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Monsignor Livingston explains our church architecture

The following transcript documents the presentation made by Msgr. Livingston in 1994 regarding the architecture and theology of St. Vincent de Paul Parish Church, Peoria.  Msgr. Livingston retired in 1994 at the age of 75.  This talk came 17 years after he worked on the construction of the church which was dedicated in 1977.  During the presentation, Msgr. Livingston shared his recollections and the reasoning behind the church construction.  Msgr. Livingston also took questions from various parishioners during the presentation.

Thank you for coming and I will try to answer your questions as we go along.

Let’s talk about the church building.  When we use the word “Church” we are not talking about the church building.  We are talking about the Church which is all of us.  The Church means all the people here and all the people throughout the world who are in communion with the Holy Father throughout the Catholic Church.  A church building is the place where we gather to pray, to have our liturgies, to say Mass, to celebrate the sacraments, and also to gather as a community of the people.  When you’re talking about a church building, you’re talking about a building totally different from any other kind of structure.  The church building is much different from a hall or the gymnasium especially because of the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Our Protestant brothers have church buildings or temples and they are just as much church buildings, in that they are places of reverence, prayer, and gathering.

Our church buildings are places for the sacraments that make it a sacred place.  All church buildings through the years have tended to become stylized according to the period of time, the needs of the community, the climate, and the culture of the people.  For instance, in Africa, they have simple kinds of structures which primarily keep the sun off them.  In the northern parts of Europe, they have very steep slanted roofs, so the snow doesn’t compact on them and tear them down.  In the southern areas, they have room for more roof expansion, because they don’t have much snow there.  So the style of a church building is tempered and designated by the climate and the culture of the people.  As you know, through the centuries, there have been many styles of churches.  There are Byzantine churches, like the Hagia Sophia, the great church of Constantinople.  There are Romanesque churches, like those in Rome, often with arches.  In the medieval Church Renaissance, there are cathedrals with spires, towers, and turrets.  In our own country we developed the so-called colonial style, like St. Philomena.  The church is generally a long rectangular building often with white pillars and a simple arched roof.

Let’s consider this church.  This church is not modern.  It may have been modern 30 years ago, but it is not modern today.  A modern church is in the present style.  Rather this is considered a contemporary church.  This church is obviously not Romanesque, medieval, Renaissance.  The Cathedral downtown would be a modified Renaissance church.  If you look down from an airplane, you would not know what this building was.  You would say that it was a strange looking design an outline.  In building this church, we tried to accommodate the space needed for the action that happens here.  For example, we said that the building was going to seat 700 or 800 people.  It needed to have a sanctuary for the liturgical celebrations and Mass.  It had to have a choir which would be in a loft or off to the side.  It had to have a cry room.  (I wish we didn’t have cry rooms.)  It doubles as the bride’s room.  It is pure coincidence that we use those two words, cry room and bride’s room.  There must be a sacristy, a place where the priest gets vested.  Then there is a money counting room.  We need places to stack things.  Often when people build houses, they think they should have put in more closets places to store things.  (As Americans, we store a lot of things.)

Then we have the front room called the community room.  That was a fortunate accident in the building process.  When we were building the church, we talked to the architect and did not want to have a big church with a front door like a funnel that squashed all the people together as they tried to go out to get to their cars.  We wanted to have a big lobby or vestibule.  And so we had the two areas designated for entry and access.  As time went on, the architect drew them much bigger than they are.  He asked one day how many pews or seats we were willing to give up to have a nice lobby.  He said something like 100 or 150.  Originally, this church was designed to seat 950 or 1,000 people.  We built the wall and brought it from the outside windows which were the original back wall.  We connected the two vestibules into one gathering space.  That area is used for many things, like wedding receptions or wake services.  It’s one of those things we stumbled on as we move along.

