Can you tell the difference?

Some years ago, when I was living in S. California, a priest friend showed up at the door saying gruffly, "Get in the car… I want to show you something."

He drove us to a supremely ugly building, which he admonished me to take in and think about. 

It was a country juvenile correction facility.

Then off we went again!

This time we went into the heart of downtown Los Angeles.

To the Cathedral.

We went up into the plaza in front of the Rog Mahal.

My friend said: "What does it remind you of?"

This little preface leads me to a piteously amusing post at The Crescat.

"Can you tell the difference"

That is… between some modernistic churches and some correctional facilities.



Friends, when people don’t know who Jesus Christ is, or who the Church is, or who they are as Catholic Christians, then their architecture will go wrong.

How often have you seen a church that looks more like a municipal airport terminal or drive-thru bank than a sacred building dedicated to God?

I’m just askin’

Sometimes they look like jails.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Ohio Annie says:

    There’s an architectural firm around here that designs all their buildings the same, with a big cupola on top. One such is okay, has lots of stained glass. Another is very stark and looks like the inside of the old Lazarus store in Columbus. Stained glass of traditional style can do a lot for a building.

    I wonder about these new buildings that are being built with dunking tanks for baptisms. Oh well.

  2. Charivari Rob says:

    Are you trying to trick us, Father? I suspect both photos are of churches.

    After all, correctional facilities have mandates that the inmates are exposed to daylight and fresh air. :^|

  3. MargaretMN says:

    When I was growing up all the churches that sprouted in the early 60s in suburban Detroit looked the same. Little concrete and steel boxes with a long nave and blond wood pews and statues. Some wag called them “kmarts on the hill” for their plain vanilla exteriors (no stained glass or steeples) But there was no mistaking them for what they were and they were fast and cheap to build. Post Vatican II had them renovated and remodeled in a variety of different artistic directions. One no longer has pews or kneelers, just padded chairs. The great irony is that many of the gorgeous downtown churches have been closed and even sold as Detroit emptied out and the suburbs still have their kmart-on-a-hill churches.

    Here in MN it’s ironic that they are actually spending lots of money for what essentially is the k-mart on a hill type of church.

  4. PaulJason says:

    I worked for the architectural firm here in Atlanta that has built many of the Catholic Churches in past 30 years for the Atlanta area. I can tell that the trend is heading back toward Sacred Architecture and away from the junk we have been seeing. Also check out Fr. Dowling in Knoxville and the book Ugly as Sin.

  5. Dino says:

    That red thing looks like some kind of mistake.
    Please, Father, tell me it isn’t a church.

  6. Brian2 says:

    PaulJason: did you have anyting to do wtih St. Peter Chanel in Roswell. That is a great looking church.

  7. Tara says:

    The second church–the red one, what were they smoking? How is it even possible that it could have been built–what a joke! I agree with you Father–how could anyone who knows Jesus build such an atrocity?

  8. Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada says:

    They are jails, the “Spirit of Vatican II” being the Warden.

  9. Hendrik (Germany) says:

    The red thing … is a kind of moon station I guess?

  10. Fr. Steve says:

    That looks like something out of Star Wars! “Vatican II Highjacked, Attack of the Clones”

  11. Melanie says:

    I was very fortunate to grow up in Germany, my hometown has a population of “only” 5000, but
    our abbey church (former Cistercian monastery)is the second largest in the Palatinate (after the Speyer Cathedral)

  12. Catherine says:

    When Vatican II ended, I was a young girl. The churches began to be demolished and the altars turned around. We began to start noticing one another during Mass rather than what was happening on the altar. In my heart I knew something was very, very wrong….and I missed what I had had before.

    I’ve missed it all these years, but I have lived with the memories and tried to do the best I could in the way of worship. I believe, in faith and hope, that we are beginning to see a renaissance in all areas of worship in the Catholic Church, but it will take a long time, perhaps. Maybe I won’t get to see the final fruits of our patience and prayers, but at least we seem to be arising from our long sad slumber.

