J. Randall Cotton
Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation
Inspired January/February 1989 pp. 4-6, 10-13

ALTARations: Vatican ll and Historic Church Interiors

Since 1963 the worship spaces of most Roman Catholic churches worldwide, including thousands of historic ones, have been altered in order to accommodate changes in the liturgy that were instigated by the Second Vatican Council (commonly known as "Vatican 11"). The majority of these changes have been accomplished with minimal disruption and in a spirit of harmony. But 25 years after the first Vatican 11 documents and a myriad of subsequent post conciliar papers am I commentaries, there is still controversy in a number of cases. Consider the following:

Parishioners at St. Stephen's church in Hamilton, Ohio, have enlisted the aid of the St. Joseph Foundation--an organization that assists Catholic laity in vindicating their ecclesical rights--to assist them in opposing proposed renovations to the historic 1853 building. They fear that renovations to tile oldest church in Butler County will go far beyond minimal Vatican 11 liturgical standards. Many feel the present worship space is already in conformity with Vatican 11 and wish to preserve threatened features, including the sanctuary arrangement, works of art, pews tatuary and the communion rail.

The leadership at the Church (A Notre Dame in Manhattan is moving forward with plans to dissect an original marble beaux-arts reredos (a screen behind the altar) at the landmark 1914 church. In order to move the high altar forward, it would be separated from the reredos despite the fact that a Vat ican-11-conform free-standing altar was installed 20 years ago. The Ad-Hoc Committee for the Preservation of Notre Dame claims that Th integrity of the bronze bas-reliefs depicting the death and resurrection of Christ would be destroyed in t lie process. One critic said, "They are destroying a work of art. It's like sawing a painting or a sculpture in half."

Despite pleas from laity and local preservationists for , a more conservative renovation, in 1980 the Archdiocese of Indianapolis undertook a $1.5 million renovation of the 1905 Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. Include, was the removal of the marble high altar. Two marble side altars, all the pews, communion rails, four marble nave altars, Stations of the Cross, the marble pulpit, and t lie bishop's and celebrants' chairs. The main doors, lighting fixtures and balcony were also altered, and some artwork by t lie well known Rambusch firm of New York was painted over. Most of the Displaced artifacts we sold to liquidators in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1984, a small group of parishioners in Freeburg, Missouri, sued the Diocese of Jefferson City over the removal of sculptures from two side altars. The parish petitioners argued that the bishop could only hold the church property in trust for the congregation. A lower court ruled that it was a liturgical rather than a proprietary issue and that it had no jurisdiction in the case. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision by refusing to hear the case.

In all these cases, one common denominator is a clear difference between certain parishioners and clergy in their interpretation of the Vatican I I position regarding worship spaces. But another underlying point of contention is the perception that decisions regarding alterations are being made without adequate input from or sympathy for the attitudes of the parishioners.


Virtually everybody on both sides of the issue endorses the intent of the original Vatican 11 documents. The sections which are devoted to ordering of worship space--primarily in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy--are actually very modest relative to the vast number of pages that have been written regarding other aspects of the religious life of the Church. In essence, Vatican ll endeavors to make the liturgy more accessible to worshippers and more communal in nature, and encourages active participation in the Mass. Towards this end, for example, the Mass is now largely said in the language of the parishioners instead of in Latin. Other reforms include more reading of  the Scriptures, greater use of vernacular music traditions, and simplification of certain rites. In regard to the "arrangement and decoration of churches for the celebration of  the Eucharist", the Vatican documents do not go into great detail, but included are such directives as:

The Church welcomes the artistic and architectural styles of every region and period. Works of art and the "treasures" should be preserved. Innovations should grow "organically" from forms already existing.

Each diocese should establish a commission on art and the liturgy which, when passing judgment on works of art or renovating an existing worship space, should have a dialogue with the congregation, and consult with "others who are especially expert."

The congregation should have a place that facilitates its active participation. Chairs or benches (pews) should be set up so as to encourage unimpeded movement to receive communion.

The main altar should he freestanding (separate from the wall) so that the ministers may walk around it and face the people. (Removal of the old, fixed altar is not mandated.) Minor altars should be fewer in number.

Sacred images should be maintained but their number moderate so as not to distract attention.

