Century-old Catholic parish’s new sanctuary integrates tech sophistication with inspiring traditional design
Going “traditional” in form doesn’t mean forfeiting cutting-edge functionality, and what went inside the new “old-world style” at St. Michael’s the Archangel Catholic Church proves it.
The worship facility, located in McKinney, Texas, is designed for the century-old parish, but it conceals several sophisticated technological components inside. Yet, the exterior appearance, a tall, stone-clad parish, is built in the European cathedral cruciform pattern of a cross while retaining its place as a sacred byway on the one-time unsettled north Texas prairie.
But look again. Even the native stone and exposed wood slat walls and ceiling are “miracles” of quality manufacturing, not of good quarry or mill work. By installing materials that look authentic, perform better and cost less than the real thing, the designer and builder, Dallas-based Beck Group, optimized features and value for more effective ministry to the people who come through St. Michael’s doors.
“When you’re tasked with building a parish or church like St. Michael’s, the character of the past, present and future must be considered,” said Rob Johnson, project manager with Beck. “Here was a congregation that, for years, had faithfully worshiped in this place, while its members worked to settle this farming community far north of Dallas. It has a history of being … forward-thinking, if you will, so we built its new church facility respecting the old as well as the new: new technology, new systems, and so forth.”
The church building was completed in 2007 for the parish in the Dallas Catholic Diocese. It is the first phase of a master plan that includes future construction of an educational building and a parish hall. Currently, the church uses its former structure, a smaller 50-year-old brick building with a sanctuary, for meeting rooms and classrooms.
At 36,400 square feet, the new building’s chief feature is a 1,000-seat sanctuary. Its 34-foot-high walls topped by wood panels on the exposed roofline of the ceiling create an inspiring spacious feel.
Its high and numerous big and small windows let in plenty of daylight, adding to the sense of welcoming sanctity. Three large stained glass windows boldly light two sides of the church’s transept and one end of the nave at the entrance wall. Each corner of the sanctuary’s crossing at the altar has two stained glass windows of saints for a total of eight windows. The stained glass was removed from the existing building and placed into the new facility to provide greater continuity between the existing and new facility and also add to the traditional and elegant appearance of the church.
A custom-built baptistery
Just inside the main entrance sits a one-of-a-kind baptismal font that doubles as an ornamental fountain, producing the soft sounds of streaming water. Here, the parishioners bless their hands with Holy Water and here baptisms are performed. The font’s location symbolizes the entrance into the Holy Roman Catholic Church through the sacrament of baptism.
The overall design of the fountain did not fit into the mechanical and electrical footprint of the building. Beck was put to the task of finding a foundry to create the mold, and cast it, as well as finding a consultant to braze the bowl which sits inside of the limestone elliptical base.
The requested materials posed a challenge. Limestone is a very delicate natural material. Yet, the design called for placing a 400-pound bronze bowl inside of the limestone base, which after being filled with water, applied close to 550 pounds of stress on the limestone.
Beck addressed and overcame this challenge by constructing pedestal feet under the fountain to provide the structure with greater stability. The overall goal and appearance of the baptismal bowl was for it to have a very calm pond effect and spill over into the limestone base.
As a sign of the continual presence of the Holy Spirit, depicted metaphorically by “living water,” the fountain automatically remains filled to the bowl’s brim. A mechanical system that recycles, filters and freshens the water is out of sight in a closet nearby.
The font had to be waterproofed at the drip line. Beck also installed UV lamps to heat the water, purifying it, before refilling the bowl. Stainless steel materials help keep the water as clean as possible. A timer perpetuates the flow, filtering and recycling. Church protocol requires that baptismal fonts support full emersions.
Hearing the word of the Lord
In St. Michael’s wide-open sanctuary, with concrete flooring, concrete tilt walls, limestone accents, glass windows and walls exposed to the roof, the possibility of unwanted noise is high. Designers and contractors had to minimize noise ricocheting through the structure and at the same time optimize acoustics to complement the liturgical spoken word, a key feature of Roman Catholic worship.
Beck realized early that it would have to minimize “bad” sound , distracting noise of people movement and even the HVAC located outside the church walls , and optimize “good sound”, a priest’s comforting voicing of scripture, the homily and prayer throughout the Mass.
Some churches like St. Michael’s cherish an atmosphere of solemn dignity during worship services. Liturgical worship with the spoken word and organ and choral music are standard for traditional Catholic Masses following the Latin rite.
The priest is the predominant figure, leading in spoken greetings, prayers, scripture readings, responses, chants, singing, the communion and the homily. Worshipers in traditional seating arrangements , pews from front to back of a long flat sanctuary, observe the holy procession, communion, ceremonial scripture reading, and other elements of the Mass.
To achieve the optimal acoustic mix, Beck opted for two large speakers and large sound buffer screens behind the altar, as well as 14 small speakers positioned along the lengths of the nave and transept. The smaller speakers are aimed toward the people seated in the pews.
Beck commissioned an acoustical study of the structure to pay attention to both sound intelligibility, how easily words are understood in both the front and the back pew, and reverberation , most affected by the choral voices and the organ.
Beck’s Paul Zubiate, the project architect, said, “The budget was low for this technology, and a cruciform design is the worst acoustic challenge you can have, but we were able to manipulate the sound with well placed speakers.”
An additional acoustical aid was the decision to use wood panels made to be acoustically neutral.
“The result is that people in the back row will actually see the priest’s lips move and hear his voice at the same time instead of at a delay of two seconds later,” Zubiate said.
Progressive church construction
There were many other unique construction techniques used in St. Michael’s. One was the manner in which the walls were constructed and erected. Because of the limitations of the site and its proximity to the existing church building, the Beck team could not walk the tilt-wall panels into place using a crane, as is the usual manner. As a result, the panels were cast outside of the building footprint, very close to the existing sanctuary. At times, Beck had to rotate the panels a full 90 degrees to avoid hitting the existing facility.
Another challenge arose during the construction and positioning of the internal bracing. Internal bracing elements had to connect back to the inside of the slab on the tilt panels until the roof exposed wood decking was installed. This technique created a diaphragm that provided the bracing with lateral stability. This technique further prevented Beck from having to construct the slab-on-grade until after the tilt panels were completed.
Instead of exposing the metal decking, which most commercial facilities utilize, Beck used exposed wood decking that interlocked over the steel joists and frames. This architectural feature was designed to show the openness and flow of the facility. The ceiling was also exposed and did not lend any room for hiding infrastructural elements. It is referred to as a “closed ceiling” where everything is visible to the occupants in the sanctuary. Beck painted the sprinkler pipes and other exposed duct work so that it would blend in with the exposed structure of the roof.
To enhance the exposed design features, such as the exposed tilt wall paneling and the concrete flooring, Beck utilized finishes like textured paint that helped disguise the variations in the panels and they also polished, stained and colored the concrete. By doing this, the Beck design enhanced the already intricate details from other elements in the sanctuary like the millwork, the stained glass windows, baptismal bowl, and the limestone altar.
Just like several aspects of St. Michael’s, the elliptical design of the altar, the focal point of the holy room, required high levels of precision in setting the concrete. Because the limestone is fabricated to precise tolerances and the concrete is very hard to control, the Beck team had to match the limestone fabrication tolerances to the concrete tolerances in order for the two materials to work together.