  13. Tom Cole says:

    There are certainly plenty of horrible looking churches here in the Arlington Diocese of Virginia. Without question, I think a restoration of beautiful Catholic architecture is a part of the brick by brick process of restoration! Happily a few of the newer parishes around here resemble church-like structures…

  14. Dr. Eric says:

    Would you rather get married here:

    Or here:

    Now, The Eucharistic Liturgy is the same Wedding Feast of the Lamb of God, would you not want the same beautiful surroundings for HIS wedding?

  15. Rob says:

    i agree such churches are horiffic, architecturally speaking,and inspire nothing, but bear in mind what is behind the issue, its economics (money ) and the lack of traditional catholic builders, wood workers, stone masons, artists, etc. Not to mention that people hardly think of heavenly things, but earthly. To a degree the church encouraged this, in part because no one was looking , but the combination of rising costs and lack of artistic skill exacerbated the decline of church architecture. Traditional churches can still be built, but they cost a lot more than modern designs. If they are traditional they often lack the substance they had scores and decades ago because no one can afford it.
    STUDY: John Paul II’s Letter to Artists ( 1999):

  16. Jane says:

    Our Cathedral was burnt down by an arsonist. After a few years it was rebuilt. A priest friend asked me if I had seen the new Cathedral. I said not yet. He said that it reminded him of an American basketball stadium. It is pretty ugly for a cathedral.

  17. Boston Architectpr says:

    This philosophy is rooted in the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) published by the Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy in 1978. EACW became an imperative that “worship space” was to fully reflect the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II. Despite not having the force of law in and of itself, EACW was widely treated as a virtual mandate that imposed renovations on venerable and historic Houses of God to often devastating effect. Most often this included an imposition of excessive horizontalism on space that historically emphasized the true vertical nature of Catholic worship and the Holy Sacrifice. The result is the juncture we find ourselves at today in many dioceses. The sad reality is none of these changes were mandated or anticipated by the Council Fathers. Unfortunately, the iconoclastic ideas promoted by EACW remain very much alive with the current generation of architects and planners employed and entrenched by the Planning Offices of many dioceses. Their work and the fruit of their patrons speaks for itself. Visual impoverishment…

  18. Patrick says:

    Well, I for one thought that both photos were of builidngs that were outtakes of pre Cylon attack Caprica on BattleStar Galactica.

    I must confess, I could not tell if they are churches or not. There are no Crosses atop them.


  19. PaulJason says:

    PaulJason: did you have anyting to do wtih St. Peter Chanel in Roswell. That is a great looking church.

    Comment by Brian2 — 2 February 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    That was one of ours.

    Also St. Bridget in Alpharetta another beauty.

  20. Boston Architect says:

    Rob et al,

    There is much hope …Architects of note:

    Ducan Stroik:

    William Heyer:

    Thomas G. Smith:

    Ethan Anthony:

    Michael Hauptman:

    Henry H. Menzies:

    Studios of Note:

    Granda Talleres de Arte (Madrid, Spain):
    Granda Talleres de Arte (USA Office):
    Conrad Schmitt Studios (New Berlin, WI):

    Brick by Brick…

  21. Boston Architectpr says:

    Rob et al,

    There is much hope …Two architects of note:

    Ducan Stroik:

    William Heyer:

    Brick by Brick…

  22. Padre Steve says:

    All I can say is uggghhh! I can’t imagine having to look at these buildings day in and day out for years… wow. Let’s hope the silly season is really over:

  23. Central Valley Catholic says:

    Fr. Z.

    You are the greatest. I know the Cathedral and the Southern California building you speak of. I also know your insightful friend. I about fell out of the chair reading this post. I recall you mentioning your trip to the juvenile justice center and the concrete cathedral in the past. Our common friend is not much on an internet guy so I will print this and give it to him.

  24. Ed says:

    We need to support the preservation of our older churches, or someday these examples are all we’ll see in our landscape.

  25. Carlos says:

    Once there was siome kind of Internet cointest on th eugliest church ever. The cathedral of Rio de Janeiro won, hands down. According to the “judge”, it looked like the love child of an Aztec temple and a beehive. Check for yourself at .

    BTW, it could have been worse: the original project would have the very walls as a vertical cemitery.

  26. tradone says:

    If I may be so bold to make reference to the following:

  27. canon1753 says:

    My diocesan Cathedral looks like a Pizza Hut.