It was dedicated in 1977.  We started planning in 1975 when you people got tired of kneeling on the floor in the gymnasium and wanted to build a church.  I started preparing to build a church in 1962, when I first arrived.  I’m not a very quick thinker, and so I have to store things in my mind for a long time.  I had all kinds of designs and drawings.  We got to the point when we had to bring in an architect to design the church space.  We had pieces of paper drawn to scale for the sanctuary, the choir, and the congregation.  We rearranged them until we got them into position and then we wrapped a wall around them.  That’s how the wall was designed the way it was.  You build the church according to the action that takes place in it.  Rather than building the walls and then deciding what you can put in them, it is better to determine where the walls should be based on the actions within.  That’s part of the background for the church.

The style was dictated by the function of the liturgy and then by the other elements, including visibility, and the ability to hear.  An architect is a person who takes these things into consideration, determines the correct use of materials, and brings out a beautiful effect.  St. Thomas Aquinas said that the marriage of goodness and truth brings beauty.  And so why is this church attractive and beautiful?  Because we had good and faithful use of materials.  Everything in this church, bricks, steel, wood, and columns of stone, are all what they are.  They’re not pretending to be something else.  Sometimes a steel beam is wrapped in plaster and then painted to look like a column.  However if a column is made of steel, stone, or wood, then let it be what it is.  For that reason, there is a certain goodness and truth about this building.  Things are what they are.

When we were first talking about the altar in the sanctuary, some wanted to get imported marble from Italy.  I preferred to use something local.  So we got that stone from Mankato, Minnesota.  It’s not pretending to be marble; it’s just stone.  All the wood in the church is oak.  All the wood in the ceiling is cedar, 3 inch tongue and groove cedar.  It took an awful long time to put it up.  It has not only a simple beauty, but it also has very good acoustical quality because we put it in backwards.  The rough side of the cedar is the part facing us.  It has just enough tooth, or rough surface, to set the sound and send it back again.  If this ceiling was covered with acoustical tile, it would soak up the sound and kill it.  We wanted to embellish the sound and let it go out and come back.

The design of this church was determined by the functions that happen in it, but also by theology.  First of all, the inside of the ceiling is designed to be like the wings of a bird.  The scripture says that the Lord will shelter his own like a mother hen shelters her chicks (Ps 91:4).  This is meant to be the sheltering wings of God over all of us.  The two main columns represent other theological symbols:  the Incarnation and the Trinity.  Our faith is based on the Trinity and the Incarnation which come together in Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament who is both the second person of the Trinity and the person of the Incarnation.  He comes out to us over the altar with love and all that he gives us, and we make our return to him through praise and the sacraments.

The praise we give him is indicated on the north side of the church.  In the center window you have King David who wrote many of the Psalms.  In the west window you have Psalm 150 which is the Psalm of praise.  The final Psalm says, “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp” (Ps 150:3).  The censor is a sign of prayers going up to God.  In the east window we have stars and planets and that is a reflection of the Psalm that says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1).  This is the praise section, so it is a very appropriate place to put the choir.

We also return to him by the sacraments, depicted in the south side of the church.  In the vertical window in the back contains a tree and inside the tree is the Chi-Rho, the first letters of the name of Christ in Greek.  This all began “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God” (Ps 42:1).  And so next to the tree, there is a deer.  The deer is panting after the running water, symbolized by the water coming from along the tree, shown in the bluish green color.

Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15:5).  We receive our life from the vine coming out through the branches.  The vine and the branches run throughout this entire set of windows.  Symbols of the sacraments have been set within the branches.  The first one is the overturned shell with the water of baptism coming out of it.  Next is the Holy Spirit signifying confirmation.  Next is a chalice which lines up with the wheat and the grapes for the Eucharist.  Next are the keys of Peter, the sacrament of penance.  “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).  Next is the priesthood shown by the book and the stole, a symbol of the authority of the priest.  Next is the nicest piece of stained glass:  two rings with the cross symbolizing marriage.  The next one is the worst image of all for anointing of the sick.  After asking all the smart people, no one could come up with a symbol for the anointing of the sick.  So we just put a container for the oil labeled OI (for Oleum Infirmorum).  Someday if we rebuild the church, we’ll find a better symbol.

