Mailbag 15: Vatican II and More

You started your week with the Project, so why not end it with the Project?

From the mailbag and reader George Nelson:

Friends First - - -a very big "Well Done" for your work. Your photos are clear and well set. And most important - they provide a record of a rapidly disappearing architectural history. While I may not agree with all your opinions - I greatly value your documentation.

Why, thank you kindly.

One of your most common critiques is the apparent repainting/remodeling of church interiors. For example - at St Micholas Tolentine you decry the remodeling, repainting and simplification carried out by "zealous pastor" for "no apparent reason". Well - there was a very big reason. In 1962 the church issued greatly revised orders, now known informally as Vatican II, for Mass formats, architectural & worship formats, and wide reaching "modernizations" - the largest of which was dumping Latin as the required language of the Mass. This lead to what amounts to wholesale vandalism in hundreds of Roman Catholic parish churches - and cathedrals - around the world, but most seriously in the United States and Canada.
And with our usual enthusiasm, North Americans took all to extremes. Magnificent marble altar pieces and reredi were jack-hammered to dust, irreplacable domestic and imported hand-carved wood work was axed and sent to the dump. Significant frescos were painted over. Figurative stained glass was destroyed in favor of ugly modern chunky stained glass. Architectural details were painted over or just plain thrown out.
Some parishes have begun, since about 2000 to re-evaluate this devastation and some have been restored, but many can no longer afford to even consider this action, and as diocese face increasing deficits, and local parishes are closed, fewer and fewer opportunities will exist. If you have opportunities to research pre-1960 church photos you'll easily notice the dramatic changes that occured between then and 1970. If you find those older pictures, they would be an excellent addition to your pages.

I've mentioned Vatican II from time to time, and if you want to know why the Project despises it, look no further. Not for the ecclesiastical points, but what those points did to our grand old churches. We've tackled the issue from time to time in our reviews--I don't have time to list all of the churches affected by it, but George gives a nice little summary of the damages typically involved.

Although Vatican II is mainly a Roman Catholic issue, Protestant churches haven't been exempt from wholesale and ill-advised moves, either. Witness the Episcopal Cathedral or one of our least-favorite churches, St. Stephen.

I don't quite buy that excuse for St. Nicholas of Tolentine, however. One, because the parish history attributes the renovation mainly as an excuse to make the church more comfortable, and two, because, tacky ornamentation aside, the place still more or less maintains the traditional design and nave / sanctuary divisions.

Other than that, I encourage you to keep up your efforts. I might suggest boning up on historic architectural style. And perhaps using a little more "gentle" language in your critiques. Maybe it would encourage those parishes considering improvements, better than only faulting past errors which they may well now be regretting.

Believe it or not, the Project has actually mellowed somewhat with age. Our earlier forays are more forceful than recent escapes, as we've embraced a more nuanced take on these buildings.

That said, we still wear our hearts and our opinions on our sleeves, and we don't hesitate to let you, the readers, know what we think. So what if the language isn't always parsed in the nicest way possible? A parish isn't going to give up on renovations because the Project didn't say "please" or "thank you." And sometimes these parishes need the little kick in the backside that only some sharply worded remarks can provide.