Post 219

Cold Zone:
Reflections on a Visit to St. Joseph's Seminary

On Thursday I decided to stop in and say hello to Auxiliary Bishop Bittman.

Ha ha, just kidding.

I decided to stop in and look at the interior of St. Joseph’s Seminary, because I was in the neighborhood. I parked the Rocket and walked up to the building. It was quiet and everything was very still. The door was marked “low energy power-operated” or something eco like that. I pressed the button and watched as the door hummed very slowly open. It was a big door and I waited as it moved. Hummmm. Жжжжжж.

Fancy place. Noisy doors. Alright. Now I’m in.

There’s someone there behind the glass over on that side. Am I supposed to talk to her? I decide I’m not going to check in — nothing says I need to — and when I proceed she comes out to arrest me.

Ha ha, just kidding.

She comes out from some invisible other entrance and wants to know why I’m here. She tells me that I can go and see the chapel. “It’s the only public part of the building,” she says.


Nothing like a warm welcome.

She escorts me to the chapel and tells me to feel free to stay as long as I like. Okay. That sounds better, but doesn’t feel sincere anymore somehow.

Alright. Here we are. I’m inside the chapel. Everything is really, really smooth. Can you say “Smooth”? That’s good, but you need to draw out the “oo” more. Repeat after me: smooooooth. Ah yes, that’s better.

That’s how it is. The floor is really, really, smooth. It’s made out of highly-patterned limestone tiles in shades of brown. I looked at them and thought, “mushrooms.” The waves of brown remind me of the gills of a mushroom if they were sort of sideways and squished. The floor looked clean and shiny and really, really smooth.

I haven’t actually seen floors like that in a church before, neither in Europe nor in Alberta. I’ve seen that type of glossy shininess sometimes in select areas — St. Andrew’s has that now, and St. Thomas More does too, but it’s usually reserved for the altar area. In this place, it’s wall-to-wall gloss.

I think it’s supposed to look impressive. Am I impressed?

The place has stained glass windows that look rather complicated. They don’t draw you in with simple scenes from the gospels. To be honest, I can’t even remember what the images were. I glanced up but didn’t compute and lost interest. Do you remember what was on those windows? I found them neither beautiful nor explanatory. Stained glass should be one or the other, and preferably both. It’s actually not hard to make stained glass look beautiful, because sunlight streaming through coloured glass is an incredible starting point. It’s hard to screw that up. All you have to do is choose a reasonable subject and execute it fairly well. (The Basilica’s glass comes close, but that artist managed to make every apostle, saint and prophet look not okay. Some look grim and sour, as if sanctity is about professorial sternness instead of joyful enthusiasm, and some look just plain Freaked Out.)

Oh well. They never asked me.

The pews at St. Joseph’s Seminary chapel are also — you guessed it — very, very smooth. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such smooth benches, and that ain’t hyperbole, little guy. They were made of very dark, very close-grained wood, and the cut was sleek and pristine. All the benches were of a strange shape, however. None had armrests, and instead of being straight, as pews almost invariably are, a good chunk of the pews were curved, as if to say, “Hey look at me.” It means that if Snow White and the seven dwarves were sharing one pew, each of the dwarves would be at a slightly different angle.

The place looks and feels like a show-home crossed with a mausoleum.

I have no complaints about the tabernacle, however. It’s big and ornate and stands its ground, as it should. That ball was not dropped, thank God. No volleyball-shaped tabernacles here!

However, the shape of the chapel is unfortunate, because although many parts of the chapel are lofty, the architect has the lowest point of the chapel above the tabernacle. It becomes more and more claustrophobic as you get closer to the tabernacle, because the architect did something weird with the walls. They are curved and white and — you guessed it — very, very smooth around the altar area. Someone thought it would be really cool to have, as it were, a chapel within a chapel.

To be near the altar is to feel like you’re inside an egg.

That’s not cool.

To be near the altar is to feel like you’re inside an igloo.

That’s not cool.

That’s cold.

Where am I? Is this “Telus World of Science”?

No, madam, you are in a spaceship. Stay as long as you like. Have a seat in one of these rounded pews.


Uh, I think I want to go now. I think I want to go back to planet earth. Get me out of this luxury egg and mushroom palace.

Eggs and mushrooms make a beautiful omelet, but don’t serve well as a church.

Let’s go. This foyer is nice, and what’s that non-public area with all those IKEA-perfect tables and chairs? Don’t look, it’s not for you. Keep walking; just head for the doors. Here they are. I’m not going to be clicking any buttons this time — just let me push this puppy open. There. I’m out.

