Church of the Assumption Restored by Conrad Schmitt Studios

Photos by OC-Travel
One of the oldest and most beautiful altars in the American Midwest is the high altar of the church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.  This phenomenal work of interior finishing should forever redound to the credit and honor of the first pioneer parishioners who created such a lasting work of destiny on the frontier.  The whole scene evokes deep spiritual emotion and recently was retouched and made to look shiny and new by Conrad Schmitt Studios.

The Assumption is a monumental church, founded by German emigrants who dreamed big dreams, left everything, flocked to the new frontier in search of work and found a new life, minus the beautiful churches of Europe.  The pastorship was placed under the care of the Order of St. Benedict with Benedictine monks from St. Vincent's Abbey in Pennsylvania who studied and knew well the tradition of church architecture and sought to re-create in the New World a church that would rival any new church in the See of Munich.  Coupled by grace and the human spirit amid a vibrant and burgeoning Catholic population, they got to work on building something great.

Designs for the present church were drawn up by the Munich architect Joseph Reidl who was the court architect to the ruling Wittelsbach family of Bavaria.  The marvelous plans were so ambitious the pastor soon had a nervous breakdown.  The design was based on Friedrich von Gärtner's famous Ludwigskirche in Munich that was completed in 1844.  Upon its completion, the Munich church quickly became a popular Romanesque model that strongly influenced other new church constructions in North America.  The result in St. Paul, Minnesota is a simplified version of German Romanesque Revival.  It is hard to believe the new church was considered somewhat severe at the time for being a bit too plain for Victorian tastes.  Within just a few years the Romanesque Revival style dominated both residential, commercial and much religious architecture from about the year 1880.  The characteristic motif is well-known - the round arch stands out, repeated in powerful array with carved, intricate floral patterns a common embellishment seen emanating from the altars.  The original parishioners were told they would bear the great burden of the building fund with comparative ease if each and every one did his part.  Their pastor told them this, while referencing the zealous rivalry displayed in all ages by Catholic generations as they built in the past mighty temples to heaven.   The cornerstone was laid in 1871.

A stunning church was created - without a transept, in basilica style - showcasing three aisles leading to the front altars.  A massive footprint was chosen with steeples 210 feet high, a center aisle with a height of 60 feet, 185 feet in length, and 85 feet in width.  The vaulted ceilings soar while resting on massive stone pillars, leading the eyes to the main altar in the sanctuary with its breathtaking ceiling depicting the Assumption of Our Lady, with arched stained glass windows imparting a beautiful light into the sanctuary.

In 1883 the statues adorning the main altar were added to enhance the overall beauty, each provided by the societies of the parish in honor of their patrons.  Thus the statues of St. Ann (with Our Lady) and St. Rose of Lima, St. Clement and St. Aloysius and the four angels.  In the course of time other larger statues were added of Sts. Peter and Paul.  The oldest is the main statue of Our Lady carrying the child Jesus, which most notably came from the first church that existed before the present church was built.  Other statues appeared at this time on the side altars, including the statue of St. Benedict that was dedicated and installed on the altar on the left (recently removed and replaced with a "new" looking statue of Our Lady, to the consternation of parishioners).

The sanctuary was decorated in the summer of 1887 at the cost of $2,000, donated by a widow who was a parishioner.  The magnificent image of the Assumption of Our Lady was painted by Felix Falkenbach, a world-renowned artist from Munich, covering the entire upper part of the apse.  The image has been significantly altered over the years during the course of a few separate restorations.  In the center was the empty tomb of Our Lady on Mt. Zion (this was later painted over with a scene of distant Jerusalem), surrounded by the grief-stricken apostles, while Our Lady is assumed into heaven, body and soul. 

The church was built to last forever as a public profession of faith.  From the beginning it was a city landmark recognized by its two stately twin towers soaring into the skyline.  The foundation was made of Lake Superior quarried stone.  The exterior is of local gray limestone laid on coursed ashlar with a roof covered in slate.  The completed church was consecrated on October 18, 1874 with 3,000 eyewitnesses who walked around the interior, before pews were installed.     

Recently the entire interior of the church was refreshened, a $2 million project that has wakened and gathered the attention of the hearts of parishioners and all those who have in the past been any way connected with the Assumption.  Of course there has been no lack of criticism.  Some objected to the new look - depicting the statues as if they were new, instead of the previous more sober, dusty-antique look.  Also, the floor is too bright.  Some of the additions were an improvement, including stencil work.  I myself would have liked to have seen the star-covered ceiling restored that I recall from my childhood.

Unfortunately the original sanctuary layout was "wreckovated" (a harsh metonym, I know) during a 1988 renovation under the pastorate of Fr. Fred Mertz, a well-liked priest who was pastor from 1976 - 1988.  The much-needed $300,000 renovation regretfully included this "changing of platforms" as Fr. Mertz described it.  Preservationists were not happy.  The end result was the repositioning of the form of the sanctuary into this awkward-looking, box-like, suburban creation.  In those years exaggerated silhouettes were popular in church renovations, adding super-wide sanctuaries that were known for their voluminousness.  By this time of liturgical and architectural experimentation the strict phases of adhering to the classical canons of design had spent their force.  The cost was an estimated additional $50,000.  This unfortunate addition was installed in front of the stairs leading to the altar (the original stairs still exist, albeit they are now under the platform).  Below are two images that show how the high altar looked from the 1988 renovation until the most recent renovation just a few years ago.  

Thankfully, a future pastor in clearer days will restore the sanctuary to the original design intended by the original architect (it can be easily restored...the several pews that were removed have been kept safely in storage, today in the old school built in 1864).  Archbishop Ireland himself did ordinations here once in the original sanctuary, ample enough in size, resting 3.5 feet higher than the floor of the main church, forming a semi-circle of adequate liturgical space measuring 25 feet in depth and 30 feet in width.  Indeed, we live in a time of restoration, bringing to mind the words of the Catholic intellectual and activist de Oliveira, "If the Revolution is disorder, the Counter-Revolution is the restoration of Order."

The majestic view of the sanctuary seen before the obtrusive 1988 addition, without the clumsy extension of the sanctuary floor.  Notice there are six steps leading up to the sanctuary?  In the Judeo tradition six is an imperfect number while seven is a complete, perfect number.  The ascent up to the sanctuary of six steps is made perfect by the seventh, the triune ascent to the altar of sacrifice in the holy of holies, made perfect by the sacrifice itself.  Remember, everything has meaning - there is symbolism everywhere.  Jesus is the seventh and last step!

A wedding photo from fifty years ago depicting the original staircase up to the sanctuary (today all but the top two steps are covered by the extension of the sanctuary).  Many great ones walked these stairs to worship, since the 1870s.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.