The Renovation of St. Aloysius

by Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA
Published in Stained GlassFall 1996

Many parishioners of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, believed that their church resembled more an auditorium than a place of worship. They felt that while there was nothing wrong with the fan-shaped pews with seating for 1000 people, the U-shaped elements surrounding the Nave, the stained glass windows or the skylight above the altar, nevertheless the sanctuary itself was bleak and oppressive, with a large overhang concealing organ pipes and seeming to loom over the choir. Some felt that the curved blank wall was stark and unappealing, and many complained about the lack of artwork.

Pastor Msgr., J. Peter Cullen initiated an extensive study to identify problems with his congregation's church building and to discover means by which those problems could be solved. Msgr. Cullen wanted to be sure very parishioner had a chance to make comments and suggestions; following an extremely thorough inquiry into the redesign of the church, the challenge to architects was clear: a total interior transformation of the church.

The architects, Butler Rogers Baskett & Henry Hardinge Menzies, Associated Architects, knew that the primary need was to create some kind of artistic focus in the church which would convey a sense of the sacred. The parishioners wanted a small Blessed Sacrament Chapel for use by small groups, in which the tabernacle and the confessionals could be located, and the Music Committee requested considerable space in the sanctuary for the choir and for the future installation of a track organ. There were other pressing needs: the circulation from the two rear entrances has to be rerouted to avoid distraction, and new sacristies and mechanical rooms had to fit in this area. Also, the sanctuary space needed to be enlarge, and the floor required flattening out.

"As designer, I sensed that all of these various needs could coalesce only if they were integrated around the primary need: a strong central focus directly behind the altar," said architect Henry Hardinge Menzies. "It should be high, light and contain beautiful artwork; in a word, a reredos [an ornamental partition behind an altar.] After all, the idea of a reredos has historically been the way architects had achieved such a focus as a means of introducing the sacred. After conversations with Msgr. Cullen, we concluded that the chapel should be located on the main axis of the altar directly behind such a reredos. The question then was what exactly should it be and who could do it?"

"There was only one person I knew who could design something exciting and beautiful enough," Menzies continued, "and that was Frederick Cole, a world-renowned designer for Rohlf's Stained Glass Studio, who has designed a number of magnificent church windows for me in the past. Later, when he and Peter Rohlf agreed to undertake the project, I knew that we were in business. I knew that all the other needs, although not necessarily easy, were bound to fall into place because the whole job depended on that reredos being a masterpiece. Anything else would produce just another ordinary church renovation.

Rohlf and Menzies sent rough sketches of what they envisioned to Cole in England. Cole responded to the stained glass reredos, which was to be viewed from both sides with a one-inch scale watercolor. "His design more than exceeded our expectations," said Menzies.

The reredos window represents the sacrament of the Eucharist and measures 12' wide by 19' tall; extra height was gained by eliminating the overhang above the choir. In the center of the lower tier is a gold tabernacle resting on a marble table, which projects through to the chapel on the other side. This tabernacle, an original design fabricated by Talleres de Arte Grande in Spain, has doors on both sides and is surrounded by a panel of translucent bronze glass, on which are etched 12 stars representing the 12 apostles.

In the center of the reredos is a representation of the Tree of Life, inspired by a design on a sarcophagus which dates from the first Christian millennium in Ravenna, Italy. On either side of this representation is a stained glass panel, each of which depicts flowing figures of two colorful angels facing the tabernacle. Above these is an arched walnut canopy, which serves as a kind of baldachino protecting the tabernacle. In the upper tier there is a large rose window. In the center the chalice and host are depicted; surrounding these are a crown of thorns and a grapevine. Radiating from the center are 12 traditional Catholic symbols of the Christian faith. The rose window is surrounded by six more angels similar in style and color to the ones below.

To accentuate the rereads window, the lateral walls and two flanking columns are covered with terra-cotta-colored "Breccia Pernice" marble from Italy. The four structural steel columns were also sheathed in the same marble.

In order to establish an architectural vocabulary, the projecting ceiling above the rereads is in the form of shallow barrel vault. This vaulting pattern was repeated in the twin tripartite bays created by plaster engaged columns. The bays compose the outer walls of the sanctuary and contain, on the recessed plane, six five-foot diameter rose windows above walnut wainscots and doors below. These six rose windows represent the other six sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders and the Sacrament of the Sick.

