Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

The “Non-Church”

November 3rd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

(Top) St. Matthew's Church, Livonia; (Third Row Down) Wegman's store and Cherry Ridge Retirement Community; (Bottom) Our Lady of the Hills, Honeoye

Q. Why don’t our churches look like churches?

A. Because they are “non-churches.”

(Click on pictures to see larger images)

Yes, it’s the truth. If your church is new it probably does not look like a church because it’s not suppose to actually be a church, or ‘holy’ place, or ‘house of God.’ That is why the tabernacle is probably in a side chapel and why iconographic imagery is probably at a minimum. It’s also why the altar is probably hard to see and looks more like a table -perhaps even round- thrust out into the center of the congregation with little to indicate its importance, such as a ciborium. The seating surrounds the altar on nearly all sides just as folks would sit around a table. And the types of seats? There is a good chance they are folding chairs or at least easily moveable chairs. It will all look very temporary or like a common living room with a coffee table in the middle. If there are pews they probably have cushions. No kneelers, of course. They are not needed in a living room. (Somewhat sounds like our renovated Sacred Heart Cathedral, doesn’t it?) Every attempt has been made to minimize any suggestion of a sacred space.

And the exterior? You could easily mistake it for doctors’ offices or a retirement home –or a carriage barn.

That’s what St. Matthew’s Church in Livonia looks like –a carriage barn with an old fashion square silo used for storing grain. In this way St. Matthew’s blends-in with the rural architecture surrounding it. Our Lady of the Hills Church in Honeoye looks like a friendly one level retirement home. Have you seen Cherry Ridge in Webster, one of the St.Ann’s retirement communities? Put a cross on top of the tower entrance and it could look like one of our ‘non-churches.’

For many of us our local Wegman’s store with its traditional clock tower, round window, and cloister-like arches  is more likely to look like a traditional church than an actual church.

Anyone who has gone through a church renovation or the building of a new church probably got the “Vatican II mandates it” talking to. We were told that all of the above changes, and more, were required in the spirit of Vatican II and its demand for active participation. We now know that is all hogwash. The council required no such departure from tradition. What it DID require was that the faithful actively participate through “a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full cllaboration.”1 There is no suggestion that the altar be turned around or the tabernacle removed; nothing about removing images or communion rails; no call for removing kneelers and eliminating Latin or Gregorian chant. Or, turning the church into a ‘non-church.’

Corpus Christi Church (1928-30) in Aachen, Germany

In his 2001 book Ugly as Sin, Michael Rose clearly outlined the history of what happened to so radically change our churches -especially Catholic churches- into non-churches. It might be helpful to review some of that history now, especially for those who may not have read Ugly as Sin.

Many of the changes that have taken place in church art and architecture actually began well before the Second Vatican Council, during the first half of the twentieth century. Much experimentation had already been done in modern church architecture and art inspired (if that’s the right word here) by the modernist movement in art which introduced fractured forms and illogical spaces, harsh lines and non-objective shapes; in short, a compete rejection of traditional art. None of the new, professionally celebrated non-churches were popular with the faithful. Believers overwhelmingly rejected these non-traditional buildings. The emerging class of avant garde architects and liturgists hawking the new ideas were disappointed with the response to their experiments. They became rejuvenated, however, when Vatican II came along and seemed to provide just enough cover for them to ram their ideas down the people’s throat.

Professional Liturgical Design Consultants began popping-up all over enlightening us on how to implement the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ in art, architecture and worship.

One of the most influential of this new class was Edward Sövik, an Evangelical Lutheran architect from America’s mid-west. He began peddling his ideas in the 1950’s but most of his work came out between 1960 and 1970. In his book, Architecture for Worship, Sövik made it clear that his desired goal was to continue where the Protestant Reformation left off four hundred years before.2 Both Protestants and Catholics had continued to build churches as ‘holy’ places and, in that way, failed to return to the pure Christianity that had been the goal of the Protestant Reformation. Sövik advocated for a return to the house churches (‘non-churches’) of early Christianity, during the period of persecutions.3 Churches should blend-in with the rest of the neighborhood. They shouldn’t be ‘holy or sacred places’ but rather places where mostly the social service ministries of the church were provided. Worship was just a part of the use of the building and even that should be centered on the community and not the sacred.4

