St. Paul Seminary Chapel Renovation (1988)

St. Mary's Chapel at the St. Paul Seminary was arguably one of the most beautiful Byzantine-Romanesque chapels in the nation. Completed in 1905, its interior was decorated in the 1920s in a whimsical style that has kept with the times and was in perfect harmony with the budding liturgical movement. The design entertained the imagination and amused generations of seminarians from across the Midwest, and yet it was serious in its aim and purpose to cultivate and inspire strong priestly candidates.

We have written on the chapel's mural here and its history here

The chapel website can be seen here.  

The chapel is best remembered as the place where Fulton Sheen began the practice of his daily holy hour while studying for the priesthood before his ordination in 1919. That was during the difficult years of the First World War.  

Regrettably the chapel underwent a severe renovation that was completed in 1988, described by critics as an amputation. Under the guidance of a committee and a local liturgical consultant expert, the chapel interior was emptied and the axis was bizarrely reversed. 

The Carrara altar was thus demolished and removed. The tabernacle was placed in a former sacristy. The choir loft was removed and the main entrance to the chapel was permanently locked. Thus the finished version is an altar that is today near the former vestibule and main entrance, with the rear of the church in the former sanctuary, and the main entrance reached through a door that was added in the center of the apse. The gorgeous marbled floor was covered in a behemoth of granite. 

The new design was top heavy in the demands of utility alone.  

It is our hope the chapel will be re-set as part of what will be a years-long project to restore the appearance to the intent of the original architect, Clarence H. Johnston, and the wishes of Archbishop Austin Dowling, who oversaw the completion of the interior decoration nearly one-hundred years ago. 

Dowling, a visionary, historian and artist, put together a star-spangled team to carry out the artistic programme of the interior. The decorating scheme, which began in 1926, lasted until 1933. The group consisted of some of the biggest ecclesiastical artists of the time: Bancel La Farge of New Haven, Charles Maginnis and Timothy Walsh (Maginnis & Walsh) of Boston, and the great Rambusch of New York, sublime artificers and by divine disposition masters of decorative arts.  

The original sanctuary apse of the Roman basilica style structure

The purpose of the 1980s renovation was explained thus in a booklet produced by the seminary called St. Mary's Chapel of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, A Historic & Artistic Guide. It reads: "The renovation was done to bring the chapel into compliance with the liturgical directives of Vatican II." [Of course there is no evidence for this myth in the documents produced by the Council, so often misquoted. Alas, we must always be weary of the spirit of the age that "can't" with the old but "can" with anything and everything new.] 

The current arrangement, a pastiche of conflicting styles, resembling a 3D printing

Further, it describes the logic behind the reversal of the altar from the apse location to the choir loft location with this explanation: "This was done to allow the chapel to be the center of the new seminary buildings by connecting it with a gathering space and new entrance through the apse." [Actually, a covered entrance could have been just as easily built in the former entrance hall next to the east sacristy - today a Sacrament of Reconciliation room.]     

The original tabernacle, by God's grace survived

Tragically, many of the most beautiful artifacts and materials that were part of the original chapel decoration were lost, including the main altar chiseled from Italian marble (an unspeakable loss, it ended up in a landfill -  a total of 7 altars were in the chapel - three marble and four wood). These had been donated by alumni of the seminary to complete the adornment of the chapel, at the cost of $20,000. 

The original side altars, lost forever

Both organs were removed and disposed of (there was one console on the floor amidst the choir stalls and another in the choir loft used for overflow). 

Another inestimable loss were the polished sheet marbles that included red Numidian and Algerian onyx that decorated the semicircular apse, imported from North Africa and today no longer sourced. A similar design of marbles and interrelation of design elements can still be seen today in the old Nazareth Hall chapel (the former diocesan minor seminary chapel, today a converted Protestant church). It was created by the same artists earlier in the decade. In both places, the simple details of the marble wainscoting were bound together into oneness by the interrelation of lines, a pattern designed as rhythm - a reciprocated relation of the different parts of the overall design which enabled the eye to find a way through all the details of the sanctuary, binding everything together in a unity.    

A few remnants remain from the original chapel, including oak screens and a few pews from the old choir, today kept in the former sacristy. Also the original bronze tabernacle and baldachin by Rambusch were mercifully salvaged, also seen in the former sacristy; they rest atop exquisite rose onyx, all that is left of the side chapel altars that also disappeared. 

The original bronze baldachin miraculously survived, seen here today

Further, there are a jumble of other items that survived, almost miraculously: two old wooden side altars (of four) that were in the side alcoves along the nave, along with the carved oak statues that were there of St. John Vianney St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Lawrence. 

