Saturday, July 24, 2010
St. Francis Church is the antithesis of the 19th century churches we are devoted to investigating. Built in 1960, and celebrating it's 50th anniversary, it is nestled in the heart of quiet suburbia. It's a product of it's era - contemporary angles, open spaces, blonde woods, clean lines. Only the magnificant stained glass window of St. Francis with all his animals located at the front apex of the roof line harkens to the churches of the past. St. Francis is, perhaps, the most beloved saint of all. He was first called to religious life when God tells him "Go Francis and repair my house which you see is falling into ruin." Francis then re-built St. Damians Church and also restored 2 other chapels - St. Peter's and St. Mary's. Even in the 13th century churches fell into disrepair. I think my friend, the builder, would appreciate that about St. Francis.
St. Francis also had a great love of nature and the environment. There is a carved wooden statue of St. Francis with his beloved wolf at the entrance to the church that is my favourite. Francis pleaded with people of Gubbio to feed the fierce wolf that had ravished their flocks. Birds flocked around Francis and nightingales sang with him. My church friend also understands love for animals, especially dogs, and called one in particular friend and family. Blessed is he who protects the birds.
As far as architectural features goes, even I must admit this church is sadly lacking by any historical standards. It's greatest claims may be that it is open and large and bright inside. But the choir voices are always raised in great rejoicing and I always feel happy inside her sturdy walls. I remember sitting in this church with all 8 of my family members where we stretched the entire pew length. Now it is usually just me who attends except on those rare occasions when I am accompanied by my friend. All this made me think what makes a church, God's tent. It's really the people that make the church - yes, the people whose mind and hands have created the church but also the people attending, their history and love of place. Sometimes we can visit palaces, but their is no place like the comforts of home no matter how humble it may be.
Next week we hope to continue our journey discovering 19th century churches. But like all great expeditions, there is also the joy of returning home, from whence we came.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Saturday July 17, 2010 5:15 p.m. Mass
We decided to attend Saturday evening mass at "Our Lady" as the locals fondly call this stunning structure, long considered Connelly's masterpiece and flagship church. The church holds a commanding hilltop presence silently watching over the city of Guelph. John Galt, founder of Galt, once wrote "On this hill would one day rise a church to rival St. Peter's in Rome." I've never been to St. Peter's in Rome, nor even been off the continent, but I must say this is the most awe-inspiring building I've ever seen. One can't help but be impressed by the grand boldness of the vision - both Connolly's and the small community of Guelph's in 1877 to say "ok, this is what we are going to build". The walls in local limestone stand in elegant contrast to the more pedestrian brickwork of St. Clement's in Cambridge.
The towers...my God, the towers. They soar 200 feet into God's blue sky and add to that the elevation of the hill and what a view they create. We first saw the towers when driving into the city looking for the church. We turned a corner and looked over an overpass and there they were rising majestically like some great horned beast. They looked like the towers from a fictional, medieval city - completely foreign in padantic Southwestern Ontario. What awe they inspire, even today when we are used to buildings 50, 100 stories high; one can only imagine their effect on the citizenry almost 100 years ago. Perhaps that is the purpose behind these grand churches - to inspire awe and faith in the humble congregants. I certainly felt awe and respect. We even wore our "Sunday best" as we both instinctively felt that shorts or jeans would not do for "Our Lady". We desended into the bowels of the church basement to change into our finer ware - black pants and crisp white shirt for the man and white skirt and blue blouse for the lady.
We took many photos knowing they would never adequately convey the power and stature of this holy church. We sat near the front to better to view the sanctuary - turned granite and tile mosaics. Almost near the end of the service, the sun shone in through one of the magnificant stained glass windows situated on our right. While it didn't shine directly on us, I was struck by the similiarity of angle and light as during our previous visit to St. Clement's church and somehow felt that light was for us alone.
I marvelled that local labourers had the skill to build this structure and how on earth was it accomplised without modern equipment? It took 50 years(!) to build so some workers may well have spent their entire working lives building this church. I noticed over the statue of Joseph (who was also a carpenter) "Holy Workman watch over us". Indeed.
I could write more about this grand church but will leave off saying that part of the enjoyment of the day was seeing my friend's excitement when we first spotted those two towers and his sheer joy in the builder's dream realized.
Saturday July 17 2010
Lord, Who Shall Be Admitted To Your Tent?