Die Pfarrkirche St. Raphael, Berlin-Gatow, 1959 – 1965 von Rudolf Schwarz

All of Sövik’s specific recommendations involved the elimination of anything from a church building that suggested religious piety, tradition, or permanence. Everything must appear secular, neutral, flexible, and temporary.  Traditional architectural styles for churches should be avoided for they would continue to reinforce the outdated idea of the church as God’s house. A conscious effort should be made to use the building for a wide variety of purposes; i.e. meetings, workshops, concerts, plays, scouts, etc. By using the space for as many different secular purposes as possible, associating the building with a house of God will be avoided. Even worship itself should be devoid of formality, sacred language and images, and sacred music. If the Eucharist had to be reserved it should be kept somewhere in an inconspicuous, separate room.5 In 1978 a draft document of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) was improperly issued in the name of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The publication of the document implied that it had not only the Conference’s approval but also the approval of the Vatican.6 It quickly became popular among the Liturgical Design Consultants as it seemed to authoritatively endorse everything they had been promoting in church art and architecture. In fact, the document had no authority whatever as it was never adopted by the Conference of Bishops. Yet, it was cited as the authoritative document mandating all the radical changes advocated by the liturgists. I remember being given a copy of the document when I questioned some architectural arrangements at a church I attended in the eighties. “It’s all mandated,” I was told, “Whether we like it or not this is what we must do!”

Finally, then, we come to Father Richard Vosko, a Catholic priest and no stranger to the Rochester Diocese. Probably the best known of the Liturgical Design Consultants, Fr. Vosko has worked on numerous renovations and new church constructions across the United States. While working on the renovation of Sacred Heart Cathedral here in Rochester he was also doing consultations on six other cathedral projects.7 He falls right in line with Söviks thinking. Most of his ideas can be seen in the renovation of Sacred Heart. Fr. Vosko wants buildings that are houses for the church rather than a house for God; churches that will focus on “the assembly gathered around the font and table.” The ideal church building for Fr. Vosko is “similar to the other familiar public spaces, buildings that are well designed and constructed to accommodate large numbers of people in comfortable and pleasant ways.”8

And so we now have churches that don’t look or function like churches. Appropriately, they are called non-churches.



1 Sacrosanctum Concillium, Capter II #48, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council

2 E. A. Sövik, Architecture for Worship, 18

3 Michael S. Rose, Ugly as Sin , (Manchester, Sophia Institute Press, 2001), 156

4 Rose 156

5 Rose 158

6 Rose 151

7 Rose 167

8 Rose 167

Book suggestions:

  • Ugly as Sin by Michael S. Rose, (Manchester, Sophia Institute Press, 2001)
  • God’s House Is Our House: Re-imagining the Environment for Worship Dr. Richard Vosko, (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2006)

Online sources:

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14 Responses to “The “Non-Church””

  1. Matt says:

    Bernie-I have long called St Matthew’s “St. Tractor Supply”

    One of my good friends actually bought Ugly As Sin for me last year, and folded in a picture of Sacred Heart with that stupid maze inside it. Sorry, “labyrinth.”

    The best part of that book for me was the criticism of William Schickel’s “art.” I used to work for his nephew and had to hear in perpetuity about the beautiful art of his uncle. I’ve seen nearly every building he renovated (the barn church was horrendous) and everything he painted. It’s all wretched.

  2. benanderson says:

    great post, Bernie.

  3. Dan says:

    God Bless all of the parishioners who were part of the Sacred Heart Preservation Committee. They donated a huge amount of money and thousands of hours in their fight to stop Bishop Clark from destroying “Bishop Fulton Sheen’s” cathedral.

    The parishioners made Sacred Heart Cathedral a household name in the Rochester area and spread their message from here to Rome. There were no more secrets in the Diocese of Rochester.

    It always made the hair on Bishop Clark’s neck stand up straight to hear our cathedral referred to as “Bishop Sheen’s cathedral”.

    The Cleansing Fire web site is having a positive effect on the Diocese of Rochester. It is nice to hear that our Bishop and his staff read your site.