  28. Rancher says:

    It’s bad enough that you can’t tell it is a Catholic church from the outside. It is even worse when you can’t tell from the liturgies being “performed” on the inside!

  29. Boston Architect says:

    The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

  30. Joseph says:

    Well… you know… Star Trek was REALLY popular back in those days.

  31. mike says:

    I’m sure they’re just trying to evoke that good old-fashioned “prisoner of the tabernacle” piety. Don’t you think?

  32. Woody Jones says:

    Fortunately this entry gives one the chance to deal with gentler matters than the furor over the SSPX. For church architecture, one should not overlook the work of the venerable HDB Cram & Ferguson firm, that did our church at Our Lady of Walsingham, and others even more recently. Check out their “portfolio” pages.
    On a traditional Anglican reunion note, see the latest optimistic thinking from Fr. Richard Sutter at:
    and note especially his invocation of Ven. J. H. Newman

  33. Boston Architect says:

    Indeed! HDB Cram’s recently completed Syon Abbey is a notable project.

    I am current advocating their work in the Archdiocese of Boston. The EACW mentality is very entrenched in this diocese.
    We have a choice of working with Vosko (Fr. Richard Vosko SJ) proteges recommended by the Archdiocesan Plaaning Office:

  34. Matt says:


    I don’t think that’s really the case. I think the major criticism is not with regard to modesty, but modernism. I find it difficult to believe a traditional design can’t be executed just about as modestly as a modernist one (and most of the modernist ones are anything but modest), granted one may be restricted to wood, brick and steel, rather than more beautiful stone. Perhaps, a design which would allow the addition of a large steeple once funds are available. Could windows be designed around an existing structure’s stained glass, or surplus materials could be incorporated? If not, perhaps inexpensive alternatives could be considered temporary… etc. etc.

    With the number of old churches being dismantled, maybe there’s a Catholic Church RE-Store? If not, that might be a great business/ministry!

  35. PaulJason: Also check out Fr. Dowling in Knoxville

    St. John Neumann Church (Knoxville, TN)

    Fr. Dowling was recently interviewed by Fr. Mitch Pacwa (EWTN Live), discussing his new church with the title \”Restoring the Sacred\”. Reportedly, the question was raised afterwards of Fr. Dowling possibly doing a 13-part series for EWTN.

  36. Rachel says:

    I didn’t know you used to live in SoCal, Father! I would like to know who that priest friend was and where he preaches. :) Right on about the L.A. Cathedral; I’ve complained about it before.

    This may be going too far, but the LA Cathedral and similar monstrosities remind me of a passage in The Lord of the Rings that describes Saruman’s domain, how he’s torn down the trees and torn up the beautiful land to build towers and dungeons and forges and mines. He’s so proud of it all and fancies himself a lord of great originality and wisdom and power– and all the time Sauron, the Dark Lord himself, is seeing what Saruman is doing and laughing at him, because he knows that Saruman is his unwitting pawn, and his monument to himself is merely a little copy of the Dark Lord’s own terrible fortress of Barad-dûr.

  37. Athelstane says:

    For those interested, there’s an excellent discussion of this problem in Michael Rose’s Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again:

  38. DP says:

    Father, If Mass is celebrated in a Church with a style you do not approve of, is it any less of Sacrament?

  39. Tom says:

    Holy Vestal Virgins, Batman! Check this out:

    I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Nice idea, I suppose, but its transition from ancient Greece to the Blues Brothers left me a bit queasy. Very odd, but the service does match the venue quite nicely.

  40. Brian says:

    On the flip side, just outside of Maryville, MO, there can be found a convent and girls school that sadly had to close and eventually became a correctional facility. A “church” is not often seen with a tall barbed wire fence around it.

  41. John P. says:

    Please, Father, tell me that hideous red “thing” is not a church. It doesn’t even look like a building. I’m appalled. I can’t say I completely approve of my parish, either. They put in a baptismal font that looks like a swimming pool. No joke, it looks like one of those gigantic blue plastic kiddie pools that you’d put in your backyard, except this one is covered in marble. We’re into the “total immersion” thing for adults. Ugh. I refer to our church as “progressified.”

