Re-orienting a church

For your Brick By Brick file from the Mercury News, with my emphases and comments.

Developer renovates Pittsburg [California] Catholic church
By Rick Radin

PITTSBURG — A 41-year-old Catholic church that was showing its age has a new look thanks to its most prominent parishioner.

Albert Seeno III, an executive with the construction company named after his grandfather, renovated the interior and exterior of the Good Shepherd Catholic Church, helping the Rev. Helmut Richter complete a long-term goal of converting the church from the way it was originally built — with the altar in the middle of the sanctuary — to having the altar against the wall[Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!]

“The church was built with the pews encircling the altar,” [blech] Richter said. “After I came here in 1997, I moved the altar, but people were still looking at each other, which is not liturgically correct.”

For the first time, there is an aisle leading to the altar, so the church is better equipped to host weddings and funerals.

Besides the refurbished and realigned pews, there are new doors, tile, carpeting, paint and energy-efficient lighting, as well as a handicapped ramp behind the altar.

“Everything that is visible is new,” Richter said.

The church exterior was painted and a protective surface placed over the stained glass. Much of the landscaping has been replaced with drought-resistant plants that will help the parish lower its water bills.

“The outside had nothing done to it since the church opened in 1970, not even any paint,” Richter said.

Richter has commissioned a new wooden crucifix from his native Germany that will be mounted behind the altar once it arrives.

The marble top of the altar was retained, but Seeno had a new wooden base built and installed.

Richter tried for several years to raise money for the renovation, but the campaign lapsed after the recession began in 2008. He said he received word from the Seenos in fall 2009 that they would take care of the whole project.

Seeno had crews working on the exterior of the building late that year and began the interior work about two months ago.

“Once we got the basic concept down, Albert just did it,” Richter said. “I’ve never gone and asked him ‘Can you do this, or can you do that?’ ”

Richter celebrated the first Masses in the new church last weekend.

“It’s not the same church,” he said. “People were speechless.”

The renovation was not the first project Seeno has undertaken for the parish. Shortly after the church hosted the funeral of family patriarch Albert Seeno Sr. in 2001, Albert Seeno III refurbished a park, with a baptismal pond, on church property used by both the parish and the surrounding community.

“We’re devoted Catholics, and I have been attending the church since I was a little boy,” Albert Seeno III said. “My youngest son is going to be baptized there this weekend.”

WDTPRS kudos.

Remember… changes to churches, nay rather, the upkeep of churches is not free.  If you want a parish, pay for a parish.   If you want some changes, pay for the changes.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Augustin57 says:

    That’s why God gives some folks money. To build His churches. It’s not their money. It’s His.

  2. JaneC says:

    If only I had the money! I have often daydreamed about what I could do for various parish churches and my old school if I had lots of money. Pay for a real pipe organ instead of digital, hire an acoustician who isn’t in favor of padded pews… oh, and throw my weight around a little to get the current parish building project committee to fire their “liturgical consultant.” Anyone want to buy me a lottery ticket?

  3. StMichael71 says:

    I don’t want to be the one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but is it really advisable to remodel a new church building so that the altar is attached to the reredos? This does seem to go against GIRM #299, which says that the altar should not be built connected to the reredos. I’m all for ad orientem; I just think it’s more in keeping with the mind of the Church if it is done on a freestanding immovable altar. [Apparently it is with the mind of the church there… and for a very long time everywhere.]

  4. Christine says:

    Are there any pictures? I’d love to see it. Jane, I’ve had the same thought. How I’d love to give my pastor a blank check and tell him to do whatever he needs to do–he is a very faithful and holy priest who knows how things should be in a church.

  5. Fr. Basil says:

    If a freestanding altar is good enough for St. Peter’s, it should be good enough for any church.

  6. Marcin says:

    Funny how I’m not alone. I too have been daydreaming that if I hit the jackpot, I would fund sanation of the church interiors, church wall paintings, purchase of high quality vestments and scholarships for priests and deacons to attend high caliber, truly Catholic seminaries and educational programs (however distant a location) for the Latins as well as icons and iconostases for the Greeks in need.

    I never really accepted a prevalent presupposition that big financing of ecclesiastical projects in the past by secular rulers and magnates was always an act of reparation for sins. Why not just love of God and care about His precincts and servants?

  7. Here’s their parish webpage. Alas, like many parish webpages it’s not updated too often. However, they’ve apparently got a Facebook page (which as a non-Facebooker I can’t see, of course), so maybe there are some renovation pix there.

  8. Oh, and there’s a Donation button under the Donation tab. Give ’em a little cash/love!

  9. mibethda says:

    This seems to be an instance of Voskoization in reverse. Would that we might see more of it.

  10. ghp95134 says:

    Fr. Helmut Richter’s email address — get this, I love it! — is: PapalHelmut [AT] goodshepherdpittsburg [punctum] org

    A “Papal Helmet“!! I think he’s aligned with the Holy Father!!

