There’s something alluring about sitting in the Church of the Incarnation when it is dark and empty. At once large and intimate, the building seems to embrace a praying person and catch up her prayers in quiet beams of light. The building is beautifully simple, like an incarnation of her prayer.
There is a reason that our church is so numinous: every aspect is intentional, from the orientation of the building to the shape of the bricks. Although students may feel effects from the architecture of the church in their worship, they likely know very little about the intentions of the community, architects and chaplain who brought this church into existence.
When the University of Dallas community approached Jane and Duane Landry, the architects of the Church of the Incarnation and the Holy Spirit Seminary Chapel, about a new chapel for the campus, the community brought a puzzling list of requirements to the table.
They asked that the chapel would be a place for worship, embody the spirit of the community and express journey.
“Not once did they mention a style [of architecture],” said Monsignor Don Fischer, a UD alumnus who was the first chaplain for the university and who oversaw the project. Rather than describing a mission, gothic or modern style for the church, the program that the UD community gave the architects instead emphasized community.
“What is needed is an appropriate space that acknowledges and celebrates the movement of the Spirit that has taken place in the life of a people. The Church needs a church,” said a booklet asking for donations for the chapel.
The university had vastly outgrown the former chapel, situated on the west side of campus next to the men’s dorms. Complete with an altar rail and traditional pews, the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel fit 80 people. By the 1980s, Sunday Masses were held in the 280 seat Lynch Auditorium, and larger Masses were held in the gym.
The chapel was first imagined next to the tower, between the mall and Northgate Drive. There was a realization, though, that this place would not be central enough to the community. The planning committee then turned to the place where the most students could be found in their leisure: the woods between Maher Athletic Center, Gorman, Braniff and the mall.
For the students, the woods, where the Church of the Incarnation now stands, served as a haven. Students protested the proposed site with the slogan “don’t take away our woods.”
Despite the protests, the site was chosen. Still, the irregular and sloping shape of the site presented immediate architectural challenges.
A rectangle would not fit the space, said the Landrys. They quickly converged on a round shape for the chapel.
The round shape was practical, and provided a way to maintain the intimacy of the campus community.
“When you look at a round shape from the outside it looks small because the sides fade away,” explained Duane Landry.
A round shape also provided an opportunity to express deeper theological significance.
“I wanted it to be a reflection of Vatican II,” said Msgr. Fischer, who was in seminary as the council convened and studied the council documents as they were released. The round shape was intended to encourage a “full, active, conscious participation.”
The round shape of the Church of the Incarnation manifests the emphasis that the council placed on community.
“Let’s see the community, not just the back of them,” said Duane Landry. Rather than a church in which the pews all face the front of the church, Incarnation was to be a place for community.
That being said, Msgr. Fischer emphasized that the communal and sacred elements of worship are not at odds in the church.
“Communal aspect is not in place of the sacred,” he said. “The sacred, when it becomes too personal, is not truly Catholic.”
Round churches are not an innovation in the history of the church. Early church architecture inspired the Landrys for the designs of the church as they traveled through Rome, most notably the octagonal baptistery of St. John Lateran and the circular St. Stefano Rotondo.
The church of St. Stefano Rotondo, commissioned by Pope Simplicitus I in the fifth century, houses a central altar, surrounded by columns and a generous ambulatory surrounding the church, according to a pilgrimage website.
The Church of the Incarnation takes after St. Stefano Rotondo in its use of columns and the ambulatory. Unlike St. Stefano Rotondo, the altar of Incarnation is not centrally located, which would have created a problem for which way the priest faces.
Constructing a round church with a non-central altar involved what the Landrys described as the “real genius” of the design. By lowering the roof over one half of the circle, the Landrys shifted the axis of the space, allowing for natural orientation of the space to the altar.
Lowering the roof also allowed light to pour into the space. There was not enough money for stained glass, said the Landrys, which, although beautiful, was traditionally used as a catechesis tool. Instead of stained glass, the Landry’s used pure, unfiltered light to fill the space with a sense of awe.