As the title of this entry asks countless before us must have wondered. The sheer size of Our Lady in Guelph has humbled people since her inception in 1877. Joseph Connolly built this one so well it makes me wonder how much of this effort is geographically based. Guelph is S. Ontario’s Stone deposit. This massive structure was for the most part made possible by the plentitude of Shale and other sandstones found locally. Workers took fifty years to complete her and it shows. We arrived in the City of Guelph with plenty of time on our side. After a picnic in a local park we made our way to the big church on the hill. Our Lady is sat on the highest ridge in Guelph and holds that spot by right. She has been given privilege by city fathers who have made it law she has precedence over the view and no one or anything shall obstruct her. Since her inception the town’s shale beds have been heavily mined for granite and other Quarry. The ground level of the town would have been higher when they started building her and even Connolly himself would have not been able to imagine the present view.
The exterior is an absolute work of art and vision. When we first arrived I had to find parking and almost mounted a curb while being distracted by this big building. Our Lady grows out of the hill and just keeps going. I looked at her and the builder’s mind went to work. I thought to myself if this is above the ground, how far down did they dig for her footings? We had to change into our church clothes and instinctively I headed for the basement. The massive support columns are down there and are situated a full ¼ of the width of the building off the exterior walls. These columns share the weight of the roof and upper stone facades with the exterior walls. This technique is daring and even more so for the time. Connolly had been influenced by his mentor however this church is his watermark.
Walking outside we entered the rear of the church via the main doors which just seemed fitting. The twin towers are at the rear of the church and are made of local stone and demand a presence, dwarfing any building in the city of Guelph. There is scaffolding encasing this structure and the grounds that could be and have been immaculate have been left astray. Perhaps it is because the church and her out buildings are receiving massive restorations that the grounds have been left unattended. The Narthex of the church is huge and has founts located on the walls in between the three pairs of doors. I believe this is to control traffic in and out of the doors. There has been some modifications performed over the years and I didn’t notice this work until I was leaving. The side entrances would have emptied their traffic into this massive Narthex making it even bigger at one time. Turning around one can see the entire main street in Guelph and even this awe inspiring view was trumped when I entered the church, walked up the nave and turned around.
We sat in the middle of the church just one in from the center aisle. We were impressed by her magnitude immediately and fell silent as our heads swiveled around to take in as much as we could. The granite pillars that stretch 60 ft or more sit on bigger columns that are buried for an unknown length into the earth. I would suspect 50 ft into earth or drilled and blasted into bedrock which is more likely given the big church’s location. These were trimmed by beautiful bouquets of flowers as there was a wedding at 2 pm that afternoon. The huge vaulted ceilings were trimmed with 8x12 hand sawn oak that was quarter sawn and then steamed or shaped over a fire until perfect. This fine lumber and plaster work encased some of the busiest and gorgeous mosaic tile work I have ever seen. Like her sister churches Our Lady has a massive atrium like Apse which is sun filled thanks to the multitude of stained glass windows above the crossing. It houses the Altar, Tabernacle and chapels that run adjacent to it. Ahead of the Tabernacle a massive stone carving,is the Sachristy where the priests and other clergy walk, work and wait. The very front of the church has a multitude of six sided spires that are slate roofed wonders. The sun was shining in their windows filling the front of this huge building with bright yellow sun and lighting the halos in the stained glass work. The communion of Saints was the running theme in my mind and I suspect that the designer’s vision must have been very similar.
Before Mass started we moved forward to four rows from the crossing and sat. There was a slight breeze and it felt good to be in attendance. The new position offered a great view of the galleries and side entrances/exits. The massive Oak door entrances and walkways were dwarfed by the granite and cement work. Plaster and Masonry were everywhere you looked. As I told my companion I could become a parishioner here just to learn this structure. I would love to run the roofs and upper structures. I would be home and my heart would be still in the towers and bell houses. I noted that as the choir and musicians were warming up that the natural acoustics of this building was very impressive. I turned and looked up at the organ that takes up sixty percent of the rear wall and rises towards the ceiling in an almost defiant manner. It was silent as we waited for Mass to begin. Father Dennis Noon lead an excellent service. As Mass ended and we rose to leave an army of pre instructed help started closing the church and it was then I found that the big girl on the hill was saving the best ‘til last. We were standing in the center aisle looking towards the open main doors. The early evening sky was dark with an approaching storm and the light that was over the tunnel vision view town was breathtaking. We said goodbye to her in our own way and feeling safe and loved we found our car and departed. I would recommend this building to anyone who has a love for anything of beauty.