Built for all to see

By | May 5, 2010

This Sunday’s second reading from the Book of Revelation recounts what the new Jerusalem, the holy city, may look like. In many ways, the reading could be used as an actual blueprint of how to build a Catholic church.

Since the Middle Ages, steeples have been a prominent part of church architecture. In earlier times, the steeple’s main purpose was to make the church visible from any part of a town. The church was essentially the heart of the town, and the steeple was built for all to be reminded of the church’s importance in their lives.

Recently I was traveling through Indiana. I saw a roadside billboard advertising “the Village of Spires,” so I took a side trip to Oldenburg. It was inspirational to gaze at the skyline of this tiny village and see it dotted with church steeples; it seemed to designate the village as a dwelling place of faith.

Many church steeples also house bells. These bells most often call us to Sunday Mass (or humorously serve as the “5- minute warning”). In some parishes, as the funeral procession moves to the cemetery, the church bells toll out the number of years the person lived, and in other instances you may hear a Catholic church pealing out the Angelus morning, midday and evening.

We all remember the story of Paul Revere and the part Boston’s Old North Church steeple played in that historic moment. The lantern light from the steeple served as a beacon of information. In our diocese, it is a beautiful sight to travel through our cities at night, in particular Green Bay, and see the illuminated steeples of our Catholic churches still serving as beacons of hope.

Sacred space does not only refer to what is contained within the church building, it is also about the space defined by its very presence. The modern, streamlined, close to the ground look of churches built in the ’70s and ’80s are giving way to churches being built that are massive in appearance. The high steeple, often with a cross at its very peak, and the church exterior are supported by solid, natural materials such as fieldstone and wood beams. The steeple adds grandeur to church buildings. It acts like a hand, reaching into the sky to touch heaven itself.

Many new churches are being built on hills. St. Mary in DePere, St. Mary Magdalene in Waupaca or, just outside our diocese, All Saints in Berlin, are wonderful examples of churches that can be seen from miles away. Take some time this weekend to “praise God, in his holy dwelling” and look at the outside of your particular church building. What message of faith do those sacred walls speak to you?


Zahorik is director of worship at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oshkosh.

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