St Albert the Great, a Roman Catholic Parish in Austin, Texas, plans to convert an existing meeting room into a new Blessed Sacrament Chapel. A new parish hall will provide larger, better apportioned meeting rooms and free up this distinctive space on the campus for a worthy and fitting use. The chapel will occupy an octagonal tower on the main plaza that echoes the octagonal baptistry and tower. The project will be completed predominantly through volunteer parishioner labor, and I have contributed this working conceptual design with architect and fellow parishioner Roben Taglienti. There is still a good bit of work to be done on this design. It attempts to balance maximum transformative impact with minimal interventions by focusing on what can be done by volunteers and with a minimal budget. At this point, I do not know how much of this design will be realized, but I want to share it here mostly for the underlying though behind the design. That may serve as a helpful model for other parishes considering similar projects and demonstrate aspects of my approach to consultation on design projects.
This may also preliminary work for my thesis project for my Master of Arts in Liturgy degree; the current front-runner for a topic is a design manual for adoration chapels that would explore the liturgical, theological, and historical foundations of their design, a typological analysis of design solutions, and a document that could be adopted by local bishops and liturgy offices to serve as guidelines.
Adoration Chapels have become increasingly common features of Roman Catholic parishes. Especially over the past century papal encouragement and popular piety have emphasized the worship of the Eucharist outside Mass as a means to engage more fully in the mystery of the Eucharist that occurs within the Mass. From outside the Roman Catholic churches, this is one of the most peculiar (to put it mildly) aspects of Catholic theology and worship. And it certainly can be subject to misunderstanding among Catholics who participate in adoration as well. Therefore the design of adoration chapels must take into account the clarity with which the visual and spacial realities convey the connection to Christ's sacrificial action and the distinction between the liturgical adoration due to Christ himself present in the Sacrament and devotional prayer with the saints through sacramentals.
The guiding principles of the design derive from the liturgical texts governing the use of the chapel, specifically the rites of Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (abbreviated as HCWEOM).
“The celebration of the Eucharist is the center of the entire Christian life, both for the universal Church and for the local congregations of the Church. ‘The other sacraments, like every other ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are linked with the holy Eucharist and have it as their end. For the Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ himself.’” (HCWEOM ¶1)
“In such exposition care must be taken that everything clearly brings out the meaning of Eucharistic worship in its correlation with the Mass. There must be nothing about the appointments used for exposition that could in any way obscure Christ’s intention of instituting the Eucharist above all to be near us to feed, to heal, and to comfort us.” (HCWEOM ¶82)
The design of the adoration chapel rests on two principles drawn from the dual purpose of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist:
1. Clarity of Sacramental Communion
A clear architectural correlation to the mass ensures that the devotions of faithful “foster those right dispositions that enable them with due devotion to celebrate the memorial of the Lord” as it “draws them into an ever deeper share in the paschal mystery” and inspires them to “receive frequently the bread given us by the Father” (HCWEOM ¶80). This is achieved through:
• visual & symbolic connection to the mass through the appurtenances of the place of exposition (as prescribed by the rites) and figural content
• visual & spatial hierarchy wherein the sacrament is clearly expressed as being of a higher order than mere images and (sequence of entrance/decompression/preparation)
2. Intimacy of Spiritual Union
The design of the adoration chapel should aid the faithful so that through their intimate spiritual union with Christ they might “enjoy his intimate friendship,” “pour out their hearts before him for themselves and for those dear to them,” and “derive from this sublime colloquy an increase of faith, hope, and charity” (HCWEOM ¶80). This is achieved through:
• a worthy altar or enthronement that is distinct but “not too loft or distant” and not unduly separated from the adorers
• material, lighting, and acoustics that foster intimate, focused, and quiet worship
The design takes "presence" as the overriding and unifying image throughout the design and the experience of the chapel, emphasizing the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the immediate intimacy experienced in adoration.
Altar & Tabernacle
Because the main parish church has its own reservation chapel and the room to be converted is in a separate building, the chapel constitutes a distinct sacred space and fully equipped for celebration of Mass. The inclusion of an altar, which is also the proper place for placing the monstrance, most clearly shows the unity of adoration and the Mass.
As much as possible, and especially in the altar, materials are chosen to express dignity and stability. The altar dominates the space as the clear focus through its monolithic stone design. The altar is a manifestation of Christ's presence as Christ is the altar, as affirmed in Preface V of Easter:
By the oblation of his Body, he brought the sacrifices of old to fulfillment in the reality of the Cross and, by commending himself to you for our salvation, showed himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.
The design of the altar takes geometric cues from the existing space and incorporates dedicated and often built-in places for the required for Mass and adoration.
The security of the Blessed Sacrament was a primary concern for the pastor of the parish. Rather than building a glass wall between the body of the chapel and the altar—which would certainly "obscure Christ’s intention of instituting the Eucharist above all to be near us to feed, to heal, and to comfort us” as well as constrict the space significantly—the tabernacle is large enough to accommodate the monstrance exposed with the doors open such that it rests on the altar mensa.
Security in this configuration comes from two sets of doors. The outer doors of the tabernacle are two cast bronze pieces that slide open and lock in place. Behind this is a tempered glass hinged door whose edges are hidden behind the sliding outer doors in their locked open position. While the glass may contribute to the perception of separation, obscuring the hardware and edges of the inner door makes it less present. To open the tabernacle, the outer doors are opened further allowing access to the lock and hardware of the inner door.