In the wake of Vatican 11, a majority of Roman Catholic churches installed a freestanding main altar (for the Eucharistic celebration), usually somewhere forward of the traditional high altar. The latter was commonly an integral part of a reredos situated in the apse and was often left in place, especially in the churches of Europe and the Latin countries. Secondary altars were sometimes relocated to side chapels. Cluttered or redundant assemblages of statuary and other images were simplified. Pews were sometimes rearranged to center around the altar.

If post-Vatican 11 church remodeling stopped at this point, there would be far less controversy. But, in the words of one critic of the SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral alterations, there is a continuing movement that reflects "an out-of-date impulse to out-Vatican 11 Vatican ll."

According to some observers, the rationale for radical "Vat-Iled" renovations is not taken primarily from the original Vatican documents and subsequent Roman commentaries, but rather from the National Conference of (U. S.) Bishops' 1978 document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (see the Rev. Thomas Phelan's commentary on p. 11).

Environment and Art seeks to further interpret the intent of Vatican 11. For example, whereas the General Instruction on the Roman Missal simply states that the congregation "should have a place that facilitates their active participation", Environment and Art describes a space "in which people are seated together, with mobility, in view of one another as well as the focal points of the rite, involved as participants and not as spectators." Based on such words as mobility, fixed pews have sometimes been replaced by modern, portable chairs often arranged in circles or semi-circles.

Furthermore, in Environment and Art such words as simplicity, commonness, austere, genuine, and good feeling are used to describe the "appropriate" environment for worship. The publication even uses an ascetic Shaker interior to illustrate its principles. On the other hand, embellishments and ornament are words used to characterize hindrances to "proper" worship. To some, the underlying message in Environment and Art is that older church interiors, particularly Victorian ones, are "pretentious" and "superficial."

Critics decry the extent to which older church interiors have been drastically renovated: architectural and religious murals, frescos, stenciling, tromp l'oeil and other decorative finishes have been painted over (in a ubiquitous "Reformation buff" according to one observer). Traditional pews and other ecclesiastical furnishings have been discarded in favor of starkly modernistic replacements. Naves have been shortened. Stained glass has been replaced by more transparent glass. Paneling, roof, screens, reredoses and other integral architectural feature as well as tapestries and religious and non-religious art have been removed.

The result sometimes seems to reflect a 1960s modernistic aesthetic that is becoming as outmoded as the older, more elaborate features are thought to be by their detractors. But is this is kind of remodeling of the interior of an older church successful? Not according to Mary L. Norris, a critic of the renovations at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the central church to 200,000 Catholics in the Indianapolis archdiocese. In a letter to the archdiocesan newsletter, The Criterion, Norris wrote:

"...a church building shouldn't act as an inhibiting factor in our individual and communal relationship with God. One way of knowing God is to enjoy the harmony of created things, so the harmony of a church building is important. The announced plans (for the Cathedral) destroy congruity between the building shell and its contents. It is far less distracting to be in a historically consistent building than one in which 'renovation' has made a clashing chaos."

But Monsignor bettelfinger, chancellor of the archdiocese, defended the renovations in comments to the Indianapolis Star: "The intent here (with the Cathedral) is to renovate to the extent necessary to bring it in full compliance with the ideals laid out in the Vatican 11 national conference guidelines."

Charles Wilson, Executive Director of the St. Joseph Foundation, believes radical renovations are a nod to "pleasing the avant garde while ignoring the traditional" and an attempt "to force one form of spirituality on the people." Aesthetically "Catholics are caught in a 1960s time warp," says Wilson, who advocates extreme caution when renovating churches lest "we are forced to re-spend millions to make it right again when this, silly season' is over.


The most successful renovations seem to be those that, in the planning stages, receive input from both the parishioners and church leadership. Wilson advocates reading the pulse of the parishioners via a survey (which can be filled out anonymously). More typical are open parish meetings at which lay people can express their opinions and concerns. Questions to discuss include: What is prompting the call for renovations? What is the congregation's self-image as a church? To which features of the worship space does the laity feel particularly attached? Is there a consensus on a balance between preserving the existing space and making changes prompted by Vatican ll?