The concern for maximizing light led to the current orientation of the church towards the south instead of the traditional eastern orientation.
The lighting was enhanced by the work of Isaac Maxwell, who designed the massive chandeliers still found in the church.
If the space were to be too lofty, the Landrys were concerned that the congregation would feel lost in the space.
Thus, they broke up the space with columns reminiscent of ancient churches in Rome l. Also drawing from Roman design, the Landrys lined the bottom of the columns with one inch thick Roman brick.
The columns extend 33 feet into the earth, providing for structural stability and manifesting the idea of man’s connection to the earth.
“St. John Lateran offers a lesson in strength and rootedness to the earth, powerfully expressed by columns,” said Jane Landry.
The bricks used in the church’s construction are intentionally consistent with the bricks found throughout the rest of campus, but are used in various ways throughout the church to have an effect on the soul.
Prompting one inward, the bricks on the porch of the church flow towards the door. Once inside, the bricks in the adoration chapel form a flemish bond, creating a cross pattern that distinguishes the space containing the Eucharist from the rest of the building, which has a running bond pattern.
The Landrys explained that the bricks which cover the church’s floor today look different than when the church was designed. Unfortunately, the church maintenance sealed the bricks with wax, disturbing the continuity between the floor and the walls and causing the floor to look synthetic.
The brick floor we see today in the church is one of several examples of things that diverged from the original plan.
Today, when one enters the church, one first sees the music section. Although music was central to the church’s designs, the music section was originally over one section, allowing it to be more discreet.
Additionally, the seats have gradually creeped into the aisles of the church, constricting the generous ambulatory that the architects imagined. Pews were designed for the space, similar to those of the Holy Spirit Seminary Chapel, but the seating we see today was chosen to allow for flexibility at weddings and funerals.
The light we experience today in the church is also not exactly as it was designed: the chandeliers are missing the clear central bulb, which served as a mother light in each chandelier to light the other lanterns. The chandeliers today do not have the sparkling effect with which they were designed.
Also, the lantern above the adoration chapel was designed to be much brighter, serving as a beacon in the woods to invite students to pray. Today’s lantern is more discreet, and the copper cross needs to be polished.
Despite the various inconsistencies between the church today and the original designs, the church retains its integrity.
“The building itself is truthful,” said Jane Landry. The building is made of just four main materials, concrete, brick, wood and steel, with elements of copper. The building hides nothing from its inhabitants: these four materials materials “can be used in such variation that they are both the fabric and the decoration of the building,” she said.
The Church of the Incarnation opened on March 24, 1985 and was built on the helm of the modern era of architecture in Catholic churches.
“It was much different than any other church in Dallas,” said Monsignor Fischer. “This church reflects the radicalness of the changes of the church at the time.”
Vatican II ushered into the church not only a new understanding of church architecture, but more fundamentally, a different understanding of worship and of God Himself.
“Jesus was not this austicious [sic] person who spoke only in hushed tones,” said Msgr. Fischer. Instead, Msgr. Fischer said that we ought to seek out Christ in others and encounter the divine in our ordinary lives. “We are Eucharist,” he said.
This understanding of the sacred experienced in the ordinary, which Msgr. Fischer calls his “incarnational philosophy,” lies behind the Church of the Incarnation’s name.
“It’s called Incarnation because God didn’t come into gold, he came into flesh and blood,” said Msgr. Fischer, “you don’t have to go to church to be close to God.”
Controversy has surrounded the church since the building plans were released. Msgr. Fischer described a petition to change the plans for the chapel before it was constructed, and last year posters describing traditional church architecture appeared in bathroom stalls all over campus.
Regardless of controversy, the Church of the Incarnation continues to be an integral part of UD, that still offers a “place of repose,” as one booklet asking for donations to build the church envisioned it.
The program’s request that the church manifest “journey” seems to have proficide the journey that the church has taken with UD as the university has grown. And that is all the more reason why the Church of the Incarnation is itself an incarnation of the unity and rootedness of the UD community.