(EDITOR'S NOTE: Henry H. Menzies is the architect who designed the new interior for Saint Augustine Cathedral. This article is his description of the project, which provides a virtual tour for readers who have not yet visited the renewed and restored church.)
Architect's Comments on the Renovation of the Cathedral of St. Augustine
by Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA. December 30, 2003
The challenge to design a new interior for the Cathedral was a formidable one. The original gothic church, built in 1865, was not designed as a cathedral. This presented various problems which could not have been considered at that time. Furthermore, it was not possible to either retrieve or duplicate the original artwork and accouterments since most had been removed and/or destroyed in the 1978 renovation without any record of the original work available. Consequently, Bishop Lori asked me to "start from scratch" and to bring back something of the gothic splendor of the original church in a beautiful, contemporary vernacular so that while respecting the rich architectural legacy of the past we employ the language and technology of today. Furthermore he requested that we follow the latest liturgical guide-lines, revitalize veneration for the Holy Eucharist by giving prominence to the altar and the tabernacle and provide space in the Sanctuary for the special Cathedral ceremonies, especially the Rite of Ordination. Also he wished to recall something of the "teaching" aspects of the great cathedrals of the past where many of the elements were designed not only to serve the liturgy but also to instruct the faithful in the truths of the Catholic Faith through iconography, a "catechism" in wood, stone, bronze and mosaic leading us from the materiality of things seen to the immateriality of the unseen God.
First of all, the solution to these requirements suggested making the Altar the genesis of the entire design since it is the place of the Holy Mass and the principle object in the Cathedral. The top of the Altar is of dark green marble with the gilded inscription: PASCHA NOSTRUM IMMOLATUS EST CHRISTUS (Christ Our Passover Is Sacrificed For Us). The base is a combination of limestone and Breccia Pernice marble. The floor immediately surrounding it is of parquet wood to give importance to the altar as distinct from the surrounding marble flooring. Since it must stand alone in a high space, it required a "housing" to affirm its significance. This was accomplished by constructing above it a 12-ft square, 24 ft. high bronze Baldachino (or Baldachin) inspired by the one in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City but, of course, on a much smaller scale. This is the traditional "tent" structure employed to give the Altar protection and prominence and in this case would be useful for containing the required light fixtures while supporting the wooden crucifix suspended directly over it. The results is a realistic portrayal of the Sacrifice of Calvary directly above the Altar where that sacrifice is reinacted each time the Holy Mass is said. Surmounting the Baldachino is a bronze Fleche (a slender spire) surmounted by an original 3-ft bronze statue of St. Gabriel blowing his trumpet at the Last Judgement.
The Sanctuary platform, three steps above the Nave floor, was extended out to allow more space for liturgical functions, especially ordinations. The flooring is of alternating dark and light green marble tiles laid in a diamond, checkerboard pattern. The bases, trim and secondary platforms are of dark green marble. In order to give it the importance it deserves, the Tabernacle, housing the Real Presence of Our Lord, is located on the main axis of the Cathedral on a platform directly behind the Altar. It is placed on a small marble table with a dark green top containing the gilded inscription: AVE VERUM CORPUS (Hail True Body). The Tabernacle itself is an original design (by the architect) and finished in gold with Christ the King depicted on the door. It is set as a jewel in front of the central section of a large, 24 foot high Triptych.
This three-paneled Triptych functions as the Reredos (or ornamental screen) for the Sanctuary. The upper portion of the central panel is composed of pointed gothic arches fabricated in Honduran Mahogany and serve as a "foreground" for the contrasting monochromatic blue mosaic panels recessed in the "background" (with low illumination). Since the intersecting gothic arches recall that of trees, the result is analogous to a view of a distant pale blue sky through a forest, an allusion of Heaven. In the lower portion there is a projecting canopy over the Tabernacle. Since there are always myriads of angels adoring Our Lord, two angels and the dove of the Holy Spirit are depicted in the mosaic panel directly behind the Tabernacle. The mosaic panels to the left and right each depict two adoring angels which are facing the Tabernacle. The adjacent panels of the Triptych are lower in height than the central panel. In the middle of the left panel is a door leading to the Chapel. The gothic arch motif of wood and mosaic is repeated on each side of the door and incorporate elongated, gothic bas-relief wood statues of the Evangelists St. Matthew and St. Mark. The right panel is of similar design, however that door leads to the Sacristy and the bas-reliefs are of St. Luke and St. John. The symbol for each Evangelist is carved into the base of the statue: the winged man for St. Matthew, the winged lion for St. Mark, the winged ox for St. Luke and the eagle for St. John. [A carving of the eagle of St. John is also used on the Ambo.] All of the figures in this central panel are facing the Tabernacle. Two small Credence Tables of marble and limestone are located to the right and left of the Triptych.
