You may have seen the photos around the internet of the new renovation of the sanctuary at St. Augustine’s, which is the cathedral in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. I thought it might be interesting to examine the renovation from an aesthetic perspective. There’s a subtle art to how sanctuaries are designed that blend form, function, and history into a harmonious, beautiful sacred space. Not everyone quite understands the principles of sacred architecture, which is why we have so many depressing, non-functional sacred spaces that fail to achieve their artistic purpose. Duncan Stroik, the architect who worked on St. Augustine, is not one of them. As is clearly evident in the pictures, his renovation is a clear improvement.
First, a bit of history. The overall bones of the church are what we might call Neo-Gothic. St. Augustine’s was originally built as a parish church by the office of Ralph Adams Cram (he died in 1942 and the church was completed in 1951). It became a cathedral in 1971 when the Diocese of Kalamazoo was created. A sanctuary renovation in 1989 deconstructed the lower portion of the high altar and pieces of it were used as a cathedra backdrop and pedestal for the tabernacle. The cathedra – or the bishop’s throne which is what makes the church a cathedral – was moved into the center and the tabernacle was moved to the Lady Chapel on the west side of the sanctuary. Locating a tabernacle in a Lady Chapel is a common practice in a cathedral for a few reasons – keeping a prayerful distance from tour groups and because cathedrals are often quite large in size and make it difficult for the faithful to visually approach it in adoration. However, there are also strong reasons to prefer the visual unification of altar and tabernacle at the high altar.
Also during the 1989 renovation, statue niches on either side of the reredos were covered over. The reredos is the marble backdrop for the crucifix, and historically many of them would be filled with statuary. The altar rail was removed and pieces were recycled as a railing along a new baptismal pool and ramp up to the sanctuary. The freestanding altar put in place was actually a mensa placed on top of a piece of the altar rail.
Here’s where the 2020 renovation enters the story. This renovation put the pieces of the high altar back in place. The original altar in the Lady Chapel was also restored and a new, matching altar for St. Joseph was constructed. Limestone niches that replicated the originals were installed. You’ll notice in the picture the niches are still empty. They’ll soon be occupied by Sts. Peter and Paul.
Here’s an important point about the renovation. It is not a historical restoration. It is a renovation meant to transform the sanctuary into the sanctuary of a cathedral. The sacred art of the church is not confined to a museum, and sacred art is most beautiful when it is functional and fulfills its purpose in worship. Because of this dynamism, the renovation includes entirely new elements and isn’t defined by an aesthetic of primitivism. The cathedra, ambo, altar, and baldacchino are all creative additions that harmonize with the existing church. The same giallo and verde marbles are used in the altar, baldacchino, ambo, and cathedra surround, which tie these liturgical elements together visually. Duncan Stroik’s approach is to draw on the best of the sacred art tradition, not limiting design to one particular time period or style. Rather than seeing Gothic and Classical as separate styles that shouldn’t mix, he sees them as related and complementary.
The project uses noble materials. Marble for the sanctuary floor, ambo, and cathedra surround including columns with carved capitals. Wood is used for the sounding board above the ambo, cathedra, and new pews in the nave.
One of the aspects of the design that I greatly appreciate is the integration of the patron saint – Augustine – into the thematic elements of the space. For instance, symbols in the decorative paint pattern on the sanctuary walls include a shell, a flaming heart, the motto tolle lege (the tolle lege also appears on the ambo, which is neat), and the letters “STA.” In the baldacchino, the column capitals have a flaming heart in the fleuron. There’s a beautiful floor medallion with the seal of the Diocese of Kalamazoo along with the inscription, “Our Hearts are Restless Until They Rest in Thee.”
Sacred Architecture, like any other art, is successful when it expresses the radiance of truth through beauty. The signs of a successful sanctuary are color, form, harmony, and balance. In the case of St. Augustine, the baldacchino emphasizes the verticality of the Gothic while bringing focus to the altar. Because the proportion of the nave width to height in St. Augustine’s is more like a typical Classical church than a typical Gothic church, the baldacchino works better than might be expected, framing the crucifixion scene in the reredos and allowing most of the beautiful stained glass window to still be seen. The color in the pattern-work brings quite a bit more harmony to the overall space and warms it up significantly. All of the symbols and statuary contribute to the artistic theme.
Overall, the symbolism of the space is far more apparent. A person might wander into this Cathedral and immediately understand that the altar and tabernacle are the heart of the space. The elements don’t have the feel of being randomly added but all contribute to pointing out the focal point of the sanctuary. The space is also far more functional than it was, meaning the liturgy will now have more ease and flow, contributing greatly to the beauty of the worship. This beauty, of course, is the entire point. The faithful deserve beauty, and they deserve to be fed with beauty, to encounter its mystery and so be led to ponder the God who is the source of the beauty and, indeed, is Beauty himself.