Friday, February 12, 2016

Historic Preservation...touchstones to our Catholic Heritage!

A few weeks ago the subject of historic preservation was discussed in a local diocese. Essentially, the promulgation, rather than discussion focused on the fact that local clergy,"should not," endorse or propose any cooperation to parishioners when it comes to making a Catholic site a historic landmark.
Evidently, historical preservation is not on the list of the top priorities for this local Catholic Community, despite the fact that historically the city is historically important to both Catholics and Americans collectively.

Preservationists should first of all realize that preservation of a particular church or other religious site is indeed a laudable undertaking. With that stated, it is also necessary to state that Catholic churches and related properties are not intended to serve as museums. They are intended to serve as organically living, growing and changing sacred spaces where the Sacramental life of the Catholic Church unfolds. Yes, there are still historical Churches, with especially significant pieces of art or exceptional examples of various forms of architecture...but in the end they are intended as active and living worship spaces. When a Catholic Church ceases to exist as a viable and engaging place of active Sacramental worship, with a vibrant faith community...considerations need to take place regarding the proper disposition of the now simply put,"real estate!

There are many many examples of historically and architecturally significant Catholic Churches that have been closed, consolidated, sold, demolished or designated for use regarding activities that are unrelated to Catholic worship. That's OK! Parish communities have a life cycle that is reflective of the area in which they are located and the community of faithful Catholics they serve. As temporal beings, we as humans have a life cycle as well. We are born, we grow, we mature, we age and decline and finally we die! Parishes experience the same rhythm that is metaphysically incumbent on all living things, namely a conclusion. Thankfully, as Catholics we believe in the resurrection of the body and eternal life with Christ. The bricks and mortar structures that we use as Churches don't have an eschatology that is directed towards eternal life. That is why we need to be particularly cautious when advocating Church buildings as worthy of the status of, "historic," or worthy of, "preservation!"
If indeed a parish church that has been designated with such monikers, preservationists should understand that the costs and care required to maintain these preserved historic sites come with a monetary price. If indeed, there is no longer a living community of Catholic faith that is existentially and spiritually vibrant to support the temporal requirements of their historically, preservation worthy Church, where will the money come from?

Historical preservation regardless of secular or religious buildings is an expensive and continuous undertaking that requires professionals that are experts in these respective areas of both art and architectural preservation. Perhaps, it would make more sense for a diocese or an archdiocese to sell off a particular historic property that has been knighted with the title of Preservation to a non-profit organization that will properly assure that the historical site be appropriately tended as a former living place of Catholic worship. Then the monies realized by the diocese or archdiocese can be more easily applied to vibrant, living parishes that are in need of financial resources to continue the life and ministry of the Catholic Church. The option admittedly is painful when a parish is suppressed, however just as a human body after death no loner contains the essence of the individual that is now gone, empty parish pews and quiet churches are no longer reflective of the living Church as the People of God. It is the same as the body of a deceased person, now an empty building.

As the demographics of the various Catholic parishes continues to fluctuate throughout the United States, especially in the North Eastern states, Catholics should regard movements to incapacitate Catholic dioceses and archdioceses as an activity that is unproductive and hinders a bishop's ability to care for the pastoral flock that still lives and prays and celebrates the Catholic faith in the local vibrant parishes. True, the hierarchy of the local Catholic dioceses or archdioceses could do a better job in communicating the needs of closure, consolidation, demolition or sales of church properties in a better manner. If such actions happen, it might be a very theologically appropriate, and a very Catholic practice if the local bishop or archbishop would escort in procession the parishioners of the suppressed with the Most Holy Eucharist to their new parish, which in most cases is a close neighbor. In this manner, the hierarchy would liturgically be reflective of the great dignity of a closed parish church that has come to the conclusion of its parochial life cycle. We do this with the Catholic Rite of Funerals. There is a Rite to celebrate the suppression of a parish as well. It is certainly time to put the practice into action. After all, when a parish is designated as suppressed, historically significant or in need or architectural preservation, such as designation usually implies that the active parish community is no longer viable. As Catholics, we do need to preserve our history, but we need to accomplish this in a manner that celebrates our Catholic theology of life eternal, not the preservation of structures that are void of the Holy Eucharist and are now merely bricks and mortar.