Let us return to the basic theology of the church in the Trinity and the Incarnation.  God comes to us across the altar and we come back to him through praise and our sacramental life.  It continues through the windows in the foyer.  There are symbols of the Trinity, such as the three leafed clover.  There are also symbols of the Incarnation, of Christ in the Eucharist, such as the grapes and the wine.

Basically, the church is a roof.  All you need for a church is a room with an altar.  You don’t need anything else.  If you have good and simple things, they shouldn’t be cluttered with junk.  The height of felicity lies in simplicity.  What’s the most striking monument in the United States?  We have many striking monuments.  We have a beautiful statute of Lincoln in Washington.  But the Washington Monument is very simple and very clean.  There is nothing in front of it.  Everything has been kept very simple.  The most important piece in this building is carved out of linden wood.  Linden wood had a good tight texture.  It is easy to carve, and it holds its shape as it hardens.  The crucifix in the Stations of the Cross is modeled after Oberamergau, in a truly different spirit of crucifixion.  It is Germanic and very strong.  The crucifix in the sanctuary is Italian.  I could never quite figure out the expression on that face.  Is it love, tranquility, peace?  It is very peaceful.  It is hanging on one bolt in the back.  It will move in a big storm.  That was the most expensive single piece, costing $6,000.  The only single piece that cost more was the bell, costing $6,200.  The pipe organ cost $43,000.  An electronic organ would cost more than $40,000.  This is a genuine pipe wind organ.  There are 4870 pipes in the organ.  It would be interesting if you could ever make it up through the sacristy to see all the pipes in the organ.  Most of the pipes are aluminum.  Some of the pipes are as small as a pencil.  There is a pipe for every note on the organ.  There are two manuals, containing 21 ranks, each with 88 notes, including the different voices in the oboes.  That’s how you get to 4870 pipes.

The Stations of the Cross have a long history to them.  There are two ways of praying them:  They are a place of meditation, but can also be prayed consecutively as fourteen stations.  We pondered the style of Stations that would be fitting for this particular church building.  I went to New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Albuquerque.  I met a woman in San Francisco who did beautiful work in wood, stone, and fiberglass.  She wanted to sell me stations for $2,000 each or $28,000 total.  I decided that we could make our own stations for much less using cedar wood as a background.  The cedar wood is the way of the cross.  We built it with the help of Troy Grove, Bob Johnson, Red Heinz, Paul Stueve, Wally Kewalis, and Deacon (the dog).  We made up the basic design, and constructed it for $480.  I did have to buy the bronze numbers for $187—almost as much as the rest of the Stations altogether.

The shape of the church building is an uneven arch.  It is like a long, shallow, broken arch.  Look at the run of the Stations, and you will notice that they are the same as the shape of the building.  It has a long run on the right, and short, steep run on the left.  On the right, the top of the way represents the wall of Jerusalem.  It is the same as the shape of the wall behind it but reversed.  We used a leitmotif, which is a German term that means a “little pattern” repeated through the work.  Like Beethoven’s motif in the fifth symphony that was repeated throughout the work, we repeated the same theme of action in this building.  From the top of the building, we have the same broken arch pattern.  You can see the broken arch pattern all the way from the broken pattern to the end.