    Brian: I know exactly where the convent and girls school was, I’ve heard lots of stories about it though I wasn’t even born when the school closed, as I was born in ’92. It’s cool to see that someone else knows about the place, as, even now, I find the architecture enchanting.

  42. Frank H says:

    Tom, that video is, uh, something! At least the Knights of Columbus looked normal! Saw somewhere today that Card. Mahony’s replacement is to be announced imminently!

  43. Trad Tom says:

    DP….what’s the point of your snarkiness? Cygnus….did you notice they don’t even call it a church? It’s a “Catholic Community.” (How today)

  44. Trad Tom says:

    DP….what’s the point of your snarkiness? Cygnus….did you notice they don’t even call it a church? It’s a Catholic “Community.” (so today)

  45. Sara says:

    I’m probably in the minority but I love very much the simplistic style, with clean lines, unadorned walls, simple floors, plain furniture. I love the old missions and monasteries with their air of functionality, serenity, and peace, wthout alot of ginderbread and fru-fru.. I can pray and meditate and partake in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass without my senses being assaulted and distracted from every direction…

  46. Thomas says:

    Our newer parish church was built in the late 80’s by a firm that designs in a postmodern style in all decorative brick with usually an open belltower. Looks ok from the outside, but inside it’s very plain. Fan shaped pews centered around a large table style altar. The walls are all light blue and we have a “flowing rock” font in the atrium.

  47. acanadian says:

    My dioceses is currently trying to raise 14 MILLION dollars to build this new ‘Catholic Chruch’. To me, from the ground view it looks more like a Mosque or a prison. Any initial reactions?

    Proceed with caution to the website: (the video is at the bottom of the page).

  48. don’t get me started on the building I refuse to call the Cathedral in LA…it’s a good thing I did not contribute to that building, so I don’t feel as bad…The new St. Mary’s in San Fran gives LA a good competition

  49. Charivari Rob says:

    acanadian – “Any initial reactions?”

    It’s hard to tell. It looks like it could end up being pretty nice. I actually like some modern church designs and believe they can be practical, beautiful, and reverential.

    In all truth and charity, however… When I looked at the rendering, with the impression of fan blades or turbines around a hub (backed up later by the text about the spiral design elements), my first reaction was –

    “It looks like an alternator!”

  50. Paul says:

    That read thing looks like some wacky spaceship.

  51. Paul says:

    That RED thing, even.

  52. Mary Ann, Singing Mum says:

    Wow. Man’s loss of faith and beauty is not so stunning as Christ’s humility. It is amazing that the King of Kings deigns to dwell in hideous or lame churches.

  53. John says:

    Here a good example of modern-traditional architecture in order to create a new space to pray…

  54. kat says:

    Actually there are several vendors that sell religious art/stations of the cross/altars/statues from old churches. One I think is called King Richard’s if you want to google it. The TLM community at St. Benedict’s in Chesapeake, VA is building a new church and it looks like a Catholic church. They are using lots of recycled objects to furbish the sanctuary.

  55. RBrown says:

    Father, If Mass is celebrated in a Church with a style you do not approve of, is it any less of Sacrament?
    Comment by DP

    It is still a Sacrament now matter how beautiful or ugly the building–but the question is whether the design disposes the mind toward God.

    And there is a more practical point that many of these buildings have sanctuaries that cannot accommodate a solemn high mass.

  56. RBrown says:


    I would add the name of Thomas Gordon Smith, who designed the FSSP seminary in Nebraska and Clear Creek Monastery.

    There is of course the movement to consider the building as sculpture. In Postmodern architecture, aided by new materials, this sculpture usually is intentionally deficient in exterior harmony. This visual dissonance is accomplished by using distorted geometric shapes, with lots of obtuse and acute angles, stuck together–shape for its own sake, intended to de-sensitize the observer.

    Sometimes these distorted geometric shapes are abstract representations of local life. For example, a bell tower could be an elongated pyramid, out of balance to represent a windy region.

  57. Marcin says:


    I watched a video. It looks like it’s going to be a nice convention center. All the visitors were appropriately pictured in a business casual attire. No cassock, let alone a vestment sighted – good, that would be an overkill. Also I wasn’t able to grasp a difference between ‘altar area’ and ‘liturgical space’ – why so many churchy elements in one meetinghouse? One interdenominational chapel would suffice.