In some cases open parish meetings do not seem to suffice. In the St. Stephen's (Hamilton, Ohio) case, 1200 parishioners- -frustrated by what they perceived as inadequate parish-level response over their concerns- -signed a procurator's mandate that designated one of their own to represent their views beyond the parish level. But in a reply to parishioners' direct appeal, the Archbishop of Cincinnati placed the primary responsibility for insuring adequate consultation with the parishioners back with the pastors and parish council.

If one exists, the diocesan commissions on liturgy and art should also be consulted. So to, should outside, objective experts who can advise on the significance of the church's art and architecture that would be affected by renovations. That is what happened in the wake of controversy over alterations made to the interior of Boston's Church of the Immaculate Conception. Although the dispute went beyond certain changes instigated by Vatican ll (the sanctuary was also slated to be partially converted to offices). A hard-fought consensus was reached through a mediation process that included the Jesuit owner of the building, parishioners, and several Boston preservation and neighborhood groups.

A key to a resolution of the Immaculate Conception case was an evaluation of the significance of the historic interior, which included distinguishing between more expendable "cultic" (religious) electric requirements and critical architectural features. Features considered to be cultic--and therefore less integral to the building's architectural character-- included the sculptures, altars, and paintings. Elements designated as architectural features therefore potentially protected under Boston's landmark laws--were the stained and grisaille glass, the organ, plaster ceiling and the columns. Ultimately, in this case, the three reredoses were also designated as integral architectural elements, minus the altar tables, steps and religious art.


Despite the controversies and disagreements, many sensitive and successful renovations have been completed across the nation. One such example is St. Mary's Church in the historic German Village neighborhood of Columbus Ohio. Prompted by a failing roof and deteriorating plaster, parish priest Father Huntzinger, the parishioners, and the renovation committee (part of the parish council) embarked upon a $550,000 project that not only corrected the repair problems but restored many original features of the 1868 church while sympathetically incorporating certain design features to accommodate Vatican 11.

The planning stages were also guided by the local firm of Feinknopf Macioce Shappa, Architects and the diocesan Commission on Art and Architecture and the Liturgy. At first there were differences of opinion, but ultimately a general agreement was reached between all concerned. Huntzinger attributes this to a seven-year planning and lating from 1893. The work was under taken by Conrad Schmitt Studios which also restored murals above the original side altars.

Removing eight pews from the rear of the nave in order to create an open "hospitality" area under the choir loft. This area is now delineated from the main sanctuary by the relocated communion railings.

Restoring the baptismal font and installing restored Stations of the Cross salvaged from a previously demolished church.

Reworking the original hanging light fixtures to provide an increased level of down side and up-lighting. The new lighting now highlights the ceiling frescos and two restored, 19th century religious paintings.

The restored beauty of the church has been recognized by the greater community. The space is in great demand for special events (on most days the church is booked for weddings) and St. Mary's has received a Preservation Merit Award  the Ohio Historical Society for its sensitive Vatican ll remodeling and restoration.

This middle-ground approach preserving as much of the history and architecture of the structure as possible while adapting it to reflect changing ideas about worship and liturgy-has been successful elsewhere. A few examples:

The Santa Cruz Church, Santa Cruz, New Mexico: Under the direction of the Restoration Committee, and as part of a total restoration of this 1733 adobe mission church, the 18th-century retablo (altar screen) and nave reredoses, all examples of vernacular Hispanic art, were painstakingly restored. A new main-altar platform was placed in front of the original sanctuary ensemble (which retained the earlier altar). The historic mantes (statues of the saints) were relocated into transept side chapels.

Cathedral of the Incarnation, Nashville: Included in the $1.3 million renovations to this 1914 Romanesque landmark was the construction of a new main altar from parts of the original high altar, restoration of the ornamental plaster and gold-leaf ceiling, relocation of the original font to near the main entrance and enclosing it with sections of the old communion rail, and installation of new heating, lighting and acoustical systems. Original features were reused where feasible, but two side altars were removed and some non-original wall murals painted over.

St. Mary's Church, Albany, New York: Working with the diocesan Architecture and Building Commission, the parish building committee undertook a massive restoration of the historic 1867 Romanesque church that was originally designed by architect Charles C. Nichols. Accommodations to Vatican II included adding a free-standing altar that was placed in front of the original high altar and reredos. The raised altar platform was not extended forward, and the side altars and images were retained.