We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. When we accept the fact that our parishes are temporal structures, not part of the City of God, we will more readily celebrate our faith, not in superficially preserved historic places, but in parishes that are alive with faith and love with the Holy Spirit. We are the stones of faith in Christ Jesus! Let us continue to be living stones as we grow in faith with Christ!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Countdown on a part of Catholic Architectural history!

Opportunity for Philadelphia to honor John Neumann & Katharine Drexel...Philadelphia Citizens.

Last week the Historical Commission of the City of Philadelphia voted to permit demolition of the former Assumption Parish on Spring Garden Street. Seemingly this is the end of a long struggle to preserve the historically significant structure that has languished for many years waiting for the final rendering to come. There are many levels of culpability and many individual groups and individuals that have contributed to the demise of this architecturally significant piece of Philadelphia’s long legacy. My point is not to lay blame or to indicate what could have been, should have been or might have been in regards to the proper administration of the former parish.
The facts concerning Assumption are simple and clear. The parish holds historical significance for the people of Philadelphia because of two individuals that were part of the life of the historical parish of the 19th and 20th centuries; John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. As Bishop of Philadelphia, John Neumann assisted in the solemn consecration of the newly constructed church. As a newborn child, Katharine Drexel was baptized at the church, entering the Catholic faith destined for a life in excess of ninety years. Remarkably, if not for the events that happened in the years after both Neumann’s and Drexel’s common association with Assumption Church, the events would have disappeared into history.
We know however, that the lives of these two Philadelphians, one a priest and bishop, the other an heiress to a large financial legacy and later the foundress of a community of sisters would transform life for not only Philadelphia, but individuals throughout the world.
Bishop Neumann, as Bishop of Philadelphia, deserves recognition not just because he participated in the consecration of Assumption Church, but because he was one of the most influential Philadelphians of the 19th century. His pastoral initiatives encompassed the entire State of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Southern New Jersey. He was the principle driving force behind the foundation of the Catholic educational system in Philadelphia and subsequently the entire United States. He worked as a priest and bishop to zealously unite the multicultural tapestry of 19th century Philadelphia into a cohesive city that lived up to the ideals of Penn’s vision of a City of Brotherly Love.
Katharine Drexel as a citizen of Philadelphia nurtured a vision of charity that extended to peoples of all races, especially African-American and Native American peoples. Coupled with her love of the Catholic Eucharist, a perspective on the unity of all peoples, courage in addressing social inequities among minorities and total distribution of her personal inheritance to victims of poverty and racial injustices; Katharine Drexel’s legacy straddles the 19th & 20th centuries in Philadelphia and the entire United States.
The period of Katharine Drexel’s life was one that witnessed an incredible amount of racial inequality between African Americans and Caucasian peoples. In Philadelphia, Katharine Drexel provided the bedrock foundation of the American Civil Rights Movement, long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream of racial equality in America. Mother Katharine Drexel established a religious community of sisters that exclusively ministered to the needs of what was then called, Black and Indian Peoples.
Over the course of her lifetime the Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament distributed more than 39 million dollars to the needs of African Americans and Native Americans in order to insure that these minorities were properly educated and received proper care and nutrition.
Both Bishop Neumann & Mother Katharine Drexel have been the victims of recognition and oversight on the part of the Philadelphia Historical Society in relationship to their participation in the life of Assumption Parish on Spring Garden Street.