  58. DP: If Mass is celebrated in a Church with a style you do not approve of, is it any less of Sacrament?

    A Mass that is celebrated in a church that is not conducive to prayerful worship will undoubtedly be less efficacious as a channel of grace. Because, aside from its intrinsic merit as a sacrifice, the graces that flow to the faithful are dependent on all manner of externals — the manner of celebration, their internal disposition, etc. This is standard sacramental theology.

  59. Gregory Nagy says:

    Our growing parish had been in desperate need of a larger church for a long time. Over the years, there were multiple designs drawn up. During our final round, our preist noticed that a new Mall about 40 miles away looked remarkably like the plans the archetectual firm that built it had also done for our parish. (Dulles Town Center in Sterling, VA) In the end, we got a much more traditional looking church We are very thankful that the delays in starting to build the new church in th elong run paid off.

  60. After seeing all the photos on the Crescat, all I can say is


    Will anyone ever have the hangie down things to condemn these demonic structures, to be in them drains one of any spirit one soul possesses

  61. Henry says:


    Scroll down far enough to get a load of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel:

    Might one almost be afraid to go in there?

  62. Steve says:

    PROF. DUNCAN STROIK (University of Notre Dame) wrote the following”

    “People often ask me why we have not been building beautiful churches in recent decades. It is not a simple answer of course: there are the changes from Vatican II; the embrace of modernism by the architectural profession; the expense of craftsmanship; the parsimony of the faithful; and the belief that the church is merely a functional building. Today, when laity and clergy alike desire to build beautiful churches again they are confronted with a limitation that their great grandparents did not have to contend with: the strict monetary policies of the diocese.

    These requirements, which are often seen as more binding than papal encyclicals, vary greatly across the country. They usually reflect some mix of cash, pledges, and loans. At the extreme there are dioceses that require their pastors to have 100 percent of their budget in cash and pledges before the architect can finish the drawings. In that scenario, is it any wonder that our modern churches do not inspire? Most of us could not have bought our houses if we had to have 50 percent cash down. So why does the Church require that of the house of God? To make matters more difficult, parishes are expected to pay their mortgage off in five years. Again, an impossibility for most families but considered reasonable for parishes!

    This scenario helps to explain why churches are so cheap and ugly today, and why many built in recent decades are falling apart. Many parishes in the suburbs are filled with young families, creating the need for larger churches and schools. Yet, these same families are the ones least likely to make a substantial contribution. The limitations of clergy mean that the bishop wants them build a new church with seating for twelve hundred or sixteen hundred people—the equivalent of a cathedral—usually with the budget of a nice gymnasium. Even if they wants to, parishioners cannot afford to build a worthy church as their grandparents did in part because of the requirements to have 50 percent of the cost up front and to pay back the mortgage in five years. Instead, the parish will end up with a camel, a building too big for its budget, with low proportions, and some traditional motifs slapped on. Years ago, a parish in the west raised only $3 million in cash and pledges for a new $6 million church. They were told to continue to raise money, which they obediently did, only to find out that the cost of construction doubled over the next five years.

    How did we come to this? These monetary requirements seem to be a fairly recent development in the history of the Church. They may grow out of the need to build a large number of churches and schools quickly and cheaply in the suburbs after World War II. Unfortunately, there have been parishes that defaulted on loans, and the bishop is left holding the debt. So no surprise that the bishops are trying to be fiscally responsible and to help their pastors make wise financial decisions. But inasmuch as church buildings are central to the liturgy and the salvation of souls, how does one balance the need to feed the sheep with the admonition to count the cost? If we do not build worthily, will they come?

    It is important to point out that few of our parish churches from previous eras could have been built under such tough requirements. Notwithstanding a major donor, most of the Catholic churches of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were built and paid for over a long period of time by poor immigrants and their children. These churches would be “dedicated” after construction but were not “solemnly consecrated” until their mortgage was all paid off. This process, often taking from twenty to fifty years, allowed the faithful from different generations to participate in paying for them, and is the main reason for the existence of these incredible cathedral-like structures in the working-class neighborhoods of our cities. Today, many of these churches continue to be the pride of their neighborhoods, and the faithful work hard to maintain and restore them.

