When we enter large, old buildings of extreme significance, such as museums, art galleries and churches, we are often filled with a sense of the sacred. Religious buildings, especially, are marvels of the architectural and artistic worlds because of their simple structure, yet complex ornamentation. Every detail is carefully constructed, not solely to create an aesthetically appealing structure, but to communicate nonverbal, subconscious messages to all observers. St. Francis Xavier Church is the largest Catholic church in my town. I had my religious education there, and I have always admired its architectural beauty. It is also a wonder of liturgical symbolism, as well as a place for the congregation to interact with one another with intimacy while also glorifying God, Jesus Christ, and numerous other Biblical figures with art and design elements.
Dennis R. McNamara writes that “liturgical art and architecture are properly glorified, perfected, ordered, radiant, lively, colorful, unified, polyvalent, and the built form of orthodoxy, which is the radiant glory of right belief” via the completeness, appropriate size, and clarity of God’s intentions (37). On the exterior of St. Francis Xavier Church, there is a niche in one of the walls, in which resides a statue of the saint himself, greeting visitors and overlooking a massive sculptural bell tower. The church bell is suspended between interlocking beams of wood reminiscent of Jesus’ Cross. The choice of St. Francis Xavier, once a famous missionary who traveled as far as India during his life, as the church’s namesake acknowledges the town’s origins as a conglomerate of mostly Polish immigrants. St. Francis Xavier spent much of his life not only baptizing immigrants, but also taking the time to teach those who had been hastily baptized without receiving a proper Catholic education. This plays into the role of the church as a place of learning for young Catholics, and as a place of worship for those who already practice the religion. In keeping with the old tradition of the use of bells, tolls the Bell of St. Francis Xavier right before the beginning of each Mass as a call to worship.
The Church’s form is triangular, both in plan and elevation, appealing to numerous levels of religious symbolism. The Church’s motto, all are welcome, is demonstrated by the shape. The main entrances of the church are located at triangle points, the door (which is a narrow point of entrance) opens into the spacious interior. This recalls Guardini’s religious symbolism of doors, which upon opening and allowing us entry, our eyes lift to take in the much larger space, “an analogy to infinity and eternity” (24). The interior of St. Francis Xavier Church is indeed quite spacious, as from the entrances the space broadens and opens into a huge interior room. In the back right corner of the building is the Choir section, surrounded by glass windows depicting St. Francis Xavier in cool colors. In the back left side, there is a small grotto filled with bright red candles, overseen by a statue of Mary holding the Christ child. There is another statue of Mary at the back center, the choir’s chamber and the grotto, gazing down the length of the processional aisle to the altar. Mainly vertical stained-glass windows (depicting various saints including John the Baptist and St. Joseph) line the side walls, reaching higher as you near the altar, which is especially unique. The altar is always bedecked with a large bouquet of flowers, the blooms changing depending on the time of year (and the events of the liturgical calendar). The ceiling of the church is covered by a long, undulating suspended acoustical shell dotted with lights that illuminate the congregation — a choice of decoration that could refer to the night sky speckled with stars to pierce the darkness and guide us, or perhaps to emulate the underside of ocean waves (given the presence of John the Baptist as one of the most featured saints in the Church). The altar of the church has only a few spotlights directed on the altar, lectern, and tabernacle. Mounted on the wall behind the altar, illuminated from behind, is an immense statue of Christ, crucified. The duality of light and darkness balances out the day and night, as well as the symbolism of religious Light (goodness) and Darkness (wickedness). The illuminated Christ behind the altar is symbolic of Jesus’ purpose — saving the world from the looming shadow of death and sin by being born in darkness, to ultimately banish it with light and righteousness. The constant presence of flowers on the altar is symbolic ornamentation representing God’s creation of life, and the beauty that life contributes to the world. The presence of the saints in the stained-glass windows and the statues of Mary highlight the importance of the figures’ presence in our religious lives. Along the walls beneath the stained-glass windows are dioramas of the Stations of the Cross, which relate to the relevance of the main focal point of the Church: the crucified Christ statue behind the altar. The religious icons depict the life of Jesus as a panorama of artistic renderings of Christ, figures important in his life, and his death and resurrection intended to both teach and to remind us not only of Jesus’ divinity, but of his humanity as well.
The designs of churches are meant to emulate one of the purposes of Christianity: to maintain order in a world where chaos is wont to destroy traditions and (architectural) integrity. The Church’s beauty comes from, according to McNamara, the reality of recognizing the church as a sacramental image of heaven. Through the uses of architecture and art, the sacred establishments try to emphasize spiritual symbolisms such as the unity of all times, the ideal and realized liturgy, the living and the dead, and the universal and the specific. By using icons such as figures in stained glass windows, choice ornamentation and design, and other artistic styles, the Church strives to enrich the lives of those who comprise the congregation while also immortalizing the Biblical figures and their lives through the veneration of their images by the liturgy.