Also, a couple support pillars from the original altar that are today used as the base for candleholders. Additionally, the Byzantine style Stations of the Cross, precious enamel works also by Rambusch, were later returned to the chapel. The altar crucifix and some matching candlestick holders in various sizes also survived, creations of Rambusch. 

Thankfully the majestic mural in the semi-dome of the apse by the renowned muralist La Farge was saved at the last minute, an intervention by the local ordinary after a critical interview was published in a local newspaper by a prominent alumnus. That alumnus believed that man will be judged not by what he created, but by what he destroyed. 

The sanctuary paintings (similar to the windows) display a riot of unique and rare color combinations, with flowers and beribboned ribbons and animals, including peacocks. The forward-thinking of the time in the 1920s was that beauty of nature alone is sufficient excuse for its unrestrained application in design, a fervent plea uniting the cosmos, heaven and earth. 

This leads to one of the most powerful appeals of the old design. The murals and structural arches showcase a kind of line in design that Ruskin describes as the "infinite curve." This is more subtle and of greater beauty than the abstract straight lines and forms or T-squares and rectangles of the new design, a (boring and overly simplistic) geometric sequence of lines and angles, however well intentioned. 

For it is the curve that is most natural and that nature favors the most, evidenced by its own storehouse, ever seeking to attain in the natural world. From flowers, to blades of grass, and shells on the beach, and even man, we find this "curve" in nature and so it is replicated in Christian art. It is the curve of living, growing things, of force and vitality. The curve may unfold itself to the end of time, variety with unity. This does not infer the curve is always the best in design practice, but it is necessary for rhythm and balance, subject to the laws of nature. In other words, it is pleasing to the soul. 

The Byzantine inspired Via Crucis were originally attached to the columns

The chapel's presence was part of an original campus plan by the famous American architect of the Gilded Age, Cass Gilbert, who designed all the buildings to be separate from each other. In 1901 construction began with Clarence H. Johnston as architect, a friend and classmate of Gilbert from MIT. 

The exterior of the apse, before the 1988 renovation

Johnson is today remembered as one of the most talented and prolific architects of the American Upper Midwest. He based his composite design on the Richardsonian Romanesque with a touch of North Italian Romanesque, a perfect combination for Summit Avenue.

The dimensions of the chapel were 156' long by 58' wide and 58' high. The exterior was of local yellow buff grade Kettle River sandstone, with a cream kasota dolomite for the interior, speaking a silent language of strength with earthbound and masculine-like qualities, perfect for inspiring priestly formation. The building shell has withstood the test of time.  

The original altar crucifix from a side altar

When it was completed and consecrated in 1905, the chapel design was praised by all, while the interior remained unfinished. Constructed in Roman basilica style, it was built with a long nave and two side aisles on either side. The interior ceiling support was constructed to be held up with rounded arches and solid columns in rhythmic order, reminiscent of the elegance and simplicity of the classical structures of late antiquity. The wooden coffered ceiling was created flat, a common interior structural design in Rome. Two sacristies were included in the design, with an ample sanctuary that was cozy, yet large enough for Pontifical rites and daily seminary liturgies. 

Roman Basilica style with clerestory windows

Certain features stand out for all who visit. The original stained-glass windows by Bancel La Farge and his father John have thankfully been preserved, created in a Paleo-Christian style reminiscent of design features taken from the Roman catacombs. There is a rose window adoring the front facade that gives an ethereal touch. Further, there are round windows in the sacristy walls, a unique and rare sight. 

John La Farge made his windows in such a way that opaque particles in the opalescent glass would scatter the light, in a sort of old-fashioned Medieval style, creating different levels of transparency within each panel of glass, resulting in a three-dimensional light effect. While the lower windows were rich in color, the upper clerestory windows were light in color, to allow stronger lightness to illumine the upper portion of the chapel. 

The delightful Paleo-Christian look of the stained-glass

The outside Renaissance tympanum relief of the Annunciation that provides a sense of radiance above the original front entrance is stunning, resembling something from Florence in the seicentto. It was carved and added in the late 1920s also under the direction of Archbishop Dowling, a theme lending itself to a deeply religious feeling and emotional appeal to young men discerning a possible call to holy orders.

The densely carved and entangled figures of the capitals of the interior columns stand out. They were hand-carved by a local artist from North St. Paul. The capitals are in Byzantine style, with innovative decoration features that display common elements such as acanthus leaves, scrolls, and other symbols. The first capital was carved in 1910, called the "sacrifice" capital; it displays images on the four sides with the four sacrificial scenes from the Book of Genesis.  