The Stations were made of copperwood.  Like copperwood, cottonwood is the nastiest tree in the whole world.  Cottonwood grows like crazy, like Poplar.  Poplar grows in Tennessee like mad and can be big enough in a few years to cut big pieces.  You can buy wood 12 inches wide and 1½ inches thick that is inexpensive.  A lot of furniture is built of copperwood, even if it is finished with oak, mahogany, walnut.  Copperwood is the furniture wood of our country.  It is easy to carve and it holds a good tight line with a good finish.  The three wrinkled metallic nails are copper, as well as the crown of thorns around the crucifix.  The cross is the oldest dirtiest piece of oak we could find.  The crucifix is the simplest, cleanest design we could find.  The crown of thorns stumped us.  Preston Jackson was a black man who was the head of the sculpture department at Western Illinois University.  He was also an excellent musician and played guitar.  I asked him if he could make us a metal crown of thorns.  He asked what a crown of thorns of was, since he was a Muslim.  I made him a design.  He made the crown of thorns out of bumpers from a junkyard in East Peoria.  He melted them and added the thorns which were made of iron.  He stuck them together and produced the crown you see here.

The altar is one single piece of stone from Mankato, Minnesota.  That piece is 8 feet long, 32 inches wide, 9 inches deep, and 41 inches from the floor.  It was brought in on long rollers.  The workers couldn’t figure out how to get it up the steps.  The attached a chain and a block and tackle, to bring it up from the floor and winch it into place.

The Church has always revered the martyrs.  When the church came out of the catacombs after the Edict of Constantine in 312, they thought it would be appropriate to keep some of the martyrs bones and bodies in holy places.  When the churches were built throughout the world they took parts of the bones of the martyrs and put them in their altars stones.  This is why we have an altar stone with the bones of the martyrs to help us remember our heritage and to help us have a devotion to these saints as our helpers.  Who are the martyrs in our altar stone?  On the altar stone, is written Dedication Sunday, October 30, 1977.  We have to two people who are not martyrs, St. Vincent de Paul and Francis De Sales, a great saint at the time of St. Vincent de Paul, and someone who taught St. Vincent.    St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars and the patron of parish priests.  St. Gerard Magella, the patron of expectant mothers.  The martyrs of Treves.  St. Cecilia, the patron of music and also a martyr.  St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the patron of the Sacred Heart.  St. Bernice, a virgin.

Question:  Why are there so many?  Answer:  That was what we received.  I asked for some specific relics, St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Vianney.  Relics are not required in altar stones any longer.  Churches are often built today without altar stones.

Question:  Why is the altar covered?  Answer:  During different seasons of the year we have it covered.  We should probably uncover it now to prepare for Lent.  We leave it off during Lent and Advent, although we do have a few purple hangings.  During the other seasons of the year we cover it up.  Actually, I like it better uncovered, although the ladies who clean the altar will get mad at me.  They like the different colors we have for the different seasons.

Question:  In the Stations of the Cross, why are three of the crosses are pointed one way and the other is pointed the other way?  Answer:  Artistic license answers many questions.  It worked out better in the design.

Question:  Where do you get the relics?  Answer:  I called the Bishop, and he contacts the Sacred Congregation for Rites in Rome.  They have authentic relics which they send us with a script in Latin that says these are the actual bones of St. Vincent de Paul gathered at Paris in 1687.  They are all supposed to be authenticated.  I don’t always have a lot of trust in a lot of relics.  There is a Franciscan community in town, St. Francis of the Woods, that has a lot of relics, including one from the house of the Blessed Virgin.  They have relics of the True Cross.  I shouldn’t be so caustic but if everyone who has a relic of the true Cross brought them all together, it would make a cross that would be about 800 feet high and 90 feet across.  They also claim to have a feather from the Holy Spirit.

(Transcriber’s note: Msgr. Livingston was speaking of an experimental Franciscan community of brothers seeking to become a religious order. Their community has since left the Peoria area.)

