For years, the open-mouthed, contemporary crucifix hung above the altar in the Church of the Incarnation. But when students returned to school in January, they were greeted by a different corpus — a traditional bronze crucifix from Italy displaced the roughly hewn Jesus.
Last year, a group of alumni of the University of Dallas asked campus ministry if they would be open to a monetary gift for the purpose of beautifying the Church, and specifically for a new crucifix. Father Joseph Paul Albin, O.P., the chaplain of UD, and President Jonathan Sanford were both thrilled about the prospect, according to Karen Bless, who assists Fr. Albin.
“We wanted something simple and beautiful, and something that would fit with the design of the church,” said Bless. They intentionally selected a bronze crucifix to complement the Church’s tones.
“The day they were installing it, Father [Albin] and I almost had tears in our eyes because it’s so perfect. It looks like it belongs here,” said Bless.
The student response to the change has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to Bless.
“I think the students crave more traditional art and a more traditional prayer space. We are really trying to cater to the students because it’s your church,” said Bless. “We want the students to feel like this is a place where they can pray and really grow in their spiritual lives. We want to aid them in doing that in any way that we can, even if it’s just getting more candles or something like that.”
But Jane Landry, who designed the church with her husband in the early 1980s, does not want the community to forget the story of the original crucifix, even in its absence.
The original crucifix was made by Heri Bartscht, a renowned Dallas sculptor and founding art professor at UD, where he taught for 29 years, according to the Smithsonian.
Landry told The University News that Bartscht crafted the crucifix after “Mr. Pete,” who served as the head of UD maintenance for many years, found a fallen tree in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Knowing it was a special piece of wood, he took it to Bartscht, who later formed the crucifix out of it.
The crucifix originally inhabited the wall behind the baptismal font in rotation with other works of art but was moved in 2011 to the space above the altar, according to a church bulletin from January of that year. Until then, the space above the altar had been left empty.
“The tree came to him. It seems to me that somehow he felt that if he was going to make something of it, it would still be a tree,” said Landry.
The organic process of the creation of the cross bears special significance in the context of the church. Landry said that the current location of the church was chosen because the woods that used to be there were a place of quiet repose, a fitting atmosphere for a place of prayer.
“The church was originally going to be built by the tower. That was where we started, but we felt as though it would be built at the edge of the university, and not the heart of the university,” said Landry.
However, they received pushback from some students and faculty — especially from Bartscht himself — at the prospect of getting rid of the woods where the chapel now resides.
Thus the architects — Landry along with her husband Duane — decided to design the church with a sense of continuity with the natural features of the woods: the round shape gives it a sense of intimacy, columns contribute a feeling of tree-like sheltering and the use of natural light, tones and materials give the space a profound coherence with the space outside. Even the porch, fluidly reaching into the space outside the Church, contributes to this continuity.
Bartscht’s crucifix, having come from a fallen tree, was thus a very fitting centerpiece for the space.
“Hari gave the tree back,” said Landry.
The crucifix also bears much significance in Bartscht’s own life, as it recalls the suffering he saw on the front in WWII, according to a column in a 2011 bulletin from the Church written by Lyle Novinski.
“What Heri Bartscht placed within this piece is Christ’s reaction to the devastation He witnesses from the Cross and from His omniscience, the knowing what horrors man will inflict on man in the future. Heri’s work emphasizes that the corpus is both God and Man in His Incarnation. This insight, indicating both the earthly physical pain and the divine for knowledge, is particularly appropriate to its placement in the Church of the Incarnation,” wrote Novinski.
Landry said that she is sad to see some of the original elements of the church covered with ornamentation.
“I don’t know why the Church of the Incarnation has not been powerful enough an image for these young people to understand and to appreciate the simplicity, the very truthfulness of the materials, the honesty of not trying to make something appear something that it is not,” she said.
Landry lamented that the original stone altar is now covered with altar cloths and candlesticks, obscuring the features of the original stone.
“But I just hate to see the basic elements of the church covered over or changed so that they are no longer able to play their role.”
But while she mourned the features of the original Church, she recognized that it is not in her hands anymore.
“When you are an architect and you have the gift of being able to work with a community and make a place of worship, you also have to realize that one day, it becomes someone else’s entirely, and you don’t have control. You can draw it and you can make it the best you can possibly make it at the time it is built, but then it is in other’s hands.”
Landry said that there can be a complementarity between traditional and contemporary elements if they are done thoughtfully.
“I don’t think there’s any conflict with bringing in something that is from another era. In fact, that could be done very well, and maybe this crucifix does that,” she said.
Laura Jauregui Fitzpatrick, who contributed to the crucifix with her husband Kevin, said that her own time spent in the chapel as a student inspired her to contribute to the fund. Other alumni contributed to the fund, and together they raised about $9,000 in total.
“It’s a church where basically all my faith developed and where I fell in love with Jesus,” said Fitzpatrick. “I think Rome has beautiful churches that inspire prayer and inspire you to be closer to God, and I was just hoping that a crucifix like this could do that for people in Irving.”
Fitzpatrick, who studied psychology and now stays home with her young children, said that even when she and her husband graduated from UD in 2009, there was a longing for more traditional liturgical elements.
Adding more traditional elements to the existing church, or even building a new, more traditional church entirely, “would truly demonstrate how Catholic UD is and would be really wonderful to help people grow in their faith,” said Fitzpatrick.
Bless said that Fr. Albin seeks to harmonize the traditional and contemporary elements in the liturgy.
“One of the things I could commend [Fr. Albin] for is serving as a bridge between the different liturgical preferences that people have,” said Bless. Rather than make a lot of changes right away when he took over as pastor of the Church, Bless said that he has been very intentional and considerate to the community in every decision about the liturgy.
One of the decisions Fr. Albin has made recently is to install pews this summer. The pews will be made of wood that complements the other wood elements of the church, and each one will have the seal of UD inscribed into it. The Church will also get new presider’s furniture to match the pews, which will also be inscribed with the seal of UD, according to Bless. There will also be a radial pew going around the whole back wall, to provide seating where people usually stand.
Pews were part of the original design for the Church, according to Landry, but they never came to fruition.
Bless said that all of the changes to the church are carried out with intentionality and prayer.
“We are very much trying to be intentional about the design changes that we are making, so that it does kind of go along with the original design, but just sort of help to aid people’s prayer,” said Bless.