I became fascinated with old churches during my one-year stay in Europe. While I realize that Christ is no less present in a new church than in an old one, and while I have had meaningful spiritual experiences in churches of modern design, there is something about old churches that helps me pray more and better when I’m in them.
When I read the book How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture by Denis McNamara, I learned that this is no accident. The features of traditional church architecture exist precisely to express religious sentiments, to represent theological concepts, and to facilitate worship. In traditional churches, truths as old as Christianity itself are literally set in stone for generations of Christians until the end of time. Every design element in a traditional church preaches volumes about the Catholic Faith.
I thus got excited when I attended mass for the first time in the still-unfinished new church of my parish, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish located in the southernmost city of Metro Manila, the Philippines. I saw that, when finished, the new church will have many of the features of the churches I have seen when I was in Europe – indeed, many of the features McNamara discusses in his book.
Mr. Ron Miranda, the chief architect in charge of the project, describes the new church as “Romanesque-Gothic”. “It’s a modern take of the Romanesque language of round arches and thick walls,” he says, explaining that “the arches were made pointed leaning toward a tame version of the Gothic design.”
He also points out that the floor plan is cruciform, a traditional design in the shape of a cross, as opposed to the regular rectangular shaped floor plan.
At the same time, the new church is also modern. According to Miranda, “what makes it modern is that the structure (skeleton) is designed essentially using poured in place reinforced concrete (shear walls), and the massive look of the columns is essentially cosmetic to make the proportions correct. Romanesque churches’ massive structure is due to the technology at that time”, he explains. Furthermore, the new church will have modern conveniences like electric acoustic systems and air-conditioning (which is necessary in a tropical climate like the Philippines).
The interior of the church will have twelve main columns supporting the structure. There will be column statues of the Twelve Apostles, symbolizing the role of the Apostles as the foundations of the Church.
For me, the most beautiful feature of the new church will be its stained glass art. The plan is to install stained-glass depictions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de Columbiere at the transept of the church, the eight Beatitudes at the upper transept, the twelve promises of the Sacred Heart at the upper nave, the twelve events in the life of Jesus at the nave, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit at the back of the main retablo.
“[S]tained glass windows aptly symbolized the jeweled walls of heaven described in scripture,” writes McNamara in his book. “The book of Revelation described the walls of the heavenly city as composed of glorified human beings radiating the light of Christ from within. As light passes through stained-glass windows and the figures represented in them, the walls of the church take on the qualities and radiance of heaven itself.”
“In biblical language,” he further writes, “gems represent divine life, which is why heaven is described as composed of gems representing people. Since the church building is an image of heaven, radiant, gemlike stained-glass windows are intended to bring that reality down to Earth.”
As of the time of writing, 69% of the construction of the new church has already been completed. The parish aims to finish it in time for the evening of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception this year. Raising much-needed funds for the construction of the new church is a project of the entire parish. Even schoolchildren from the free preschool organized by the parish have been contributing their precious coins for the construction of the church, according to the parish priest.
I cannot wait for the construction of the new church to finish. I may never have the opportunity to return to Europe, but I look forward to having heaven on earth just a few blocks away from my house.
You can help finish the construction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish by forwarding this article to potential donors. They may contact the parish priest, Rev. Fr. Lambert Legaspino, at email@example.com or the program coordinator Dottie Sibal at firstname.lastname@example.org.