Question:  Why is the church dedicated to St. Vincent de Paul?  Answer:  Bishop Franz called me to appoint me to be the pastor of the new parish at University of Northmoor.  I knew where University was, but I didn’t know where Noorthmoor was.  I drove out there 43 years ago, and there was a farm in the corner.  The first step was to build a school.  I didn’t think it had a name at the time, and the Bishop told me he was thinking about naming a church after St. Vincent de Paul.  Although he was known as one dedicated to the poor, St. Vincent was primarily a missionary minded person.  He took care of the poor, the sick, and the kids but he was essentially a missionary.  He gathered a group of priests into the Congregation of the Missions.  He sent them to Germany and Ireland.  The Church was in bad shape around 1623 when he did this.  He died in 1660, and this parish was established in 1962, just after the 300th anniversary of St. Vincent de Paul.  St. Vincent sent missionaries to the new world who came across the ocean, down through Canada, down the St. Lawrence Seaway, across the Great Lakes, and across the northern part of our state to build churches in Ottawa, Seneca and LaSalle.  They also followed the workers on the canal and the railroads who were mostly Irish and German.  Another group came all the way down to New Orleans, down the Mississippi River, down to little places in Missouri, coming across Illinois around 1837.  These missionaries stopped in Kickapoo and built a settlement and a little church dedicated to St. Patrick.  This is the oldest church in continuous use in the state of Illinois.

The missionaries of St. Vincent de Paul came across the river in those days to a place called Lourdes.  And so throughout our diocese missionaries of St. Vincent de Paul went around establishing missions, but not one of them was named after St. Vincent de Paul.  It is not known why they didn’t use his name.  We have churches named after St. Joseph, St. Mary, and St. Patrick.  Bishop Franz wanted a church in our diocese to be named after St. Vincent de Paul.  That’s how the church was given its name.  At first, I thought he was a social worker, so I got some books about him and I discovered he was a real character.  He was a very simple man.  Felicity lies in simplicity.

Vincent went to the King after seeing how many starving people were in the streets of Paris.  There was no bourgeoisie, no middle class at the time.  There was only the very poor and the very rich.  He told the king to give him money to feed the poor.  The king refused.  Vincent said he would go through the streets of Paris and gather the poor, the sick, and the lame, and take them to some other country.  Then there would not be anyone here for him to love, and he could love his own selfish self and go to hell.  That’s how Vincent got the money he needed.  He was very sharp minded.

Question:  What do the windows mean?  Answer:  The windows would take a full day, so this will have to be the short version.  If you look around the church, the colors of this facility were determined by the fall of the year, which in my opinion are the most beautiful colors of the year.  The colors of the fall are subdued.  They are present in the rusted color of the brick, the wood color of the cedar, the burgundy color of the carpet related to the reds and yellows in the windows.  The windows bring color into this place.  The color blue is my favorite.  I consider that there is only one color—blue—and other colors are just shades of blue.  The lines of blue come across from the north side of the church in little bands and then shoot up around St. Vincent de Paul.  There’s another band of blue coming down from heaven and they accent the center part of the church which is the tabernacle which is sprinkled with colors of bright orange with flecks in the surrounding symbols of wheat and grapes.  The wheat and grapes symbolize the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  The colors relate and draw the whole picture together going up to heaven and coming back down.  If you study the people who constructed these windows, they are tremendous artists.  I met one of the in Milwaukee who had been in seminary for five years in Rome.  He was a great theologian and became a great artist, a designer, and a craftsman.  The basic design for the windows was sketched on paper.  However, translating the vision into reality is a massive chore.  Each one of those pieces of glass is seven or eight inches thick.  Each of these pieces of glass was carefully crafted with a hammer and chisel.  If I tried to chisel this glass, it would shatter and be all over the floor.

The whole process is natural.  There are no straight-stick hard lines.  This is the most unbalanced building you’ll ever see, although the building has what is called the natural balance of nature.  If you look at the two columns and beams that come out from the columns in the church, they emerge two different angles.  This reflects the balance of nature.  If you look at a tree, branches emerge on each side, though a tree does not have the same number of limbs on each side.  Even so, the foliage and the leaves balance the whole tree so that there is beauty in this natural balance.  Sometimes I see people get tired listening to the sermon, and they look around and observe the church.  For example, the choir section is not directly in balance with anything on the other side of the church.  However, the Stations of the Cross provide the natural balance that stages one activity against the other.