An Intimate Chapel Designed for the Peace and Quiet of Christ
By Carrie Gress
I recently made a quick day trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My host, Msgr. Charles Mangan, gave me a tour of the newly-renovated St. Joseph's Cathedral. While the restored cathedral is breathtaking, I was struck profoundly by a little chapel tucked behind the main church, The Sacred Heart Chapel.
This tiny chapel is a new addition to the Cathedral building. The arched ceiling and sedate blue walls filled with vibrant murals and icons of Christ and the saints drew me into their peacefulness.
"The chapel has a certain allure," said Msgr. Mangan. "Even those people who go see the Cathedral, when they go and see the small chapel, that is what they remember. The chapel has a closeness, prayerfulness, and intimacy about it."
Open to the public, the chapel hosts Masses, funerals, weddings, confessions, and a holy hour during the week.
"It really is, in someways the face of the cathedral during the week," the monsignor explained. "The big church is beautiful, but the chapel gets a lot of use. Like the long tradition of big cathedrals who have a smaller daily parish, like the crypt church at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, this chapel is a smaller place that is very accessible."
Architect James McCrery, of McCrery Architects, who designed the chapel*, told me that the feeling of intimacy and prayerfulness is not accidental. "There is a hush to the place, intentionally designed," the architect and professor at Catholic University of America explained.
"This was my first project for the Church. It was commissioned by then Bishop Robert Carlson, who is now the Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri," said McCrery. "The bishop said to me, 'Look, I want a chapel for daily Mass and perpetual adoration.'"
Taking space from what was originally the church's sacristy, the bishop and McCrery designed the new space. "The chapel is entirely new," McCrery said, "except for the stained-glass windows, which are in the exact same original spot."
"The key thing we wanted was a truly beautiful and peaceful setting, that doesn't distract, but sort of arrays the faithful in an appropriate relationship with the Blessed Sacrament."
"The architecture provides a canvas for the other arts -- the commissioned icons and paintings, marble paving, sculpture, statuary, and the handiwork of a gifted blacksmith, particularly in the lanterns. All these helped to build the holy, the sanctus," McCrery added.
"Leonard Porter, painted the mural or triptych (a painting in three panels). We asked him to not date it and not to sign it on the front so it didn't present itself as a work of art per se, but rather as visual representation for the rest of the chapel." The visual effect, McCrery says, is a sense that "Christ (in both the tabernacle and the painting) is at the center of the chapel. He is enthroned in heaven, as a new Eden, a new Jerusalem."
"That chapel becomes and remains a little corner of heaven," McCrery concluded. "That is something that is not lost on those who visit that chapel."
Should my travels take me back to Sioux Falls, this was one place I will be sure to visit again, and not just for five minutes, but to really spend some time at this special place that truly feels like heaven on earth.
* James McCrery was the designer and project architect for this project while a principal architect at FLM Architects.