    In the past, when Catholics were less financially successful than today, pastors were allowed to build as they saw fit. Often, Monsignor O’Callaghan had a taste for Rome or for Lombardy and hired a talented architect who designed a beautiful, solid, and expensive building. Unlike today, these working-class parishes were not endowed with owners of companies or wealthy professionals. Yet over time, with prayer and raffles, the church would get built and eventually paid off. These were entrepreneurial pastors, who thought big, and were willing to take a risk for the sake of the house of God. It probably helped that these builder priests stayed in the parish until the building was paid off and that the debt was seen as theirs and the parish’s, not the bishop’s. When they succeeded, and sometimes the people had to wait decades, they would have built a beautiful church that would stand for generations.

    Our buildings are a symbol of our faith, catechisms in stone for the faithful, and should be seen as a gift for future generations. Elements, whether custom statuary or brick and stone, should be considered for their life-cycle costs, not just their upfront costs. If we build in this way we will understand our Catholic buildings are investments, investments in faith and in the future of the Church. Thus parishes should be allowed to have reasonable budgets for the size of their churches. New churches should be able to borrow like a homeowner would, for twenty or thirty years. Not only will this allow us to build better buildings, but it also means that the cost of the building will be paid for by more of the people who will eventually use it. If the diocese could develop a more realistic cash-and-pledges scenario (such as 20 percent cash down) a three-thousand-family parish trying to build a twelve-hundred-seat church could afford to build a beautiful church closer in quality to the ones their poor immigrant forebears constructed.”

  63. Mitch says:

    Well said……..The red building I would not enter……There are still alternatives even if it is further…Lay people should protest this type of monstrosity with their feet. What would Bishops think if a whole parish in protest went next door and left the new sparkling building, empty…Devoid of beauty AND people…

  64. depeccatoradvitam says:

    It seems that the Diocese of Achen has some bright new ideas for what should be done with Churches.

    Like this cheery place Achen’s new Sankt Gregorius (outside)(inside) which is a “cleared” and present danger.

    Or its companion cheery place Corpus Christi which has become the new combined Corpus Christi and Saint Joseph parish where they stick to the theme.

    In case you were wondering what happened to the old Sankt Josef’s,
    be careful for what you may ask, lest ye shall find it economically conserved, but not in continuity.
    Graveyard Church

    And better yet, a great place to help out the local economy as well as a little advertising can really spruce up the place.

    No mysteries here, just vacancy.

  65. Mike says:

    Dr. Eric: in, it looks like Jesus is about to jump off the cross…into a swimming pool.

    acanadian: looks like a shopping mall with a meeting hall in the middle.

  66. shana sfo says:

    “in, it looks like Jesus is about to jump off the cross…into a swimming pool.”

    And the wooden pole with its odd appendages looks for all the world like the center of the “EggBeater” ride at the traveling carnival.

  67. DP says:

    Henry Edward wrote: “A Mass that is celebrated in a church that is not conducive to prayerful worship will undoubtedly be less efficacious as a channel of grace. Because, aside from its intrinsic merit as a sacrifice, the graces that flow to the faithfl are dependent on all manner of externals—the manner of celebration, their internal disposition, etc. This is standard sacramental theology.”

    Whew! Try saying all that in one breath! Standard sacramental theology??? I do not think so. It also begs the question as to just WHO determines whether a church is not conducive to prayerful worship? You or Father Z?

  68. Claire Traas says:

    I’m not a huge architechture snob, but that red geodesic dome thing is simply appalling. As someone who grew up in a church that looks like something out of War of the Worlds, I can attest to the fact that bad architecture leads to confusion and irreverence.

    Still, there is something to be said for simple and straightforward. One of my favorite places to pray is the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary where the Summit Dominicans live–It’s kind of dark, with plain white walls, no elaborate stained glass, and a simple exterior. Usually the only light in the church is a spotlight that shines on the monstrance, where Our Lord dwells. I loved seeing all of the Baroque churches in Rome, where every square inch is covered in religious art. It’s a lot of beauty to take in all at once, though, and sometimes my mind cries out for a simple place to pray.

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