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Angelic architecture
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church is a beautiful sight no matter your religious beliefs
By Kathleen Ostrander

City residents build monuments to their government with ornate municipal buildings and courthouses. Some of the old opera houses or theatres have fantastic architectural features. But it is houses of worship that continue to amaze and astonish with the depth of their architectural details.

From quaint chapels to basilicas and cathedrals, Americans pour their architectural hearts and souls into the dwellings where they pray for peace and prosperity.

Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, 1725 S. Walnut St., is an outstanding example of gothic architecture. The design for the church was chosen in 1929 and is reflective of the architecture used in French cathedrals.

Rev. David Hoefler, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, said original plans for the church were changed slightly because the Great Depression hit right about the time the great fund drive to finance the structure began.

It still has its soaring minarets that "lift thine eyes to the heavens," but the planned cut granite inside walls are instead made of plaster, and marble columns inside the church were done as composition marble instead of dark marble pillars. The two side chapels were omitted and instead recessed alcoves are at each end of the transept. Church interiors generally have a consistent pattern with a long, central nave and a front portion or transept that looks like the arm of a cross from above.

The chancel is the front of the church, about three steps up from the nave where the congregation sits. Along each side of the nave at Blessed Sacrament, are pointed arches and the paint in the arches creates a series of rib vaults. Springfield architect Jim Graham, who is also a member of Blessed Sacrament parish, said acoustical products on the ceiling that look like raised filigree leaves and shapes are actually trompe l'oeil; they "fool the eye" into thinking there is depth and perspective in a flat object.

The colors used in the arches contrast with the honey-colored pews, and the color of the pews are complemented by the colors of the scagliola. Scagliola is an imitation marble made up of gypsum mixed with glue and finished off with a polished surface of marble or granite dust.

Graham, who worked with the committee that spearheaded a restoration, which was completed in 2005, said the scagliola had been varnished originally causing it to yellow. Hoefler said the columns looked amazing after they were cleaned. The restoration also included moving the baptismal font to the back and adding an immersion area, re-doing the porcelain tile and extensive cleaning.

Cleaning the areas on either side of the proscenium turned up a wonderful find.

"Twenty-five to 30 years ago," Graham said, "they covered up two frescos with wallpaper. We found that during the cleaning and were able to uncover them, and they were undamaged." The cleaning also removed years of dust, grime and soot from the stained glass windows, he said.

Graham said the architecture of the church repeats "threes" in many patterns, which is a symbol of the trinity but also a pleasing architectural design.

Hoefler said the point of gothic architecture is to "keep your eyes looking up - away from the darkness of the Earth to heavenly light." So, the huge stained-glass windows on each side of the nave pour light onto the congregation. The two rose windows on either side of the transept are dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart. Done by a studio in St. Louis, Hoefler said the direction of the light can change the color of the windows and as the day goes on, the rose and the blue in the windows deepen.

Of all the features at Blessed Sacrament, the altar and reredos are the most breath-taking. When the church was redone, a second altar was put closer to the nave so priests would face the congregation when they were saying Mass. The carved Last Supper scene on the second altar matches the carvings on the larger formal altar, which also holds the tabernacle. Carved angels on both sides of the altar look toward the heavens.

The altars, angels, saints and the depiction of the Crucifixion are all done in Botticino, a beige limestone material from Italy. At the foot of the depiction of the crucifixion scene in the reredos is a statue of a pelican feeding her young. It was left there after the restoration although it has been learned that the story behind the placement is incorrect.

Hoefler said it was originally thought that the pelican was pulling feathers from her chest and feeding her young with her own blood, which goes to the theological point of Christ offering up his flesh and blood.

 "Later it was determined that she was brushing pieces of fish off of her beak onto her chest and then pushing them to her young," Hoefler said. But the lovely pelican statue has sentimental value to the congregation, and it was included after the restoration.

Designed by architects, financed with love and cared for by the faithful, Blessed Sacrament reflects the character and care of its congregation.


Story published Friday, March 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 2 )

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