Belmont Abbey Basilica Renovation (1964-1965)


The Abbey Basilica of Maryhelp in Belmont, North Carolina is a modified Gothic Revival structure influenced by Chartres Cathedral, the high point and model of the French Gothic.   

It is an important Catholic landmark in the American south, dedicated to Our Lady under the venerable title of "Mary, Help of Christians."  It is the central structure of both Belmont Abbey and its adjoining college campus.  

For generations the Abbey was at the forefront of Catholic life in North Carolina.  Before the Diocese of Charlotte was established in 1971, the Abbey had the status of "Nullius," meaning the Abbot acted as the ordinary.  This was the case until 1972.  The abbey church acted as the cathedral from 1910 until 1977 (the only abbey-cathedral in US history).  In 1998 it was named a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II.  


The Belmont Abbey monastery has a long history.  It was founded in 1876 by pioneer Benedictine monks from St. Vincent's in Pennsylvania.  The land purchased was a working farm (that was sadly disbanded in 1962).  The monks built a proper monastery and college on a tight budget with the chapel at the center of the campus.  

The Detroit architect Peter Dederichs (1856-1924) built the Abbey chapel and the later phases of the project were financed by St. Katherine Drexel, SBS (1858-1955) a wealthy nun and heiress of a mass fortune who was eager to help in any way in the south.  She gave $4,000 and was able to visit the Abbey to see the completed church on March 20, 1904.    

The building project was initiated by the Abbey's first Abbot-Bishop, Leo Haid, OSB, a missioner at heart who was deeply inspired by the Neo-Gothic revolution of Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), an English architect who pioneered the revival of the Gothic style.  

Abbot Leo wanted a church in Belmont that would be the largest in the state and, in his own words, "the common joy and pride of all Catholics - no matter where they may be scattered through the state."  At Belmont Abbey he determined the faithful would pray, he wrote, "in the shadow of God's sanctuary, surrounded by all that can increase their reverence for religion, increase their zeal, increase their love for the beauty of God's house!  Here they will drink in the beauties of Catholic church service, and be accustomed to those holy rites which are so essential."  

Construction began in 1892 and the cornerstone reads that year.  The monks had delayed construction the first 16 years until a suitable chapel could be afforded.  After years of planning and dreaming, the results met and excelled expectations. 

When the monastery was built, it was constructed with wooden timbers and a squared sanctuary with no traditional apse.  The bricks were 300,000 in number, made from local clay, and the stone carvings were done on the property.  Also the Gothic plaster molds were made on site.  Much of the work was done by the monks themselves, under the direction of a construction contractor from nearby Charlotte.  

The high altar was set to face east, toward the holy city of Jerusalem -- the place of the second coming of Christ.  The first Mass in the incomplete sanctuary was Gaudete Sunday, December 17, 1993.  Mass was celebrated by the Abbot Leo Haid, OSB.    

Construction was completed in 1894 at a total cost of $60,000.  James Cardinal Gibbons came for the consecration on April 11, 1894; the feast of St. Leo the Great.  Gibbons was a giant of his time, one of the most recognizable Catholic figures in US history.  A native of Baltimore, at age 34 he had been named the Apostolic Vicar of North Carolina as a young bishop and was later appointed Archbishop of Baltimore.  

Church architecture is a teaching tool and in some ways it speaks a coded language.  The towers, clearly influenced by Chartres Cathedral in France, have their own symbolism -- they reflect the two natures of Christ, both human (one-hundred feet high) and divine (one-hundred fifty feet high).  The towers have octagonal belfries and spires topped by ornate crosses that crown the cathedral aspiration, symbols of the Godward ascent.  A subtle Gothic element known as the "trefoil" is seen on the exterior, symbolic of the Holy Trinity.    

The clock was added in 1909 in the taller tower, which houses three historic bells.  The largest is named St. Mary, weighing in at 1500 pounds.  The second is St. Walburga at 700 pounds and the third is St. George at 400 pounds.  The bells clash and peal in a symphony of heavenly song, signifying the hours of monastic prayer.  


The monks themselves helped to decorate, ornament and paint the interior in a majestic Gothic style.  The entire groined vault arched ceiling was frescoed and was originally light blue and dotted with gold fleurs-de-lis.  The soaring aspiration of the vault was reflected by the jeweled flame of the painted windows, allowing in the light of heaven through a prism of color.  

The magnificent and delicate Gothic ceiling was designed and constructed by one the monks, Brother Gilbert Koberzynski (1840-1920), who had formerly been a boatwright apprentice.  Therefore he built the ceiling to look like the barque of a ship, an undeniable charm.  The interior ceiling vault was frescoed in 1897, the work of Anthony F. Sauerwauld (1873-1916) of Richmond, Virginia.  

A highlight of the ceiling were the "bosses" -- the bases of the rib vaults floating in mid-air, like a blossom on a vine, a rare architectural treat in North America.  The imaginative ceiling was later removed during the 1960's renovation, an event that has been referred to by not a few as more of an amputation than anything else.  