    –Guy Power

  11. AnAmericanMother says:

    Gotta love it. UNwreckovation.
    I’ve often thought about what I would do if we ever hit the Big One.
    A ring of eight bells (there’s an empty tower) and a new pipe organ would be nice . . . . a French pipe organ . . . a Cavaillé-Coll . . . why think small?

  12. Marcin says:

    A “Papal Helmet“!! I think he’s aligned with the Holy Father!!

    Is it Helmut or Helmet? (Jim Jarmusch anyone?)

  13. jasoncpetty says:

    …the church hosted the funeral of family patriarch Albert Seeno Sr. in 2001…

    Said a Hail Mary for the old man who, apparently, has raised up a dutiful lot. May God rest his soul!

  14. priests wife says:

    While some major renovations need lots of money (and benefactors)- some don’t. At a local 1970’s era Latin-rite church, they have turned it into a church that you could identifiy as Catholic (well- the exterior is still awful). They brought the tabernacle front and center. They brought in statues of Mary, Joseph and archangels (from some church basement somewhere)- they improved the banners- more quality, less felt (this would be an expense if there weren’t people to volunteer)- the Knights planted a “Mary garden” in front of an existing exterior statue of Mary —even the free written material in the narthex is more orthodox— faithful pastors can do a lot to build their parish brick-by-brick with little money

  15. Jack Hughes says:

    “Remember… changes to churches, nay rather, the upkeep of churches is not free. If you want a parish, pay for a parish. If you want some changes, pay for the changes”

    well gee Father if I had million dollars I would, unfortunatly the unemployed/underemployed/low earners of this world don’t have much to give to the church. [We all have something to contribute. The point is that parishes are not “free”. Many Catholics seem to be under the impression that everything should be provided without their ever having to pay for it.]

    Perhaps you’d be better off talking to the wealthy Catholics amongst us who seem only too happy to pay emily’s list to elect baby killers but won’t give a cent for traditional architecture

  16. JaneC says:

    Priests wife, you’re very right that some churches can be improved a lot with just a small amount of work. The New Liturgical Movement blog did a short series a while back of proposals for small changes that would make a big difference to a church interior.

    Other churches, though, are very far gone. Some of the parishes built in the ’60s and later can hardly be made to look like proper churches at all, and some churches that used to be pretty put hundreds of thousands into wreckovations that would now cost millions to reverse. My favorite example of this is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane, WA. Gorgeous turn-of-the-century church on the outside, Original Series Star Trek set inside. The hideous and enormous new altar is cemented in place in the center of the church. Very hard to fix that.

  17. ghp95134 says:

    Marcin asks, “…is it Helmut or Helmet? (Jim Jarmusch anyone?)…”

    His name is Helmut. The pun is that Helmut is almost homophonic (homonymic) for helmet. So …. “Papal Helmet”. In German, the word for helmet is “helm” (or “stahlhelm” for steel helmet).


  18. jesusthroughmary says:

    “well gee Father if I had million dollars I would, unfortunatly the unemployed/underemployed/low earners of this world don’t have much to give to the church.

    Perhaps you’d be better off talking to the wealthy Catholics amongst us who seem only too happy to pay emily’s list to elect baby killers but won’t give a cent for traditional architecture”

    He’s talking to everyone who reads his blog, and I imagine his readership includes many wealthy people. However, everyone is obliged to contribute to the support of the church, and most people, even low earners, are able, if they try, to find some money to donate. Perhaps a bit of guilt?

  19. Elizabeth D says:

    Some wealthy parishioners who own businesses in the building trades undertook to renovate (completely re-do) the Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapel at the church near me, mostly at their own expense. This was generous and made the pastor and the large majority of adorers very happy, but the way it actually went was in many ways very dismaying. The benefactors had not previously been involved with the Eucharistic Society that ran the chapel, and they pretty much took it over and were not very good at listening to suggestions and concerns about the design or the management of the chapel. At their own expense they’ve hired an employee to handle scheduling adorers. There is large amounts of Adoration Chapel “swag” like pens, pads of paper, magnets, etc. Before the chapel was very modest and very reflective of fervent popular devotion, on a shoestring budget and run by volunteers and regular folks, now what they did with the re-design is rather posh in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Everything about it now reflects the way wealthy people do things, very alien to me. So, I cannot be opposed to it, but these things can come with uncomfortable aspects too.

  20. Mariana says:

    In our church you could very easily push the altar (polished black stone, very nice and substantial) against the wall a few metres behind it, and also quite easily install a decent altar rail, then tear down the nasty, dusty hangings and then install some of the nice old things which I know are being kept in various cellars. If I had money I should love to pay for it all!

  21. Mundabor says:

    God bless this good, generous soul.


  22. I agree with Christine, where are the pictures?

    This cries out for before / after shots as inspiration for others. Nothing in the original news story, nothing on the parish website, nothing found in Google web and image searches.

    Good Shepherd parishioners, show off your new church!

