Friday, July 22

Thesis Journal: Entry 1

Traditionally, the final semester of the Notre Dame School of Architecture curriculum is devoted to a project which serves as a grand summa of the whole five years of study. This is called a thesis, and consists of a hypothetical design on a real site with a real client, in most cases. Budget concerns, however (and I will add mercifully) are a little less real, though they don't have to be as scrupulously constricting as in real life. Projects large enough to take up a semester but small enough to consider in detail are preferred, and the years have seen presentation drawings of virtually everything tacked up on the walls: Spanish Mission wineries, cetaceanoid glass-and-iron aquariums, Sicilian baroque churches, neo-Grec sacred art academies, a self-sustaining environmentally friendly parish, Art Nouveau apartment blocks, Prairie School theaters.

I'd always thought I would do a church, or something sacred anyway. I considered a new church for my home parish, or an Anglican Use church for the new congregation in Scranton, or even, for a few brief moments, a new Cathedral for Chicago, to replace the undersized and unfortunate Holy Name. A few of my classmates also plan to do parishes or even a Cathedral, so I decided I wanted to try something slightly different--a seminary, and after initially considering approaching the tiny but growing Society of St. John Cantius, my gaze fell upon everyone's favorite indult order, the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. They've picked up three or four parishes in the last couple of years and gained the favor of Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, probably the most artistically intelligent hierarch in the nation. They themselves have a sense of good taste sadly rare in the priesthood today, and the vision and drive to raise the necessary budget to pay for it. One encouraging sign is their recent headquarters move from tiny Wausau, Wisconsin, to Chicago and St. Gelasius. I wouldn't be surprised that with a little careful cultivation they end up as large as the FSSP; and like the FSSP they will need an American seminary of their own.

Initially, I considered a romantic site on a hilltop in Wisconsin, some fantastic Gothic spike like Holy Hill, or maybe overlooking the St.-Croix in Minnesota, but the Institute is becoming less strictly Midwestern at present with its parishes in St. Louis and, much to my pleasant surprise, California. While a bucolic setting would be the most ideal, like their present seminary at Gricigliano in Tuscany, it needs to be closer to their new headquarters. Whether that means in the rustic hinterland of Chicago or in the suburban thick of things, I can't say as yet. I'm hoping for the latter, considering it gives me a bit freer rein with regards to siting. Chicago, furthermore, offers a remarkable wellspring of Catholic art and culture from the Old Country (whether it be Poland, Ruthenia, the Ukraine or Bohemia) which meshes perfectly with the Teutonic courtliness and elegance which so characterizes the order's way of doing business.

In some sense, rural Illinois or Chicago proper make perfect sense for such a foundation. The Midwest is an odd and surprisingly European place at times. It occurred to me earlier in the summer as I checked out groceries at the local plastic palace, Meijer and watched a couple of young snub-nosed Mennonite girls in garish pink flip-flops and white starched hats, that I was living in America's Transylvania, a vast and ignored hinterland of polyglot ethnicities and strange last names.

The Midwest is often strangely similar to the Balkan or Mitteleuropaische reality from which the blood of its inhabitants ultimately flows: Ingqvists, Krebsbachs, Klejeskis, Salzmanns, Salzers, Gorskis, Jaskiernys, Horvaths. There's a decaying parish in Kentucky still called Mutters-Gotts-Kirche as if 1918 had never happened. There are confessionals for Polish-only speakers at St. Josaphat's in Milwaukee, and as far south as Cincinnati, I was once rung up at a cash register by a girl with the purest of Polish features, who could have been a personification of Krakow herself beneath her logoed baseball-cap, and whose nameplate read Justyna with that curious Slavonic 'y' that graced the name of St. Faustyna of the Divine Mercy. And all these nations jostle together indiscriminately with the same confusing segregation and lack thereof as in the old world. Superimpose a map of Serbia on Minnesota, global replace Croats, Serbs and Albanians with Germans, Poles and Swedes, and it'd be hard to tell the two apart, at least on a mile-by-mile scale. Even the Amish and Mennonites fit into the puzzle, as exotic as the Hasidim of Prague or as strangely out-of-place as the bristle of Calvinist fortress-churches that lie in modern-day Romania.

Chicago is the Vienna of this world, a capital lost in the center of a hot, sprawling continent; Cincinnati undoubtedly its Munich. The analogy doesn't always work out since that would make Minneapolis Sofia or Bucharest, Thunder Bay Costanza, and place Constantinopole somewhere on the north shore of Lake Superior with Quebec as the earthly Jerusalem. But the analogy still stands.

I'm not sure this has anything to do with my project and I definitely won't go off on tangents like this in front of my professors or the priests, but it means that the seminary with its grand steeples or dome will stand in the same parallel universe as the Midwest's vast and inscrutable emigrant churches, and perhaps partake of the same creative impulses and pious customs.

Anyway, I wrote to Monsignor Schmitz, the Provincial for North America resident in Chicago, and he expressed great interest in my hypothetical seminary project. Fortuitously, the art director for the Institute, who surely must be a man of great talent given the work at St. Mary's, Wausau, will be visiting from Europe in the next few days, and the Monsignor was eager that I should meet both he and himself. I'm taking the train in to Vienna--Chicago, I mean--tomorrow, and presenting myself to the two of them to discuss what the Institute would hypothetically want in a seminary, if they'd ever thought about it, and if they'd ever picked out a location. I'm not sure what to expect, but it should be exciting. Ora pro me.

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