The Cathedra [ chair or throne] of the Bishop is located to the left of and on the axis with the Altar. "Cathedra" is the word from which we get the word "Cathedral", that is, the chair of the Bishop. This tradition goes back to the earliest days of Christianity commencing with the famous "chair of St. Peter", the first Bishop, in his Basilica in Rome. The chair represents the Episcopal authority of the bishop, a tradition which has been handed down from the time of the Apostles through an unbroken line of successive bishops to Bishop Lori today. The chair itself is an antique and has been used by previous bishops of Bridgeport. The chair rests on a stepped, marble platform. Behind the chair is an arched wood panel recalling the Triptych design and containing an ornamental, gothic tapestry. It is positioned so that the Bishop can see and be seen by the maximum number of people. On each side are spaces for chairs for assistants. Directly behind the Cathedra panel is an open wood Screen serving as a backdrop and unifying element with the Triptych. A matching screen is located on the opposite side. On the right of the Sanctuary is the Ambo (or pulpit). The base is of limestone and the upper portion of Honduran Mahogany wood in the gothic style. It is raised slightly to give visibility to the speaker. When necessary, portable lecterns can be placed in other locations.
On the far right of the Sanctuary is the Carrara marble statue of the Holy Family resting on a marble base of Breccia Pernice. [Carrara is the same quarry in Italy used by Michelangelo.} Behind the statue is a panel of wood and mosaics reflecting the gothic motif of the Triptych. On the far left is another Carrara marble statue of St. Augustine. This unique statue, designed specifically for the Cathedral and carved in Italy, was inspired by a famous fresco of the saint in Florence by Botticelli. He is seated in his study with a book and his mitre on a table and he gazing with devotion towards the right. The reason for this pose is to direct the congregation's attention to the Altar, the heart of the Church. This unusual sculpture, honoring the Cathedral's patron saint, also rests on a base of Breccia Pernice marble. It is directly in front of a wood and mosaic panel identical to the one on the right side. Both of these elegant, low-lit panels provide a rich and contrasting background for the two statues and unite the entire Sanctuary design into one unified whole.
The color scheme for the interior painting presented a challenge since the intersecting ceiling arches, columns and various gothic details are extremely complex and needed to be articulated in a varied and pleasing way while respecting the gothic tradition. The curved portion of the ceiling was painted in a deep aqua (blue-green) color, similar to that of the Basilica in Assisi, Italy. The ribs of the arches are painted in a combination of the tan and gold and the capitals are rendered in gold with a tan setting. The vertical walls are of off-white. The flooring of the Nave is of alternating salmon and gray granite tiles laid in a diamond, checkerboard pattern. The large central aisle of the Nave, however received special treatment with repetitive granite circles of deep red marching down the aisle starting with a special "expanded" design around Font at the entry and terminating at the Sanctuary steps with a double row of circles within a wider aisle designed for various liturgical functions, weddings and funerals. The Vestibule flooring is also of granite in a similar design to the Nave. All of the marble, granite and limestone come from Italy.
The main lighting in the Nave is from down-lights in the upper ceiling augmented by ten new chandeliers, specially designed for the Cathedral by the architect, which are 6 ft high and contain amber translucent glass panels. The special lighting for the Altar, Triptych, Cathedra, Ambo and Statues are hidden within the Baldachino or behind arches.
The new exterior doors are of white oak in a special gothic design. Above the central door in the transom is a carved wood banner. In the center is a carving of the coat of arms of the Diocese of Bridgeport and the inscription in gilded letters reads: CATHEDRAL CHURCH of ST. AUGUSTINE. Outside, on either side of the central doors are new pole lights. The front façade is fully illuminated at night. The new interior doors are composed of wood frames with transparent safety glass insets containing etchings of the coat of arms of Pope John Paul II, the Diocese of Bridgeport and Bishop William Lori.
The Font for baptisms (which also serves as a holy water font) is in the center of the main aisle right inside the Vestibule door and is composed of a solid block of dark green marble. This placement stresses the fact that Baptism is the entrance to the Christian life. To accentuate the Font's importance, it is surmounted by an ornamental gothic wood canopy in a unique, circular design containing a down-light and the special circular design in the granite floor mentioned above.
The existing pews have been stripped and re-finished and new seat cushions have been added. An area for the handicapped is designated up front on the left side. Most of the beautiful old stained glass windows were repaired and renovated and new protective glass added to the exterior. The organ was removed and completed renovated and the pipes were re-finished in a muted gold color. The wainscot in the Nave, the balcony railing and the wood organ enclosure have been stripped and re-finished. Two new handicapped-accessible toilets have been constructed which have access to the Vestibule. A complete new slate roof over the entire church has been installed. The Stations of the Cross, which were rescued from Saint Frances of Rome Church in Bronx, NY, were exquisitely re-finished."