The sanctuary floor was raised to the height of the existing altar platform and covered with green Empress marble from Taiwan. The field of the floor is composed of a checkerboard pattern of light and dark marble. The base and the steps down to the Nave are of dark marble. Below the reredos is a platform also finished in marble and raised two steps above the sanctuary floor.

To the left of the altar is a walnut ambo; balancing this to the right is the relocated baptismal font with a rotating bronze top. At the edge of the sanctuary platform are wrought-iron rails designed to imitate the low arches of the tripartite bays. The walnut minister's chairs, built by Martin Dodge of England, are located on the left side, while the chairs for the choir are on the right. Hanging above the altar is a crucifix composed of majestic five-foot tall wood corpus carved by Ferdinand Steuflesser of Italy and a cross of walnut fabricated by Phil DeFelice.

"The redesign of the ceiling was difficult," Menzies said. "The problem was how to marry the old ceiling, consisting of elongated splayed forms which radiated out from the skylight over the entire nave, and the new pitched sanctuary ceiling. This was solved by the creation of a kind of 'horse shoe collar' in plaster which gathers the radiating forms altogether and makes an intelligible transition with the new ceiling. The exposed area of the existing skylight was reduced to a simple rectilinear form."

The central reredos window also serves as the reredos for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, directly opposite the sanctuary. The chapel seats about 40, and the parishioners face the window.

The architectural treatment of the chapel mirrors that of the church. The lateral marble walls and the tabernacle table continue into the chapel; two marble-sheathed columns flank the window. At the base there is another marble platform which accommodates the movable walnut altar.

On each side of the chapel are located rooms of reconciliation. In the center of the rear wall is an 8'x10' stained glass window also designed by Cole. This window represents the Bible story which relates the moment when two of the disciples recognized Christ at Emmaus. The inscription reads, "They recognized Him in the breaking of the bread."

"From the beginning we knew that lighting would be of paramount importance in order for the reredos window to be visible from both sides," Menzies said. "We also knew that it would be impossible to produce consistent overall lighting both day and night and from both sides. We found [lighting] was relatively easy when we came to the six small rose windows in the sanctuary, which we artificially lit by bouncing light off white panels." After discussions with lighting consultant Steve Mesh, a plan was devised to handle the four lighting conditions.

Cole's design and use of light colors in the Emmaus window allow natural daylight to come through that window, illuminating the reredos window from the chapel side. Fortunately, the Emmaus window faces south, the best source for natural light. At night, artificial light washes the sloped ceiling of the chapel directly behind the rose portion of the reredos window; the lower part of the window is illuminated by light bounced from the alcoves at the back of the chapel, directly behind the reredos window.

The chapel side of the reredos window is illuminated in daytime with natural light from the skylight directly above the sanctuary and from the clear glass vestibules at the front of the church. Track lights are recessed in two of the columns flanking the reredos window for nighttime illumination.

Menzies says that even with all the planning which went into the lighting, "we could not have possibly anticipated the various captivating effects that this lighting would produce. There is an almost mystical aura to this window that is unique for stained glass. The window is never static. There is a fascination with the way the images seem to move and shift, as if the angels were floating in space. This is caused by the constantly changing play of both natural and artificial light when viewed from either the church or the chapel. Even without any lighting, the patterns of the leaded tracery visibly against the darkness produce a sense of mystery. On entering the church the total effect of the window is remarkable because the transparency of the window seems to beckon to something enigmatic beyond. Since the tabernacle is surrounded by almost clear bronze glass, it seems to float in space, giving the impression that the figure of Christ (visible from the Emmaus window in the chapel behind) is standing immediately behind the tabernacle. This was an unplanned effect whose liturgical symbolism is immediately apparent."

The church was dedicated on the evening of December 8, 1995 by Bishop Edward Egan to a packed congregation. "Everyone involved has been convinced that it was truly a successful project, of which we can all be proud," Menzies said. "This is due to the fact that from the beginning, we had whole-hearted, enthusiastic cooperation of every single person associated with the project. The climax of all our work came during a rather theatrical but unforgettable moment during the dedication ceremony. All the lights were low during the first part of the liturgy. At one point, when the altar boys lit the six altar candles, all of the lights illuminating the stained glass window turned on. First there was a hush in the congregation and then a unanimous gasp of awe. At that moment we knew for certain that the transformation had been a success·due in no small measure to a masterpiece stained glass."