    Bishop Clark may own all of our parishes, schools, rectories, convents, the money in each parish savings account and all of the contents of the buildings, but the INTERNET is more powerful than the bishop.

  4. Anonymous says:

    That’s why it’s so amazing to see St. Stanislaus, and St. Michael’s. Those two churches are probably the best in our diocese. Sacred Heart Basilica in Syracuse is even better.

  5. Dr. K says:

    The newer Wegman’s stores kind of resemble the former Our Lady of Mercy church in Greece.

  6. Jean says:

    Great article, Bernie. The Wanderer newspaper had a very revealing story about Vasko before the Cathedral was even finished.

    The worst part about the “remodeling” at St. Mary’s in Honeoye is that now that the tabernacle is at the side altar, the choir stands in the center of the sanctuary in its place. Recently, when I was there, I saw no one genuflect to the tablernacle. Our Lord was completely ignored.

  7. Margaret says:

    Very interesting post, Bern. I am always more enlightened after reading your writing. L.A. has lots of churches built in the new design but there are still plenty of traditional buildings around here, including ours. Thank heavens. I can worship as well in any of the designs but prefer to be clearly in “God’s house” rather than a community center.

  8. Eliza10 says:

    I am so glad I found this website! Thanks to the Catholic Courrier this week, I knew to Google and find it!

    This is an excellent website! I know we have to be careful what we say about our bishops and priests, however, I do not think that means blessing scandalous actions with respectful silence and a shroud of privacy. So I am very glad for this website.

    I was living in the Livonia area as a new convert when the plans were made for the new St. Matthews. Did you know that it really is SUPPOSED to look like a barn?? That was the architects idea; it was shared with us. To blend in with the barns in the community, you see.

    As a brand new convert my head was just spinning with the way they solicted funds for that work and the dishonest way they acted like they had the people’s input and then put together the Church of the Diocese’s choosing. (It reminded me of school systems how they do what they want but put together committees of puppets to make it look like they have the people’s input — but you expect that of secular institutions.)

    My local Evangelical Church seemed so much less secular than the DOR! What a tough transition, impossib le without God. What a culture shock for me as a convert. It truly was a gift of faith because it sure didn’t look Catholic here. I was scandalized by the low morale I was witnessing from the faithful in this community, from living with years of such leadership. My head was spinning with so many things I saw. But the main sentiment was that Catholics here should quit looking SO ridiculous trying to act Protestant. They will always fail and Protestants will always do Protestant beautifuly and always better because its who they are. Catholics should be Catholic! Its who they are!

    My thought is that Catholics trying to be Protestant are akin to a man dressing up in heels, wig and makeup – no matter how polished and talented he is at impersonation, it will always be a cheesy, cheap, unappealing immitaiton of the real thing.

    The other thought I had was that Catholics are rich, rich – rolling in riches, but they think they are poor paupers, and they dress in rags and are starved. That is the spiritual reality in this Diocese, after years of being uncatechized.

    But a few things happened that gave me a window of insight into masses of poor paupers here. I realized their hearts aren’t empty, they are sleeping. Their hearts have remberance of Catholic truth and they long for it. I know that faith in the DOR will be awakened, with true Catholic leadership. I believe we will have a great revival here in Rochester.

    So one of my favorite things about this website is the retirement ticker! I can’t wait! This Christmas I will say, “Only one more Christmas with the bishop…” And Easter, the same. And in July I should have a party! Only one more year!

    I do pray for our Bishop, with a sincere heart, at every Mass. No prayer could be more powerful. However I am aware that God isn’t going to change anyone that doesn’t want to change. I am not privvy to anyones heart, but reality is people can choose not to change and that can be the outcome.

    Just think – soon we will be out of the 600s! We have only that many days to prepare our hearts and pray for graces that we may be useful in the day of revival.

  9. benanderson says:

    Eliza10 – welcome to Cleansing Fire! Be sure to tell your friends and family about us. And thanks for sharing your story. I am also a convert – my story is here:

    I have found it sad (as you say) that some Catholic parishes try so hard to be protestant. Your analogy hits the nail on the head. I tried to hit on that idea in this post a while back:

    This Christmas I will say, “Only one more Christmas with the bishop…” And Easter, the same. And in July I should have a party! Only one more year!