Seen here is what the chapel looked like until the 1964-65 renovation (designed by German-born modernist architect Friedrich H. Schmitt of Charlotte, NC).  A plaque in the rear of the church identifies the Thomas P. Doris family among others as having financed the renovation.  A wealth of imagination and delicate poetic feeling characterized the original look and feel of the interior plan.  The grouping of the Gothic visuals was superb, with the cozy feeling of serene contemplation.  The highly decorative Gothic setting revealed flower and fruit, crown and thorn, a homage of art and nature.  This style displayed ease, grace, and animation, all harmonized with the dignity of the monastic setting.   

The beauty was extended to all, both rich and poor; the poor monks and all visitors.  The bishop's throne can be seen in the below photo - it was 26' high and raised by three oak steps.    

The center of the chapel was the sublime gold-leaf trimmed artisanal high altar, hand-carved by monks and made from oak that was locally sourced and stained in red.  This altar was 36' high and included three niches with little blue ceilings ornamented with stars, adding rich luster to the sanctuary.  

The main statue in the middle of the high altar was Our Lady, Help of Christians.  This statue has survived and is still seen in the chapel today.  Our Lady is depicted crowned and offering her "help," which is the Christ child with his arms outstretched to those who would receive Him.  On either side were statues of Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of Our Lady. 

Gradines were built to hold flowers, candlesticks and relics.  Mood and color came from the resplendent high altar, today just a memory.  Certain artistic elements of the altar were reflected in the golden glow of the painted windows, that can still be seen today.  The windows, made in Germany, survived the renovation.  The matching altar rail was made of butternut walnut.   

Also in the sanctuary were matching altars dedicated to Our Lady and St. Joseph.  Choir stalls were not part of the sanctuary until 1943, when they were added for the monks.  The precious high altar candlesticks survived the reno, seen below, with the arms of Abbot Leo Haid:



Other items that survived were the Stations of the Cross,  minus their hand-carved wooden frames.  They were designed by Francis Mayer, whose company did the church windows.  Also the windows fortuitously survived.  Not actually stained glass in the traditional sense, they were created as portraits and visuals painted on glass, with the pigments fused to the glass through a heating process.    

The transepts also had altars, one of them is seen partially below.  

In the dexter transept on the right was an altar dedicated to St. Joseph, with statues of St. Augustine of Canterbury and St. Edward the Confessor.  Nearby was kept the baptismal font.  On the opposite sinister transept on the left was an altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with statues of St. Rose of Lima and St. Aloysius Gonzaga.  Rose windows shined down on each of the transept altars.  

So thorough was the renovation that the only sample of the carpenter Gothic that survived are these stools that the torch bearer altar boys sat on in the old sanctuary.  They reflect the original decorative scheme and species of wood.

The new interior resembles in some ways the abandoned textile mills of the region, with the look and feel of a well kept nineteenth-century factory.  Needless to say, Catholic art and architecture have suffered unspoken trauma since the 1960's, a fact that is not disputed by anyone under about the age of sixty.  Below is the chapel as it looks today, clearly expressing a strong diminution on every level of visual arts.  Visitors are no longer overcome with rapt adoration and spellbound reverence by an interior that unveils the divinity that helpless humanity conceals.     



The 1960's was a decade of revolution and change.  Artistic and social movements of the twentieth century had a profound influence on Catholic thought and this is reflected in church renovation that coincided with the decade of the sixties.  Philosophical currents that were historically antithetical to the Faith were embraced and had a great influence on ecclesiastical arts and design.  The subjectivism of Kant comes to mind which gave birth to movements such as Futurism and Cubism, that profoundly influenced Catholic artistic sensibilities. 

Also, the untold influence of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) came to a head in the sixties, who was the  encouragement and stimulus for Catholics to embrace modernist architecture, the reflection of an unstable philosophy of pluralism and the glorification of the "shock" element.  


In Catholic thought, every beautiful church constructed should be seen, as with angels, to bear the image of the Divine.  In previous generations architecture was enhanced with a thousand decorations, during times 
when civilization was permeated with a happier philosophy.


Below are samples of post-modern art seen in the chapel transepts (thankfully relatively hidden from the view of the lay faithful).  Gnostic works such as these were immensely popular in the 1960's, influenced in part by the likes of Picasso and his "cubist movement," challenging the natural concept of beauty.  Today they are described by intelligent people as ridiculous and depressing.  This brings to mind a quote from Fulton Sheen from the 1950's: "When Picasso gives us a part of a face, a twisted limb divided by a broken world, surmounted by a geometrical figure, we are staring at the tragedy of our times - a broken personality no longer resembling the Divine Image" (Thinking Life Through, p. 15).  

The artist of these works in steel was Armando del Cimmuto (1906-1996), a local Italian-born sculptor and art teacher at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.  He gained national recognition in the 1960's for his abstract religious art when he was featured by the National Catholic Reporter.  He also designed the Abbey sanctuary's steel "risen Christ" cross (that was later mercifully replaced in 2020) as well as the hanging light fixture of black steel, aluminum, and bronze (nicknamed by the artist the "eye of God") that was until recently suspended over the altar (also mercifully removed).   

Let us hope and pray for authentic renewal in the Church.  Let us encourage the discussion to bring this Basilica interior back to to a poetic conception that rescues it from the danger of bleak commonplaceness.  We are made for the heights of nobility - we need to build a world where we all know this.  

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