The purpose of historical preservation is to preserve, restore and conserve significant places in Philadelphia not simply because of their architectural importance. The mission of the Philadelphia Historical Commission is to accomplish these points because a historical person or event took place at or in the place that has received a historical designation from the commission.
In addition to the exceptional architectural heritage with the connection to the prolific ecclesiastical architect of the period, Patrick Charles Keely; the Church provides the historical structure for two of the most significant citizens of Philadelphia’s life and history since Benjamin Franklin.
The City of Philadelphia has been especially generous in honoring Benjamin Franklin. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Franklin Institute, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and so on. However, there are no streets, parks or sites named to commemorate the lives and accomplishments of Saints John Neumann and Katharine Drexel.
The most significant acknowledgement of both Neumann & Drexel is of course the Catholic Church’s elevation of both of these exceptional individuals to the altars and designations of Sainthood. However, both Neumann & Drexel deserve recognition from a civil perspective in recognition of their lives and accomplishments in making Philadelphia a city of racial and religious tolerance in the 19th & 20th centuries.
Most notably, the battle to preserve Assumption Parish on Spring Garden Street is now lost. The shifting demographics of Catholics in addition to other factors contributed to its elongated process of death. However, Philadelphia Catholics and quite frankly all Philadelphians need to learn a lesson from this parish and the need to preserve our historical treasures that transcend points of architectural significance but point to a significance of the promotion of religious and ethnic harmony between peoples of all races, creeds and colors.
The Philadelphia Historical Committee needs to step back after this insensitive oversight against not only Philadelphia’s Catholics, but all Philadelphians of good will and recognize Saints John Neumann & Katharine Drexel with a park, a street and yes perhaps even statues on the illustrious Benjamin Franklin Parkway, not because they were and are Catholic Saints, but because they were illustrious Philadelphians that transformed Philadelphia and the world towards peace, harmony and racial tolerance.
The Sisters Cities Plaza that is directly in front of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul would especially benefit from a new designation in honor of Bishop Neumann & Katharine Drexel. Without diminishing the importance of “Sister Cities”, both Neumann & Drexel as Philadelphia Catholics participated in events at the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. What an appropriate place to honor and recognize their contributions than the development of a commemorative park dedicated to the principles of religious and racial tolerance for all peoples of Philadelphia and the nation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It has been quite a while since I have posted on any of my sites. There are many reasons, too much going on, still recovering from the death of my father last year, finishing my M.A. is historical theology and enrolling in M.S. in Church Management at Villanova and making my entrance into a Ph.D program at Catholic University in Washington. However, despite all  of these excuses on my part, the quality of Catholic Sacred Art is at perhaps the most destructive period since Henry VIII sacked Roman Catholic Churches during the Protestant reformation.While I have been busy, I have been diligent in visiting endangered Catholic sites in the area, and thankfully witnessing remarkable transformations of some Catholic Churches that have a restored sense of quality for the sacred, through design, materials and craftsmen.
, Saint
Earlier in the year I was made a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a distinction of knighthood that binds me to the preservation of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. With the remarkable and fatal events ongoing in the Holy Land, all peoples living there need our prayers and help to restore the land that gave us the Incarnation, a restoration of fragile peace to a world of broken promises.