There are no formulaic solutions to reaching a peaceful coexistence between historic church interiors and the post. Vatican 11 liturgy. Each adaptation will be different. Yet respect for and compatibility with the existing architecture and artwork, along with an open-minded, con, sensus-building planning phase that in. cludes the clergy and parishioners in consultation with appropriate experts, seem to be constant components of the most satisfying and successful projects.

Abbreviation Documents
Vll    Documents of Vatican ll (grand Rapids: Eurdmans, 1975)

Constitution on the Sacred liturgy (Boston: Daughters of Saint Paul, 1963)

IL  Instruction on the Liturgy (Boston: Daughters of Saint Paul, 1964)
31 Third Instruction of the Corret Application of the Constitution on the      Sacred Liturgy (Boston: Daughters of Saint Paul, 1970)
EA Environmental and Art in Catholic Worship (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1978)
RM Liturgy Documentary Series 2: general instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1982)
PP Xll Encyclical Letter of Pope Pitus Xll on the Sacred Liturgy (Boston;  Daughters of Saint paul, n.d.)


Commentary on Vatican 11

Guest Column by the Reverend Thomas Phelan

Chair, Architecture and Building Commission, Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany

The important Vatican and United States documents which deal with matters that may affect the preservation of important interiors of Roman Catholic Churches make no requirements that are, in my opinion, threatening to those spaces. In fact, there are a few statements which may be happily used by those of us who argue for t he preservation of these spaces. What is threatening to their preservation, however, is that the documents make general statements about the qualities of these spaces which may be interpreted broadly by those who argue for radical renovation.

There are four principle documents that must be examined. Each document has its theological background in the Vatican 11 Constitution on the Church, in which the Church is no longer seen primarily in juridical and organizational terms, but as a community of believers, spiritually alive, with a role for each member. On the international or Vatican level there are two documents which are part of the discussion: the Vatican 11 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy issued in 1963 and The General Instruction and New Order of Mass, found at the beginning of the Roman Sacramentary, issued in 1969. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has also issued two documents: Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, (1978), which is currently being revised and The Environment for Worship (1980), a book of essays, including one on preservation. Many individual dioceses also have quite specific guidelines, which affect church interiors.

Many of the requirements for church interiors and decoration are clearly stated in the documents. For example, the Vatican documents require a free-standing table altar "facing the people," as opposed to built-up altar structures at the far end of the apse where, in former times, the priest performed the ritual of the Mass with his back facing the people, They also require a presiding chair, a pulpit that is ordinarily fixed and not movable, seats and pews arranged so that the participants can easily take the positions required and easily go to communion, and reservation of the Sacrament in a chapel suitable for private prayer. Sacred images are to be retained but the number should be "moderate" and the positions reflect the hierarchy of Christ and the saints, These images should not distract from the celebration. Special consideration to patron or ethnic saints of the community should also be considered.

More confusing, however, are some statements which are general in nature. The Vatican documents point out that the Church's treasury of art must be carefully preserved and that sacred furnishings and works of value must not be disposed of or dispersed. But the documents also point out that the decor of the Church's interior should be of "noble simplicity and reflect truth and authenticity." This is the kind of generalization to which I referred when pointing out that the documents can also be used to argue for radical renovation.

For example, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' document on Environment and Art in Catholic Worship states that "in a period of church and liturgical renewal, the attempt to recover a solid grasp of Church in faith and rites involves the rejection of certain embellishments which have, in the course of history, become hindrances. In any areas of religious practice, this means a simplifying and a refocusing on primary symbols. In building, the effort has resulted in more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners." This document engages mostly in generalizations about the quality of the environment, and the above statement seems to justify comprehensive renovation of sanctuary interiors. However, the same document also states that "because it is symbolic communication, liturgy is more dependent on past tradition than many human activities are and space must reflect this fact." This statement seems to support a preservation ethic.

I believe it is important to emphasize the latter kind of statement and to insist that most statements be interpreted to support non-threatening preservation projects. We must speak out lest the radical renovators have their way.