The Spirituality of Architecture: a Study of St. Patrick Parish

MA Theology

Author’s note: all pages referenced below refer to the Kindle pagination of Richard Kieckhefer’s book, “Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley.”

The theology of St. Patrick’s Parish in Anchorage, Alaska begins in the parking lot. As is true for many Alaskan churches, the view of the mountains (or at least the evergreen foliage) is incorporated into the architecture. From the parking lot, visitors experience a sweeping, unobstructed 180-degree view of the Chugach State Park mountains: blanketed in blinding snow each winter, vibrant greens in the summer, and a deep orange-red in the fall as the native fireweed plants on the mountains turn. Just as the Israelites encountered God’s presence through mountains, so too today do we encounter his grandeur, majesty, presence, and steadfastness. “A church is a work of art meant not only for the benefit of those who worship in it but for the sake of the environment in which it is planted” (1555). In St. Patrick’s case, the inverse is also true: the beauty of the mountains has a great impact on the church’s aesthetic beauty, and this service-oriented community has an equally strong impact on the poor and vulnerable in the 99504 zip code and Anchorage as a whole.

The Cloister at St. Patrick Parish

The parish is home to a beautiful prayer garden and columbarium space, affectionately known as “The Cloister,” complete with an outdoor Marian chapel, a life-sized Pieta statue, and a statue of David. “The presence of the dead may be more keenly felt in churches with columbaria for the ashes of those cremated” (2352), and that is certainly true for St. Patrick’s. Those who reside in the columbaria, along with those whose names are inscribed on the translucent glass memorial walls, are remembered daily in prayer, and visited often, even in the winter months. The art of St. Patrick’s Parish embraces the communion of saints and reflects the reality of suffering in human life, leading always to sacrifice of the Mass and the glory of the resurrection.

The main aisle through the Cloister leads directly into the main entrance of the church, facilitating a continued procession from everyday life into worship. The overarching style of the church itself, by Kieckhefer’s standards, is a communal church. Through a large foyer gathering space, one passes by the baptismal font and into the nave. The pews are arranged in the round, to facilitate a sense of intimacy and participation. There is no separation between the altar and the community, and you are never more than 10-12 rows away from the altar and the center of the worship space. “The space is meant to encourage full participation by the entire assembly: not only is the entire space conceived as an integral whole but visual subdivision of the space is reduced to a minimum” (828). Above the altar is a large crucifix, and behind it, a stained glass mosaic of the Holy Spirit that can be seen from the main road, and glows especially bright during worship throughout the long Alaskan winters.

St. Patrick’s main worship space. Additional seating for servers, a creation-themed stained glass window, and Stations of the Cross were added in later renovations (see below).

The church also include a side chapel with abstract sacrament-themed stained glass, two additional stained glass pieces (one of St. Patrick and another of the creation narrative), and two chapel spaces within the nave: a tabernacle-chapel and a Holy Family chapel with St. Joseph embracing the child Jesus. Both offer spaces for private prayer while still within the main worship space of the church.

Holy Family chapel within the main worship space, to the right of the main altar.

If I were to renovate the space, I would make three changes. First, I would include more warm-toned wood furnishings and trim, to the inclusion of the church’s exterior. The current space, though beautiful in its grayscale and beige coloring, leans toward a cold and sterile space. I would use warmer wood tones and deep greens and blues and reds, to continue the experience of bringing created beauty inside the worship space.

Second, I would also advocate for much more prominent Stations of the Cross (the current ones seem to be a tiny decorative afterthought, instead of part of the worship space) and I would expand the aisle between the last pew and the pillars. The Stations are currently “within” the pews, and if you were to walk along the existing processional aisle, you would be underneath the awning and behind the pillars, and wouldn’t be able to actually see the Stations.

Third, I would expand the worship space to include a dedicated “wing” for musicians, so that the Holy Family space and devotional candles are not constantly impeded by the presence of a drum set. I would parallel the expansion to include a larger tabernacle chapel, with additional kneelers and seating space, for more than one person to pray before the tabernacle, while still maintaining the intimacy of the area.

Stations of the Cross and the creation stained glass window are both present in this picture.

St. Patrick Parish, through its art and architecture, leads us from the created beauty of the Last Frontier, through death and into life in Christ, as experienced in community and worship, and, upon receiving Christ in the sacraments, sends us forth to make disciples of all nations.

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