English Gothic at Holy Family in St. Louis Park, Minnesota

Photos by OC-Travel 

Located in a quiet suburb of Minneapolis is the parish church of the Holy Family in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  This beautiful building, built in 1960, boasts several unique treasures not commonly seen in other Catholic churches in this part of the world.  Originally inspired by the famous Walsingham Shrine in Norfolk, England, the church's architecture draws subtly from various other prominent English churches, including St. George's Cathedral, Southwark.      

The final version of the church is a delightful and successful attempt to mix various influences, giving an impression of authenticity by using a variety of English styles that can be commonly found in great medieval churches in England.  These include the Gothic revival style, Tudor-derived stylistic patterns, the modern Arts and Crafts (a bit like what is seen at St. Catherine of Siena in Manhattan), and the insightful influence of Pugin, an English architect who helped pioneer the Gothic Revival style in the nineteenth century. Despite obvious budgetary constraints at the time of construction, the suburban parishioners of Holy Family came together and built something truly remarkable, unique and lasting.  Below is a painting of the much-loved priest who built the church, Fr. Francis C. Wilkins (pastor of Holy Family from 1947-1965).

Below is an architectural print of the front elevation by the architect, James B. Hills.      

The Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota is in possession of the original architectural plans of the church from the architect, James B. Hills (1888-1979).  The collection is called the "Hills, Gilbertson Papers."  The name of the firm at the time of construction was Hills, Gilbertson and Fisher Architects with offices located near the church at 6009 Wayzata Blvd. (this building was actually torn down in late 2020).  The architect, who was born in New York and lived west of Minneapolis in Delano (where his wife was from), built other similar churches in Minnesota in the English country Gothic style during a long career that spanned over 50 years.  Some of these include Sacred Heart in Robbinsdale, Christ the King in Minneapolis, Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, St. Francis in Rochester and Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel in Duluth.  An old photo of the church from the time of its completion can be seen below.    

The exterior of the church in some ways resembles a fort, with crenellated ramparts, reminding the faithful of the Church keeping vigil and watch like a faithful sentinel.   These same towers bring to mind the towers of a city gate, a consolation to all who enter.  This design feature was borrowed by the architect from the original east window of the ruined Walsingham Abbey in England.  For those who visit Holy Family with faith there is a perceived relationship with history and between the finished church and the heavenly city, visually connecting earth with heaven, as with the liturgy.     

One of the most precious works of art in the church is the irresistible little statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, seen below.  Painted in a beautiful splash of ebullient colour (a style known as polychromy, the art of painting in several colors), the statue highlights both the Madonna with Child as well as the accompanying canopy over their shared throne.   The stencil work highlights medieval foliage and colored decorative flowers, providing for a magnificent symphony of color.  The original medieval prototype of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is said to have been brought to London during the Protestant Rebellion and publicly burnt after the King, Henry VIII, had abjured his Catholic Faith and broke with Christian unity.  Thankfully the 20th century saw the restoration of devotion to Our Lady under this title, with a new substitute statue being carved at Oberammergau, Germany in 1954 and enthroned in Walsingham.  The design was based upon the singular surviving image of the original, taken from the medieval seal of the pre-Reformation Walsingham Priory.  This copy seen below is one of only a few statues of Our Lady under this title enshrined in the United States.  Our Lady wears the Saxon crown that denotes the date of the founding of the Shrine in 1061.  When Pope Leo XIII signed the rescript for the re-founding of the venerable Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham he prophesied, "When England goes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England."     

Another unique and rare artistic rendition seen in the church is the large hanging crucifix known as a "rood cross," a triumphal cross suspended from the ceiling above the entrance to the chancel, seen below.  Even its massive shadow is symbolic.  This decoration was common in many late medieval churches in England, displaying a life-sized crucifix on the central axis of the church, generally at the chancel arch.  In this rendition Christ's crown of thorns is depicted as golden, harkening to the crown of his kingship.  