Whew. Fresh air.

Plants. The sky. That’s better.

You know, I had heard from several people that the seminary chapel was beautiful, and even back then, I was somewhat suspicious. Why were they saying that? Did they really like it or was it one of these Emperor’s New Clothes deals? I wondered then and I wonder now.

I’ve seen it now, and I see, it’s not beautiful. It’s weird and way too modern. It looks expensive for the sake of looking expensive. It’s a self-conscious showpiece. It’s like a Louis Vuitton bag, which derives its appeal mainly from its reputation as being pricey. Objectively, those bags are not that great. Objectively, they’re dark brown with little shapes and letters repeated over and over again. (Just for fun, you could calculate how many dollars you paid for each letter L and each letter V. What’s the math?)

Oh look at this. Just now I have read the long flowy descriptions of different aspects of the chapel. Those pews are made of mahogany, now I know. The stained glass windows that I was looking at were from the old building, and they were supposed to represent different sacraments (no wonder they were so hard to figure out). The dark floors and benches were supposed to make me think of earth, and the blank white walls were supposed to make me think of heaven.

Ah. I see.

Yeah, it’s just like ANY modern “art” situation — you need to read the brochure in order to figure out what the artist was thinking. I didn’t know the pews were earth. I didn’t know the blank white walls and ceiling with circular scoopity swirly things was heaven.

Here’s what I was supposed to realize:

CHAPEL INTERIOR Heaven and Earth

When entering the chapel, one is confronted with a marvellous melding of heaven and earth. The rich brown limestone of the floor and dark mahogany pews suggest the heaviness and solidity of the earth. They ground us. The white concrete walls of the chapel, on the other hand, are intentionally neutral, so that the sun shining through the stained-glass windows will fill the space with a radiant light and colour the canvas-like walls. This effect should help us to lift up our hearts from the weight of the earth to the glory of heaven, to raise mind and heart to the Lord when we come to pray . . .

Give me a break. That’s just such a stretch.

And what’s worse is that there are hints of slightly off-kilter theology. Earth is presented more negatively than it should be. The “heaviness of earth . . . the weight of the earth” sound like depressing contrasts to heaven. There’s a balance that’s missing here.

But anyway, let me say: a chapel should strike you as lovely without reading the literature. As a matter of fact, that’s the entire point. Any person entering a chapel or church should be able to be nourished by the beauty of the place, and feel that the place is holy. In this history of places of worship, the idea has always been that it’s very much NOT about the words. It’s a visual thing, and, being a visual thing, it is supposed to be accessible to the youngest of children and even to those who cannot read. That’s why gospel scenes, or images of the saints, are excellent subjects for stained glass. They can be easily represented pictorially.

This place relies excessively on this-means-this and that-means-that. It’s okay to have a little bit of that, I guess, but things start to get really weird when you say that walking between the courtyard and the chapel is an expression of the missionary activity of the church and that’s what you’re supposed to think about when you walk back and forth. It just gets to be too much. It gets to be almost a mini-religion in itself. The theology of The Building gets to be overwhelming.

Here’s another excerpt:

The West Door of the Chapel and the church’s narthex gives on to a spacious formal courtyard with a tree planted in its center. It is meant to suggest the garden of Eden or the earthly paradise, and particularly, creation after the Fall. One enters the chapel from this fallen world and walks toward the altar, the place of encounter with Christ who redeems us and all creation through his sacrifice on the Cross, the new Tree of Life. As we make this journey many times a day, from garden to altar, from altar to garden, we are reminded of our mission as Christians to transform the world in Christ.

I offer an alternative. Let’s not pretend that courtyard is the garden of Eden after the fall. Let’s not. Let’s just pretend it’s a garden, and let’s pretend this is a chapel. Let’s clear our minds of what symbolizes what. Why so much unnecessary symbolism? We’re Catholics, after all, and we’ve already got enough, both of what’s real and what’s symbolic.

I don’t want “the Design Committee” to get carried away with representations to the extent that they start saying the walls are like a canvas. The walls are not a canvas, people. The walls are walls.

The pews are not the earth, and there is no need for them to represent the earth. Let’s just say they are Places to Sit.