Depending on opening and closing the doors, the placement of the monstrance or ciborium, and the use of appurtenances (candles, incense, altar crucifix, etc), the sanctuary functions for the full range of forms of liturgical worship proper to a sacrament chapel: adoration in the secured tabernacle, exposition in a ciborium or monstrance, and Mass.
For Mass (with the Blessed Sacrament reposed, six candles lit, the altar crucifix, and incense):
And Exposition (here specifically shown for Benediction with six candles as at mass and incense):
An entry sequence that incorporates the experiences of transition from the mundane to the sacred, of pilgrimage, of reorientation, of spatial compression and release is one of the critical elements of sacred architecture.
One challenge with reusing this existing space is the direct transition from the public office lobby and exterior into the chapel. There is not enough space to create an enclosed narthex to isolate the activity, light, and sound.
In this design, freestanding walls attached to the rear row of benches provide a transitional space, block the immediate view to the altar and exposed sacrament from outside the chapel, and provide an area for storage to prevent excessive clutter in the main body of the chapel. The sequence of entering the threshold, turning into the transitional space, and then turning toward the altar constitutes an embodied spiritual reorientation.
The walls also provide a critical location for the coordinated art program.
The selection and distribution of artistic elements all contribute to the emphasis on Christ's presence and "enhance and reinforce rather than compete with the liturgical life of the community" (Built of Living Stones §131).
The Pange Lingua Hymns.The starting point for the iconographic development of the space is the text of the two Pange Lingua hymns. On the right wall is the two stanzas of the Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium (St Thomas Aquinas, c. 1264) written for the Feast of Corpus Christi and sung on Holy Thursday. (The final two stanzas are also sung during adoration and at Benediction.) On the left wall is the Pange Lingua Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis (Venantius Fortunatus, c. 569) which is chanted during the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. The first stanza of each directs veneration toward the Blessed Sacrament and the cross respectively, thus establishing a parallel between the cross and the monstrance and reinforcing the sacrifice of the Mass with the Adoration of the host consecrated therein. The second stanza of each reflects on the Incarnation—and specifically the role of Mary—in order to establish the context from whence comes the glory of the Savior’s flesh and the glory of the slain Savior’s victor through his presence and dwelling with man.
Marian Statues of the Incarnation: Annunciation and Visitation. A devotional Marian statue was requested and pledged as a memorial donation in the capital campaign. To reinforce the liturgical nature of adoration, the specific image of Mary chosen highlight Mary’s role in Christ's incarnation. Building from the second stanzas of each Pange Lingua, this design proposes an image of the Annunciation on the left (“He, the Word, was born of woman, / left for us his Father’s home”) and the Visitation (“He, as man, with man conversing / stayed, the seeds of truth of sow”) on the right. In the latter, Elizabeth and John encountered the mystery of Christ’s flesh and worshiped him. Each statue stands on a pedestal with integrated stands for votive candles and places Mary standing on the inside, her body turned toward the entrance to the main body of the chapel and toward the axis that leads to the altar and her head turned to the second figure who kneels. Thus Mary is the vessel of the Incarnation through whom Christ is made present and the “Gate of Heaven” who leads us into Christ’s presence.
(The particular elements shown here are taken from stock imagery in order to illustrate the concept. The actual works would most likely be commissioned at a later date after the initial construction of the chapel.)
Revelation of the Incarnation: Baptism and Transfiguration. On the reverse of each of the walls is an image that completes the revelation of the two Marian images. Behind the Visitation, Jesus and John the Baptist fulfill their relationship in the Baptism of Christ. Behind the Annunciation is the Transfiguration, the revelation of the Christ’s full glory through his incarnate body. At each of these moments, a voice from heaven spoke saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased, listen to him;” this text is carved into the mensa of the altar to testify to the presence of Christ in and on the altar.
The Altar. Within the main body of the chapel, the only imagery visible at eye level when facing the altar is on the altar and tabernacle itself. On the tabernacle doors two cherubim face inward holding the two species of the Eucharist, tying the Old Testament sign of the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle (the kapporet) to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Whether opened or closed, the tabernacle doors tie the adoration to the sacrifice of the Mass.
Stained Glass Windows. Old Testament signs of the Presence of the Lord alternate with Old Testament antitypes of the Eucharist. Clockwise from above the altar these images are: the Agnus Dei (the Passover Lamb), the cloud filling the temple at its dedication, the sacrifice of Abel, Jacob’s ladder and altar at Bethel, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham feeding the three angelic visitors (Rublev’s Trinity), the sacrifice of Melchizedek, and Moses before the burning bush. Execution of the stained glass will most likely need to wait for specific donors, but canvases with the designs could provide mediation of light and the iconographic content in the short term.
This is but an initial design concept and will be coordinated with members of the parish who have volunteered to perform much of the work required. Everything has been designed with this in mind, and well within the initial budget requirements.
Given so fitting an existing space, it will be possible to create a chapel that is sufficiently elevated from its current state and the surrounding classrooms to imbue the space with the sanctity of its new function. The solidity of the materials, acoustics to foster silences, and subdued lighting that encourages focus and contemplation will aid in creating the sacred space. Careful coordination and restraint in the appurtenances and artworks is also critical to maintain the clarity and beauty of the liturgical functions it is designed to envelop and unify.
It is my sincere hope that the gift of this design will help invite more people into the intimacy of the spiritual union of adoration, reveal the clarity of the sacramental communion of Eucharistic worship in order to inspire greater and more frequent participation in the paschal mystery.