At the same time, we need to mount a campaign in our own United States against the silent sub-culture that continues to undermine the sanctity of our Catholic Churches through clousures, consolidations, vandalism and well...plain old mismanagement. Recently my own parish Saint John the Beloved added two new statues, one of Saint John the Beloved and one of Saint Francis of Assisi. They are not sacred art, but rather a standing illustration of the lack of reverence we have lost for qualitative craftsmanship in executing church art. They are composed of some sort of polyfiber compound and spray painted in the most unattractive tone of gold, right out of the Rustoleum spray can. Yes, indeed they provide a place for devotion. However our places of devotion need not scream, "Made in  China!" With all of the closures, consolidations and decommissioning of local parish churches, I am certain statues of these revered saints could be found  from a now suppressed site and relocated to a position of veneration sans gold spray paint. Everytime, a parish community orders items of this nature, without design consideration, without artistic participation and without considering the items qualitative ugliness, we continue to diminish the role of good stewardship to which we are all called as the People of God.

In the next few months, many dioceses and archdioceses throughout the United States will continue the swath of closures and architectural destruction of our Catholic historical story, told from not just the age of the Great Immigration periods, but also a complete disdain and disregard for the teachings of the second Vatican Council, 50 years young on the need for qualitative art and design to reflect not only our human efforts to glorify God, but our theological interpretative need to reorganize the Church as designed by Vatican II, and consistently hindered by lack of good design, lack of encouragement to the arts and crafts and an ignorance of the new ecclesiastical structure envisioned by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. In this proclaimed year of faith by Pope Benedict XVI, we need to reclaim our living Catholic heritage and  appreciation for the functional reason for the arts, namely to give glory to God, assist our faithful community to worship in a prayerful and qualitative manner and finally strive
 for the quality we all seek in the Kingdom of God, here and now.
 The year of faith again calls for the aggiornamento of John XXIII, but this time when we open the windows we need to rid our churches of the clutter and clutter of poorly made, designed and implemented liturgical art and accessories. We as a living Church cannot cling to the 19th century holy card visions of religious art and remain satisfied that it glorifies God and aides us in faith. We need a reformation of the bad, and a yard sale of what is less than dignified for our Catholic liturgical worship and veneration practices.

Most especially, like the unfortunate burning of Savonorola, we need to burn all of those liturgical supply catalogues and call the faith to a higher appreciation of a new liturgical and spiritual Renaissance that was mandated in 1962 by Blessed John XXIII, continued by Paul VI and continues to resound in an liturgical and artistic subculture that wants their art and talents to give glory to God and the living Church which constitutes all of us.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day...a time to remember all of the great contributions to our society!

Veterans Memorial Window at Saint Anthony's Catholic Church, Wilmington, Delaware  Photo by author.

The observance of Memorial Day in the United States always reminds me of, The Greatest Generation, namely those that fought and sacrificed many human necessities even their own lives to free the world from dictatorial dominance during World War II. While the United States has participated in many wars from the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many men and women have answered the call to service and sacrifice through military service. We also need to recall and commemorate the millions of Americans that assisted the war efforts over the years through their skills and talents.
Paula Himmelsbach-Balano sketch of unknown sailor during World War II       Courtesy of Karen Price
One individual of particular thought is the artist Paula Himmelsbach-Balano. Paula H.Balano was an artist that provided many levels of service to her community and country during the Second World War in multiple ways. She is most famous for her artistic expertise in the designing, drawing and installation of stained glass in many parishes in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. However, I have recently discovered that she provided a much more simple touch in helping military service personnel through her volunteer work at the Stage Door Canteen during the war…sketching the portraits of soldiers, sailors and Marines while sharing coffee, stories and cigarettes, so they might send these portraits home to their families that waited with great anticipation for any word from their sons and daughters in military service. Paula Himmelsbach-Balano was one of thousands that contributed talents and a compassionate ear to many military personnel l away from home and preparing to fight for the freedom of our American liberties and freedoms.
I have recently had the opportunity to photograph some of the exceptional works of stained glass executed by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano at Saint Anthony’s Church in Wilmington, Delaware. During the churches continued renovations during the period of the Second World War, Paula Himmelsbach-Balano worked diligently to install all of the stained glass panels that adorn the church in Wilmington. In addition to the stained glass windows that depict religious themes, one window sequestered away in hallway pays homage to the members of Saint Anthony’s Parish that served in the American armed forces during the great conflict from 1941-1945. The window is especially poignant because it depicts both young men and older men serving as altar servers.  Perhaps the panel is intended to show the transition of maturity of these men from altar boys to men as they returned to Saint Anthony’s Parish after their participation and experiences of war. Maybe the window calls us to keenly remember also the lives disrupted and even sacrificed by war by noting the numbers of those that served and died with encircled stars at the bottom of the panel. Whatever the symbolism, the delicate stained glass window recalls and commemorates the service and sacrifices of the millions of men and women that served our country in many ways, with countless skills and talents to achieve victory and freedom for future generations. I have also been keenly struck by the removal of multiple works by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano from Saint Anthony’s Church in order to insert new examples of stained glass that commemorate the priests that have served as pastors of the parish commissioned new windows. This indeed is a laudable notion and activity. However, in order to celebrate the priestly service of these men, exceptional works of great artistic accomplishment completed by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano were removed and either destroyed or taken away without documentation or any consideration of their historical and artistic importance to the parish, the Diocese of Wilmington or the Catholic  artistic community.  In a real sense of the phrase, Paula Himmelsbach-Balano’s works make another Memorial Day contribution; they are just like the many men and women that have never returned from battle, MIA or Missing in Action.
While the designation, Missing in Action traditionally refers to those lost during military conflict, I suggest the phrase also applies to the many pieces of representational art that is becoming Missing in Action in our Catholic churches as we face a great period of institutional transition when parishes close, merge or even arbitrarily renovate our sacred spaces without proper consideration for the historical and artistic provenance of what is in place in our churches.