Standing with him can be seen Our Lady, with hands extended in prayer, and St. John, holding a chalice, symbolically receiving the precious blood of Our Lord.  The four Evangelists are represented on each of the four corners of the cross.  The garments of both Our Lady and St. John have beautiful gold-leaf stenciling.  The rood cross is a rare sight on this side of the pond, except in Anglican, Episcopalian or Anglo-Catholic churches.      

Two other rare sights in the church are the choir stalls with choir screens, located in the chancel.  Choir stalls are a very rare sight in Catholic parishes in North America.  These special pews were originally occupied by the Servants of Mary (teaching sisters also known as the Servite sisters from Ladysmith, Wisconsin).   These dedicated nuns taught in the elementary school attached to the parish.  When the church was constructed the nuns sat here for Mass.  To accommodate this arrangement, there were actually two separate altar rails, one for the lay faithful below and the other for the sisters closer to the altar.    Today altar boys occupy the pews.  The original altar rails, in the Arts and Crafts style, have been retired and one replaced.  The choir screens display hand-carved wooden medallions, with gold leaf on oak, illustrating symbols of the Holy Eucharist.    

Below is the architect's late 1950's drawing for the main altar.  At some point the original canopy was removed.  During a 2003 renovation the sanctuary was updated with a marble reredos, seen today.  The original architect, James B. Hills, was fond of simplex marble altars, often in Art Deco style, adorned with a simple cross.  Fortunately the original altar has been preserved intact.     

In the photo below can be seen the gold tabernacle and portable wooden altar seen today, donated in 2006.  Also seen below is the new wooden and marble reredos with wooden buttresses added to enhance the stained glass window, donated in 2003.  Three very small carved emblems can be seen under the window that depict the Holy Trinity: the Father (a hand), the Son (a lamb) and the Holy Spirit (a dove).  Slightly below on either side are ornamental designs carved in architectural tracery with gold edging that depict on each side a quatrefoil.  This is an ornamental cross design of four lobes consisting of four partially overlapping circles of the same diameter.  This is a popular Gothic and ancient Christian symbol of the Cross, symbolic of the transformation of the Cross into the Resurrection.  

In typical English fashion the apse is flat with pointed Gothic window, depicting the Holy Family and the Blessed Trinity.  The window depicts two "trinity" images - that of the Holy Family in Nazareth, as well as the mystery of the Holy Trinity in heaven and earth.  Also depicted in the background is the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth.  While England has given her share to the world's common stock of ideas in the arts, in religion, and more, she has also achieved prominence with the legend and folklore surrounding the shrine in Walsingham.  There it is said in the year 1061 a pious English noblewoman by the name of Richeldis de Faverches had a vision of Our Lady that led to the construction of a shrine in Walsingham called the "Holy House," a place of pilgrimage modeled after the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth.  For this reason Walsingham came to be known as "England's Nazareth."  All the windows at Holy Family were created locally in Winona, Minnesota, at the studio of Reinarts

The original high altar, seen above, boasts an extra wide footpace section of the floor for easier genuflecting.  The ambry, seen below, holds the three holy oils kept in amphorae (olea sacra), seen in the sanctuary hidden behind a pillar.

The Stations of the Cross are modern creations, yet each beautifully hand-painted with great detail, every image a veritable work of art.

The simple interior of the nave with vaulted wooden ceiling is seen below.  The nave (from the Latin word navis meaning "ship," is a word used in the Bible to speak of the Church).  The ceiling here clearly resembles the bottom hull or body of a ship.  The Catholic Church is sometimes referred to as the "barque" of St. Peter.  The members of the Church are in the same boat; even amid stormy waters the boat never sinks.       

The choir loft and organ can be seen in the rear of the church, in above photo.  In the photo below, the nave and sanctuary.

Although Holy Family parish was established in 1926, the faithful had to wait until 1960 for the church to be built.  For ten years the church had been located in the school, a church-school combination that was built in 1951.  The total cost of the new church was $400,000 and was finally paid off in 1982.  The basement was completed in 1984.  

