(Crisis Magazine) The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome is one of the oldest churches in the city and in the world. Originally constructed in 340 by Pope Julius I, it replaced an earlier house church that had been established on the site by Pope St. Callixtus I in 220. As one of the original twenty-five parish churches of Rome, it is possibly the place of the very first open celebration of Mass.
When walking through the nave of the current church, which was rebuilt on the foundations of the Julian church in 1140 by Pope Innocent II, the observant eye will notice an odd discrepancy between the sizes and styles of the columns lining the side aisles. This is because they predate the building by centuries, having been salvaged from the ruins of either the Baths of Caracalla—from whence also comes the church’s main portico—or the Temple of Isis on the adjacent Janiculum Hill, or both.
History is replete with such examples of “dead” buildings and their parts being sacrificed in order to reemerge in some form in a newly glorified body, so to speak. The logic is simple: why go far away for materials, and expend the time and labor needed to fashion them into a desired object, when ready-made versions of that object stand unused and within easy reach, otherwise left to deteriorate and fade into oblivion?
This way of thinking largely tapered off with the dawn of industrialization, when thrift and practicality in construction became less and less of an issue due to easier and more economical ways of obtaining, transporting, and processing materials. As a result, in predominantly industrial and post-industrial cultures, we seldom see many new buildings made from the remnants of earlier buildings.
Still, this idea of reclamation and reuse of whole parts of buildings is one that’s very much at home within the Catholic tradition. And, given the current demographic challenges faced by the Church in many regions of the United States, might it be worth rekindling such creative thinking and problem solving in order to address twenty-first century needs?
A parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago has been doing just that since its founding eight years ago. St. Raphael the Archangel in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, was canonically established as a parish in 2007 to accommodate a growing population at the northernmost boundary of the archdiocese. Fr. John Jamnicky, the founding and current pastor, recalls that in those early days, the parish began its sacramental life by renting a farm and gathering in a barn for the celebration of Mass.
However, this was not just another barn. “We were trying to beautify it, even temporarily,” says Fr. Jamnicky, “so we chose furnishings from diocesan warehouses.” These diocesan warehouses are a treasure-trove of priceless works of art and craftsmanship, accumulated from over one hundred churches from within the archdiocese that closed about three decades ago due to changing demographics. The massive closures meant that many churches were either sold to Protestants or left deserted to fall into ruin.
On September 29, 2007, four weeks after the temporary barn-made-church was opened, it was visited and formally blessed by Francis Cardinal George, who, in the words of Fr. Jamnicky, was thoroughly “knocked off his feet,” and said it was the most beautiful temporary church he had seen. Jokingly, the cardinal then said, “I should give you St. John of God Church!” Father’s response was, simply, “Your Eminence, we’ll have to get back to you on that.” St. John of God, a once-magnificent Polish church built in 1918 on the south side of Chicago, had been closed and standing empty and neglected for nearly a quarter century.
Despite Cardinal George’s humor, little did he know that Fr. Jamnicky and the man to whom he refers as his “Michelangelo”—parish business manager, construction manager, and close friend and advisor Dr. Richard Gambla—had already been talking about mining the archdiocese’s rich architectural reserves on a grander scale. In the year-and-a-half that followed, a survey of parishioners was conducted, and not surprisingly, it found that the vast majority wanted a “church that looks like a church.”
The topic of using St. John of God Church was then broached with Cardinal George as a serious proposal. The original idea was to disassemble the entire building and reconstruct it at a new location. However, it was found to be such a structural disaster upon further inspection, that the idea of reusing the whole thing was shelved. Instead, it was decided that only the prime salvageable elements would be used: the façade, twin bell towers, doors, hardware and four rotundas. Around the same time, the parish was made aware of the availability of a second vacant church in Chicago, St. Peter Canisius, whose interior furnishings were in very good condition.
The result was the incorporation of the essence of two “dead” but still beloved inner-city churches into a brand new building forty miles away in Old Mill Creek, guided by the careful hand of architect Simon Batistich. Behind the reconstructed and steel-reinforced St. John of God façade sits a brand new state-of-the-art traditional church shell, filled with the interior—altars, statues, windows, stations of the cross, and even pews—of St. Peter Canisius... (continued)