considerations become the foundation for future decisions about restoration or rebuilding and the style of the building. It is rare that serious consideration is given to the nature of a Catholic Church building, as revealed by God and passed on to us in tangible buildings by our ancestors in faith.

A priest is often left in a difficult situation trying to facilitate different perspectives and provide pastoral leadership towards a decision. The fact that the priest is the one who celebrates liturgy every day in the church (and has for several decades in many churches) is often overlooked as committee members consider “practical” factors.

Perhaps there is a reason for this? I have noticed a resistance in many building committee members to any formation which is felt to be “traditional.”  I have heard this voiced a number of times, but again, largely by older parishioners (aged 50+) who tend to be the bulk of most parish building committees. Older parishioners comment that they already know what a church needs to be. Younger parishioners are more often aware of what they do not know and enthusiastically seek opportunities to gain this formation.

Who is the designer, who is the client?

It is revealing that we often use the term “parish centre” about the social space when our Catholic faith tells us that the place where God dwells in the tabernacle and where the liturgy is celebrated is the centre of parish life.  A chosen architect is likely to view the parish building committee as the client in contrast to our ancestors’ conviction that when it comes to church building, God is the client.

Restoration or Rebuilding?

If it is all possible to restore an existing church, especially one which has been the centre of worship for more than a century, built from the generous faith of our ancestors and in which generations of local Catholics have been baptised, married, and from which they have been buried, a discerning parish will have a clear preference for retaining this church.

In some of our Christchurch diocese churches that risk demolition saints have prayed, both the generations of unnamed saints, and St Mary MacKillop and St. John Paul.

Of course cost and safety are important considerations. If the cost of restoration is prohibitive there are difficult decisions to be made and if building a new church is the only viable choice, then parishioners will naturally grieve the loss of the old.

I spent some time last month with a parish in our diocese where initial investigations advised that demolition was the only option for their church. More recently they have discovered that their church can be restored in stages, and very soon they will be able to return to worship in their century old church. Their delight at this discovery was evident – and the bonus is that people naturally contribute more generously to a restoration of a traditional building than to a more modern replacement.

The risk of undiscerned decisions

It is essential that we not rush into quick decisions that risk bringing regrettable results. Bishop Barry Jones has been widely praised for his decision to move slowly on a decision about the Cathedral. Now that information about the viability and costs associated with the rebuild of the Cathedral has been collected, the diocesan community is able to proceed with discerning whether or not to rebuild or to restore.

At a parish level our decisions about the rebuild or restoration of parish churches is an important one. It is essential that those involved in the decision making set aside their natural preferences and listen for the greater good. A parish building committee needs to have not just a practical mind for the task at hand, but a faith-filled heart for the deeper needs of worshipping Catholics now and into the future.  A Catholic Church building is not simply a shelter for sacramental action, but a living sacramental sign. Sometimes these living signs suffer damage and destruction through no fault of our own and restoration costs are prohibitive. In these situations difficult decisions may have to be made. But since a Catholic Church building is a living and vibrant sign, we have a responsibility both to ancestors and to future generations to ensure that the building does not suffer premature death hastened by our own hands.

a time for prayer

Most of all, these challenging discernments and decisions need to take place within an environment of prayer. In prayer our own personal agendas move aside and we become aware of God who is revealing a process and a plan that is even more than we could have imagined or implemented on our own. In this way the faith in our midst is nurtured, and future generations will be grateful to us.




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