While researching the missing stained glass windows at Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church, I was told they were removed and destroyed because they needed multiple repairs.  In photographing the other windows in this church, not one window showed any signs of distress or need of repairs. It strikes me as unfortunate that stained glass windows of superlative artistic and material quality were summarily removed and disguarded in favor of new windows of clerical portraiture lacking artistic quality in both materials and execution could be removed without serious review by professional art experts. Such vandalism of Catholic Church works of art runs rampant as priests make decisions regarding renovations and replacement without the advice and counsel of competent experts in these areas of artistic restoration, renovation, preservation and repairs.
Memorial Day traditionally inspires us to recall our war dead. It also should be a time to remember the men and women of all generations that inspire patriotism to our ideals of a free American Republic. Perhaps as well, there is an opportunity to ignite a particular patriotism and fidelity towards all of the exceptional works of representational art that adorns our Catholic churches. In many ways, the craftsmen, artisans, masons and so on deserve our commemoration and continued attention as we attempt to preserve and memorialize our Catholic artistic heritage into the 21st century.
Preservation of our sometimes crumbling Catholic art patrimony and restoration of these works should always be one of constant concern to our Catholic community. In addition to preservation and restoration, we should actively consider integration of these examples of our Catholic artistic heritage into new churches, so we can celebrate a seamless integration of our artistic past into our Catholic present and future sites of liturgical worship.
I celebrate Memorial Day and gratefully recall the many men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in defense of our American way of life. Additionally, I ask all people of faith to honor our artistic and historical legacies and recall the great men and women that have contributed to our artistic Catholic heritage. We cannot allow their works to go MIA ( Missing in Action) without raising a concentrated call for accountability on the part of our priests and parish administrators. Before any decisions are made to replace any examples of artistic expression…there should be a detailed plan that permits the responsible removal and appraisal of the no longer wanted works of art.
Memorial Day calls us to remember…those that gave their lives in battle. Memorial Day also gives us the opportunity to remember those that gave their lives in artistic expression of our Catholic faith through the use of their great God given talents…for the greater glory of God.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that comments on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at , . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Read Churches...a book to travel with...!

How to Read Churches: A crash course in ecclesiastical architecture, by Dr. Denis McNamara is an essential resource for anyone that maintains an interest in studying the history of architecture as it applies to Christian churches. The book is essentially an indispensible tool to decipher the nuances of ecclesiastical buildings that provides a wealth of information to the reader on the historical, liturgical and architectural importance each little detail holds as part of the Christian heritage. Covering the history of architecture from the Temple of Solomon right up to the present day of post modern church construction, Dr. McNamara shows through brief explanations and associated illustrations the purpose and usage aspects of all of the fine details contained in ancient, medieval, gothic and modern churches. The book has another great value as well, its size allows the reader to carry the book around as a companion when exploring various churches of Christian denominations while on those vacations that allow exploration of various ecclesiastical sites often included on tours and other pilgrimage excursions. The fine points of historical architecture that cannot be answered by tour guides or docents can be solved by making Dr. McNamara’s pocket book part of every excursion that requires information on architectural and liturgical points of design and function.
Dr.McNamara has published multiple books on Christian architecture. Currently he is assistant director of The Liturgical Institute, University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Ill. The book is published by Rizzoli International Publications, and can be purchased directly from their site. The cost of the book is $17.95, and is an investment well made for the nascent architect, liturgist or historian.
As one that is always interested in understanding the form and function of various parts of church structures, this book provides a synthesized but deeply accurate field source to assist students, and anyone interested in learning more about the way Christian churches have evolved and the symbolism that is active from ancient times to our contemporary age. Make this book part of your required resources; it will become a faithful, dog-eared companion that enriches architectural explorations for many years.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that comments on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia's Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at , . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware's Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via

Saturday, April 23, 2011