  23. MichaelJ says:

    Fr. Basil,
    Your comment confuses me a bit. I did not think St. Peters was designed and built by Catholics for Catholic worship. I thought it was originally a pagan temple that was given to the Church and subsequently consecrated . [NO. Some churches in Rome were once pagan temples “baptized” into Christian use. The Pantheon became S. Maria “ad martyres”, for example. The first St. Peter’s was built by the Emperor Constantine over and a around a shrine which had been built over St. Peter’s grave in the cemetery on the slop of the Vatican Hill. Because it was built into a hill, some of the top of the hill was carved off and used to fill in the cemetery to make it flat and the basilica was built over it. That is one reason why it is oriented the way it is: the celebrant faces East when at the altar. In ancient times, at a certain point, people would literally turn around also to face the East with the result that the celebrant was behind them… but all were facing the East. The new basilica was built in the 15th-17th centuries on the lines of the Constantinian basilica. It therefore as the same orientation.]

  24. MichaelJ,

    No, the original St. Peters (which did have a free standing altar) was built by the Emperor Constantine over the cemetery next to the Circus of Nero. There was no pagan temple on the site.

    Not the definitive work on the building, by any means, but sufficient for origins:

  25. RMT says:

    Father, you forgot to highlight the most important line–“People were speechless,”
    as in silent for once before the presence of Christ.

  26. MichaelJ says:

    Thanks everyone for clearing up my misunderstanding. It’s always good to know more about the Church.

    Now, can I impose on your knowledge (and show my ignorance)once again? Maybe I should look at a floor plan (and will as soon as I am done here) but why was it built with a freestanding altar? I understand that the Celebrant should face East, but that does not mean that the Altar must be freestanding, does it?

  27. Freestanding altars are altars you can walk all the way around and incense. Often freestanding altars are found in the crossing of churches, or there’s a big choir section behind them. Altars set against the wall are altars set in an apse.

    It’s not that “wall is better” or “wall is more orthodox”; both placements have their place. But where you have freestanding altars in a crossing, or in any other position including the middle of a church, the altar is supposed to be raised up pretty darned high to draw all eyes to the altar, not to encourage people to stare at each other. Generally the altar has a big ciborium canopy over it, and all sorts of other visual tricks to help people pray more and stare at their neighbors’ clothing less. :) Up against the wall apse altars, or freestanding altars that are pretty close to the wall, can still benefit from similar treatment.

  28. Former Altar Boy says:

    So when are the going to celebrate their first EF Mass in the new and improved sanctuary?

  29. For those whose church was originally equipped with bells (and still is) it isn’t that hard to get them working again if you have some mechanical ability and a healthy fear of High Voltage (for those which operated electronically- you know the old way with big electromagnets and not those synthesizers). Of course that is assuming the bell tower and everything is still sound. Well that and the pastor’s permission. Usually it doesn’t take too much money to get them working again. We have usually been able to do it ourselves for under a hundred dollars in parts.

    I’ve helped repair two carillons and one bell in three of the parishes so far (unfortunately two of them are now closed- shame but its another story). It is wonderful to hear them ring and let others in the area know the importance of what is going on in the sanctuary. It is a service in honor of our Lord. I view it as a sort of evangelism. Sadly most of them have not been maintained for some time. It seems once we lost our faith we stopped ringing the bells. Very sad. Actually if anyone wants some tips or is near Troy, Ny just look up the Choir director of the TLM at St Joseph’s and ask him to get in touch with me. It would be nice to hear more churches ringing the bells in the towers.

  30. jflare says:

    Mr. Hughes,
    I understand that Mother Angelique’s church at Our Lady of the Angels Monastary came about precisely as you suggest, by funding from some wealthy benefactors. PS. I now have an excuse to wish to take a trip to Irondale, AL, to see the monastary’s church. Same goes for some place in Wisconsin that Father Groeschel mentioned a few years ago. ..And I might like to see both the National Cathedral AND the Catholic Shrine in D.C.

    I am ALSO reminded of something that Father Corapi said once during his preaching career: Somewhere in the US, there’s a town with at least two Catholic churches; each came about because an ethnic community needed someplace to attend Mass. At different times, the Irish and the Polish literally scraped together their pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and any other monies available, and built churches. I thought he also implied that each church was then and is now a sight to behold (in a good way).

    Don’t know if it’s true for sure and inflation would surely play havoc with doing that now. It’d need to be dollars, fives, tens, and twenties.
    Even so, if you want a beautiful, praiseworthy church badly enough….

  31. uptoncp says:

    i I understand that the Celebrant should face East, but that does not mean that the Altar must be freestanding, does it?

    It does when the entire building is oriented “backwards,” so to speak – in St Peter’s facing East is facing the nave; an altar against a reredos would enforce westward facing.

    On the original topic, the original layout of this church lacked an aisle for brides and coffins (not to mention processions)? That’s stupid.

  32. vernonq says:

    Almost everyone, however much or little their income, can contribute to the Church. If you don’t have money then contribute your talents.

    If everyone gave either an hour of their time or one hour’s take-home pay to the Church each week there would be no need for Pastors to ever get into the pulpit to appeal for money!

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