    Pray that is be so. However according to this explanation:
    it could be 2 or more years after Bishop Clark turns 75. I’m hoping that the more letters we write to Rome means that they’ll be ready to transition right away.

  10. Gen says:

    Yes, welcome! You hit the nail on the head when you said, “I know we have to be careful what we say about our bishops and priests, however, I do not think that means blessing scandalous actions with respectful silence and a shroud of privacy.” That’s exactly the feeling of our staff. It’s a pleasure to count you among our readers.

  11. Eliza10 says:

    Gen, thanks for quoting me. I am so glad you feel as I do!

    As a convert, I had many impressions of the Catholic culture, as I did not convert for Catholic culture (no appeal to me) but for Catholic truth. You really see things when you come in with fresh eyes. One of the first things that occured to me as I was suddenly immersed in this strange community was that the virtue of humility is evident in Catholics whereas its not something you notice in Protestants. Certainly not in the Evangelical community that I knew as an adult [but they have other strengths, particularly faith in Jesus and in the Word of God – even if they don’t know how to interpret it, they desire to live it!).

    [The glaring exception to Catholic humility would be Pastorial Administrators and the like, whose lack of humility is so obvious that even confused uncatechized Catholics steeped in DOR Catholicity are turned off by them.]

    It seems unique to Catholics, IMO. And I think thats Mary’s stamp. Kind of indelible — evident in Catholics even when their faith has been watered down or is sleeping.

    But another thing unique to Catholic culture is a sense that one should silently and unquestioningly obey ecclessiastical authority. Protestants feel they should be involved in the decision making of their churches and one result of faith-ffilled people having their hand in how things are done is things like much more godly fund-raising.

    On the other hand, Evangelicals take other kinds of obedience and submission too far. Then it can be abused. And my opinion is that the DOR church authorities, as a matter of routine, as modis operendi, grossly abuse the good motive of Catholics who desire to practice the virtue of obedience. Because its so evil, I don’t think God will let it go on. We will see relief! For now, we suffer, but we can have hope. “Jesus, I trust in you.”

    And God gives us graces. We have what we need to survive spiritually; we all know that here. And big cities like San Diego don’t even have EWTN radio! What a grace God has given us to live here as Catholic in spite of the abuses of the DOR.

    And now I am so VERY glad to find that Cleansing Fire has this blog, exposing truth.

  12. Eliza10 says:

    Ben, I enjoyed your story and I will read on your blog, too (I started). I see you have written on CA Forum; me too. I like this that you wrote:

    “I can’t help thinking that contemporary masses are a pathetic imitation (of contemporary protestant worship) of a pathetic imitation (of contemporary popular music). Now, I’m not questioning the motives of people trying to make the Church relevant.”

    YES. They do seem pathetic immitations!

    When I converted I said I’d rather go to the dark little corner Catholic Church (of my imagination) where the Priest was drunk when he celebrated Mass, and no one else was there, than attend a Sunday Service at the beautiful Crystal Cathedral (a Protestant Cathedral you see on TV on Sunday moernings, at least ou used to) with all that beautiful glass, plants, view, postive preaching, happy, freindly people and souring, wonderful music. You all know why – because Jesus is there! Body, blood, soul and divinity.

    That sentiment reflected my ignorant view of what a bad Mass would be. I had to convert to find out what a bad Mass really is! Its worse! Pretend Protestants! Really bad music that no one can sing! The SMUG minority running the show, telling everyone with GREAT authority, repeatedly, their narrow, skewed, perverted view of what it means to be Catholic. (You know – something about social justice, sharing your gifts, and “gathering together!” to “celebrate a meal!”)

    And Ben that is REALLY disappointing news that it might be more than 615 days! Maybe even possibly more than double that? Wow. But I still like the ticker and I am going to hope on that day – while remembering in Whom is my real hope.

  13. Dr. K says:

    Bishop Clark will not reign past December of 2012. The Vatican will not leave him in much longer than they need to.

  14. Eliza10 says:

    DrK, That is hope! How did you arrive at that conclusion? Because I have no idea how a Bishop’s retirement is enforced or requested. Another thing I wonder is, how does the new bishop get selected??? Will Pope Benedict XIV have a real hand in it?

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