Carving of the Holy Family statue and Gothic niche, both exquisite works of inestimable value, hand-carved in the United States and unveiled in 2013.  Wonderful contributions to the continued mandate of beautifying the church, thanks to the artistic eye of the pastor, our good friend Fr. Joseph Johnson.  Photo of Baptism with Fr. Johnson seen below.    

Below is the beautiful altar rail from 2013, the creation of a local artist named Paul Sirba, nephew of the former Bishop of Duluth, Minnesota.  Paul had apprenticed under the Greek Orthodox master woodcarver Konstantinos Papadakis of Minneapolis.  The rail provides a perfect accent to the sanctuary and complements well the interior decoration.  Paul continues to beautify the church interior with his generous skill and time.      

Below is the sanctuary crucifix with heavy red background and golden bas-reliefs, symbolizing the four evangelists.  

Stylized lily composed of three petals bound together, symbolic of the Holy Trinity and symbol from the royal arms of France, a nod to St. Louis, whom the city of St. Louis Park is named after.   

The following icons are rare Renaissance treasures displayed in the sanctuary, with equally interesting frames, admirably preserved.  The first appears to be an original on wood.  The second a copy possibly of the Umbrian school and the third a copy of perhaps a work by Perugino, a teacher of Raphael.    

The following photos illustrate a few Tuscan ceramics adorning the interior walls of the church.  The first and third are surrounded by beautiful frames that are noteworthy - the style of frame is majolica, a type of pottery.  

View of the side aisles, an architectural design hallmark of the architect (with rectangular side windows), designed by James B. Hills.  

The side altars are ennobling, with one depicting an interpretation of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico with fitting medieval-style retable, painted in gold.  The original version of the image is located at the Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence, painted in fresco.  The second altar displays a copy of the Divine Mercy image from Poland.

Outside views.  The thickness of the walls adjoining the main doorway capture well the feeling of entering an old medieval church, where the entrance wall is typically thick.  The exterior is of Kasota limestone from southern Minnesota.    

Hopefully readers will be inspired to visit the Walsingham Shrine in England, the same church that inspired this beautiful church in the New World.  The excursion is an easy day trip from London - if you leave early enough in the morning (or for overnights check out the Black Lion Hotel in the historic medieval village of Walsingham -- they have 6 rooms for rent).  When Catholic pilgrims visit Walsingham, they begin at a little medieval church called the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham, also known as the "Slipper Chapel," located in a rural hamlet called Houghton St. Giles, next to the village of Walsingham.  There they typically begin with Mass and then take their shoes off for the traditional barefoot walk to the village of Walsingham, located just over a mile on paved roads, where they stop and pray at the open air ruins of the old Walsingham Abbey.  The original shrine was despoiled in 1538 and has yet to be restored to Catholic hands (today the site is private property, open as a sort of park to visit; there is an entrance fee and some of the ruins of the old abbey shrine are visible).  The site is about 118 miles from London by the old pilgrim's way.  Trains can be taken from King's Cross railway station in London to King's Lynn railway station in Norfolk (the same train the Queen takes every winter to her country residence, Sandringham House).  A taxi ride from the train station will take you to the Basilica.  Be sure to grab lunch at the Black Lion Hotel for an ale and proper English pub grub after the walk and visit to the old ruins.  The purpose of the Shrine at Walsingham is summed up in the following words from a medieval ballad, denoting it as a place of memory, the celebration of a memorial of joy, the joy of the lowly maid of Nazareth.   

"Where shall be had in memorial
The great joy of my Salutation,
First of my joys, ground and original
Root of mankind's Redemption,
When Gabriel gave me relation
To be Mother through humility
And God's Son conceive in virginity."

-Pynson Ballad, c. 1490

The author with Fr. George Welzbacher, the much loved and esteemed weekend assistant at the parish.

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