And about placing one tree in the centre of the courtyard so that the area could represent the garden of Eden, that is so stupid, because that would mean that the tree would be THAT tree — the infamous Expulsion-Coming-Soon Tree. What happened to all the other trees? Is that how God did it? Here, Adam and Eve, here’s your “garden.” It’s got one tree, I know, I know, but make sure you don’t eat the fruit that hangs from it.


Reading the website descriptions of the place go a long way to explaining what went wrong in the design, of both the seminary and the theological college. The mentality was skewed in favour of Deep and Profound. If you do things right, you won’t have to aim at Deep and Profound. The reason you don’t have to AIM for it, is because if you just aim at giving Jesus a lovely home, and if you just aim at making the place one which feels welcoming, dignified and beautiful, you’ll wind up with a Catholic chapel or church, and that in and of itself is going to be deep and profound.

I mean really: if you’re making a home for Jesus, and making a place where the sacrifice of Calvary is going to be repeated, do you really need to pretend the tiles are earth? Do you really need anything more?

Stay focused, people, is my point.

And as for all this modernity, not only does it need an explanation to justify its barrenness (symbolic blah blah blah), the problem is that it isn’t anchored to time-proven traditions, and what looks really up-to-date today is going to look very yesterday in the blink of an eye. Many modern buildings and churches suffer from this problem. They were designed by someone who prioritized innovation, almost above all else. What you will find is that the churches designed with the most unique architecture for its day are the most unpleasant to be in, years later. St. Dominic Savio, for instance, is a disaster though I’m sure it was trendy at the time. Renovations, an abundance of plastic flowers and a gray geometric-patterned carpet haven’t rescued the interior, believe it or not. Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, is distractingly poorly-designed, as is St. Theresa’s in Edmonton. These floor plans where we pretend to enjoy sitting around in a semi-circle, such as those of Good Shepherd and St. Matthew’s, just don’t work. In a church where everyone faces forward, you’ll see the back of heads. That’s less distracting than seeing the faces of the other half of the congregation, tee-pee style. I know, I know, the idea was community, but that is best accomplished with all the things built into the liturgy, not by rearranging the people. We’re at a Mass, not a baby shower, after all. Conversation works great in a circle, but we’re not here to chit chat. We’re here to worship.

The nicest churches in this archdiocese are styled traditionally. The Basilica is the nicest, and it is traditional in design. As for surfaces, the Basilica is not smoothness on top of smoothness.

That smooth-operator style can be initially interesting, but it doesn’t stand the test of time, because it’s cold and impersonal. People are tactile beings and so variation in surfaces textures is comforting. Much of the appeal of the homemade cookie is the imperfection that’s built in. Things that are hand-crafted have a warmth — the details are there (some deliberately and some accidentally) and these little details capture your attention and your imagination. Today I studied the mosaic above the tabernacle at the Basilica, and I wondered how it was made, and how the person building it would have felt, after having placed just the very, very first section of pieces. How do you feel when you begin a project and you look upon the vast expanse remaining, left to be completed?

The chapel at St. Joseph’s Seminary looks too impersonal and machine-made. It is so lacking in the human touch that it’s rather intimidating, although it is so many times smaller than the cathedrals of Europe. I think we can all tell that a lot of money went into the building, but I’d say there wasn’t a lot of heart.

Those two things – heart and money – are totally different, and sadly, where one is, the other often isn’t. I’d far rather attend a play at a high school than a play at the Citadel because one has heart and the other doesn’t. Someone who designs a building to look grand and impressive and palatial has a different intention from someone who designs a building to look welcoming and beautiful and holy.

And just to be clear, do not hear me saying that I believe every church should be built to the same standards as a European cathedral or even the local basilica. I am not saying that. On the contrary, I believe that a small white church with wooden floors and pews can be something marvelous. What a lovely silhouette it has, season after season, beside that country road!

We could do that, nowadays. It’s not more expensive than a spaceship church, and indeed, is a highly efficient use of space. And as for innovation, I think that there would be almost nothing more surprising than seeing a church built in 2016 along those original lines. So often, the most startling thing is seeing anew the thing that you thought you knew so well.

Wouldn’t it be nice? I think it would be so neat to enter a church where the wooden floor is brand new, and where a bright but heavy bell hangs in the steeple. The straight wooden pews would be carved with little roses and crosses, and the light that falls across the holy space would be soft and colourful. Look — the candles are real beeswax. They’re on stands near the rectangular altar. The altar cloths are white and carefully embroidered. So sweet, yet so much to look at!

Sigh. That, I think, would be nice, and I’m sure that people would marvel over such a place, but more importantly, it would feel like home.