Original chapel front view

Original chapel rear view

For many years the interior lay unfinished as funds were gradually raised to complete the project. It was later decorated beginning in 1926 in the style of the Byzantine Romanesque, with certain similarities to the chapel of St. John the Baptist at nearby St. John's Abbey, built in the 1870s, also updated gradually in the same style. 

Original painting of St. Joseph that has survived

The genius of the interior design is thanks to Bancel la Farge who was trained in France and Italy, the same as his father John. They had been next door neighbors of Archbishop Dowling in Newport, where Bancel had been a childhood friend of Dowling. Although Dowling had oversight of the decoration, La Farge was the artistic designer. La Farge created the murals and widows. 

Also involved was the famous Boston ecclesiastical architectural firm of McGinnis and Walsh, already close collaborators of Archbishop Dowling. He had worked with them on previous projects that included the decoration of the chapel of the Annunciation at the nearby minor seminary, Nazareth Hall, completed a few years earlier in 1923 (thus the subtle similarities in choice of marbles and bronze works). He also entrusted them with the monumental task of completing the interior of the Cathedral of St. Paul on the other end of Summit Ave.  

Lastly, Mr. Rambusch of New York, from a family of artists that emigrated from Denmark, specialized in metal arts, painted decorations, glazing, enamel work, gilding, murals, stained-glass, and other liturgical decorating. His tabernacle for this chapel is said to have resembled the tabernacle he designed for the Nazareth Hall chapel (location today unknown). 

Fascinating stencil work in the twenties style of Batchelder on the face and soffit of the great arch

Gorgeous color palette that adorned the great arch of the sanctuary

Bold original artwork rich with symbolism on the face of the great arch

The first part of the interior completion consisted of importing 18 new stone columns, replacing the temporary columns that were installed when it was first constructed. The columns were used to separate the side aisles from the nave and support the weight of the ceiling. Additionally, 4 marble columns were installed in the sanctuary along with 2 pilasters interestingly placed behind them at each end of the entrance to the apse (seen below). 

The best of Byzantium is exhibited here

A sample of the metallic works by Rambusch can be seen below, all in matching vintage motifs.  

Another example of award-winning gilt bronze Byzantine art

Original bronze candlesticks that adorned the altars

The original sanctuary lamp was given the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis 

The genius of the vintage design motif forged in fire-gilded bronze

The sanctuary furniture and choir stalls were of solid oak, irreplaceable works mostly lost. A sample of a few of the pews that have survived can be seen below, with details of the hand-carved features, such as little carved rosettes and leaves that come forth on trees in the spring. The entire nave consisted of a triple row of choir stalls on both sides. These surviving pieces can hopefully be used to help coordinate a proper restoration with everything in its place. 

At St. Aloysius Church in Olivia, a small town west of Minneapolis (Diocese of New Ulm), the high altar is of the same style and from the same manufacturer as the high altar that was taken from the seminary chapel (see image below). In fact, it was originally intended for the seminary chapel, but was the wrong size, and so it was given to St. Aloysius as the church was being built at the same time.  

Let us pray for guidance as these decisions will be made as to how best restore the chapel to its earlier elegance, a synthesis of East and West. The original designer's work speaks in code, inevitably forming an index to the soundness of his judgment for all who study what was, the strength of his imagination and the depth of his feeling and belief. A design can either be distinctive or commonplace, worthy or unworthy. One advantage of robust external decoration and corresponding worship is a system of orderly thought, to fix the truths of religion and to guarantee them from the attacks of heretics. 

This offers an opportunity for comparative study. In the superficial adaption of the chapel's outward forms, we are left with a crust without a pie. The new design has unity, but lacks variety. It speaks of utility, function, and processes, but lacks the charm of composition, refinement, enrichment, texture, color, finish. The difference is between the the practical and the aesthetic. 

The message of the previous design was of principles, not of "periods" or fashions. Thus an upward aspiration, instead of simple immovability. In following its original design principles, a chapel was created that expressed priestly formation, priestly need, and environment. Every seminary chapel must have in its design wit, imagination, and invention to devise ornament worthy of the position it occupies. 

Today some of us are continually haunted by the loss and the characterless semblance of things that are, but could have been otherwise. Nevertheless what we have loved in the original remains, because in our study of the originals we found ourselves living again the past with those old craftsmen who lingered over the last details of their work with a sincerity of purpose that imparted real worth and human interest to the products they created to inspire vocations and give honor and glory to God now and forever. 

Carven details of the choir stalls, made in West St. Paul

The few choir stalls that survived are nearly one-hundred years old


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