‘A Loving Respect for all of God’s Creation’

Volume 52, Issue 3 :: Roberto Chiotti and Michael Nicholas-Schmidt

Design for exterior of Saint Benedict Church

Design for exterior of Saint Benedict Church incorporates a landmark concrete spire combined with natural material. Drawing courtesy of Larkin Architect Limited

Saint Benedict Parish was established in 2012 to serve the growing community of Milton, Ontario, Canada. Guided by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and formed under the charism of Saint Benedict, the parish building committee engaged our firm, Larkin Architect Limited, in late 2015 to begin the visioning process for a new church and community space facility. What emerged from meetings and stakeholder workshops over several weeks were a number of guiding principles that embodied the Rule of Saint Benedict and strove to reflect the enduring values of the Roman Catholic faith in our contemporary culture.

Design by the Rule and Laudato Si

Construction underway on the church

Construction underway on the church, which will incorporate the landmark spire. Photo: courtesy of Larkin Architecture Limited

Rule 53 of the Rule of Saint Benedict instructs: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,” citing Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” According to the pastor, Reverend James Petrie, the demographics of the parish is comprised of 40 percent South Asians, 30 percent Filipinos, with the remaining 30 percent from Europe, the Americas, and Africa. As an ethnically diverse congregation of immigrants that bring with them their traditional forms of faith, piety, and devotion, it was of primary importance that the new church design be welcoming, familiar, and comforting to all members of the gathered faith community. It became apparent that there was a strong, traditionally conservative element within the Saint Benedict congregation. The parishioners wanted the new church building to be a beacon of their faith, a recognizable and prominent element within the community of south Milton. It was their desire that the form and expression of the building clearly express to the surrounding suburban neighborhood the unique history and tradition of the Catholic Church within a modern context.

One of the dominant themes that emerged from the visioning process was the affirmation that the members of Saint Benedict parish were very much an Easter people. “The joy of the resurrection and the promise of the Paschal mystery inspire us to reflect hope and optimism to the world.” Saint Benedict’s Rule 49 regarding the observance of Lent instructs that we should “look forward to Holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” It was felt that the building, through its vibrancy, expression, brightness, and finishes, must embody this joyful reality that Jesus Christ is alive and well in the world.

The community further expressed that the church architecture should support their belief in living a legacy passed. As bearers of a rich Catholic tradition, they strove to embody the enduring values of their faith in our contemporary culture. It was therefore desired that the building should reflect this rich tradition in a manner relevant to the present, prophetic of a hopeful future. It should express their unique faith in ways that are accessible and engaging to their youth and the many generations that will follow.

The building committee made it clear that they believed they were grace-filled and that the experience of the new building should express the transcendent awe of being in the presence of a God, “my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27). Through the person of Jesus Christ, they know God who is also immanent. And by the grace of the Holy Spirit they know they are “on Holy Ground” (Exodus 3).

Core to the Rule of Saint Benedict is a daily pattern of prayer as expressed by the Liturgy of the Hours. Each and every day is shaped by the prayerful orientation to God as center. It was determined that the new building should therefore reflect this spiritual tradition, and support a prayerful, restorative, and healing environment for all who enter.

In addition, there was a loving respect for all of God’s creation, a deeply rooted acknowledgement that as humans, we are part of it, interrelated and inextricably interconnected. The summer before the parish committee and our design team commenced the visioning process, Pope Francis had promulgated his famous encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home. In it, the Holy Father reminds us that the universe in all of its diversity and interconnectedness acts as a form of sacred scripture in and of itself. We are all part of God’s creation and as such, it is necessary for us to embrace an “integral ecology” leading to right relationships that can only be achieved when we see the interconnectedness and interdependence between our environmental, economic, and social ecologies. (137-139) In its wisdom, the parish felt compelled to embrace this imperative in the design of the new church. The parish believes that the building must support this understanding of right relationships and interconnectedness in its materiality, views, and orientation; that it must serve as a form of catechesis, in and of itself, teaching these foundational principles of right relationships with all of God’s creation, inspiring transformation from an exploitive to a more benign and nurturing relationship with our Earth home.

Choosing Sustainability

With this vision in hand, we set about the iterative design process to arrive at a traditional church design, formed by the charism of Saint Benedict, rooted in church history, yet reinterpreted for a time when climate change and environmental degradation are of great concern.

Because buildings significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in their construction and ongoing operation, it was decided that one of the best ways the congregation could embody good stewardship of God’s creation was with architecture built of local natural materials, that generates as much energy as it consumes, and avoids emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The design team was challenged to consider every design decision from first principles.

Knowing that some sustainable design strategies come at a cost premium, every increase in capital cost had to be justified with a sound business case. We discovered that as long-term building owners and operators, Saint Benedict parish responded positively to design decisions that would net considerable savings in ongoing energy, maintenance, and operating costs for a modest increase in initial capital expenditure. For example, the case was easily made to use geothermal energy to heat and cool the building when it was demonstrated that the return on investment for this system would conservatively provide the parish with an estimated $1.5 million in savings over the next 50 years–precious financial resources that could be re-directed to support parish ministries and those in need.

Green Materials and Design Features

The building is situated within view of the Niagara Escarpment, a dominant natural rock outcrop that literally divides southern Ontario in two from the shores of Lake Erie in the south, up to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron in the north. Locally quarried escarpment stone was therefore the natural choice to clad the building exterior and the interior of its major rooms, such as the narthex and worship space. This enabled the new church to be “anchored” within its surrounding natural context and the genius loci or spirit of its place. Maximizing insulation within these heavy, massive stonewalls ensured a reduction in heating and cooling loads while providing improved comfort for building occupants.

To embody the sense of being an Easter people focused on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, movement towards the transcendent within the worship space was manifest with a continuous band of energy efficient, triple-glazed windows surrounding the entire perimeter of the building, further emphasized with a linear clerestory from the narthex to the sanctuary that floods the building with natural light. The strong directional axis from entrance to the sanctuary, framed with twin wood trusses, culminates in a back-lit, onyx reredos supporting the central crucifix and tabernacle. A contemporary exterior tower beyond serves as a beacon of Catholic presence to the surrounding neighborhood. At the opposite end of the nave, the rose window hosts the only stained glass in the church, a design by a local artist inspired by the charism of Saint Benedict.

The supporting structure of the soaring roofline, which appears to hover above the building, is made of Western Canadian Douglas Fir, a natural material which helps to reduce energy expended in processing and continues to sequester carbon throughout the life of the building. The roof cladding is of locally sourced and fabricated steel, in support of the community-based economy. The roofing material is robust, durable, and ultimately recyclable at the end of its expected service life.

Outside, the landscaping is dominated by an extended linear garden that begins at the north end with a shrine to Saint Benedict and welcomes those arriving by car, leading them to the sheltered gathering space of the entrance courtyard. The imposing wooden front doors symbolize the threshold to the sacred space beyond and Christ as the gateway to the heavenly realm.

Several electric vehicle charging stations are provided to encourage parishioners to invest in this alternative transportation technology as a way to further reduce carbon emissions associated with the church. An array of photo voltaic panels mounted overtop outdoor parking areas flanking either side of the church is sized to generate all of the electricity required to run the pumps and fans of its mechanical systems along with the power required to light the church and provide plug loads for its office equipment, while protecting the vehicles beneath from snow and the hot summer sun.

Together, the cumulative effect of these sustainable design initiatives demonstrates this traditional parish’s commitment to upholding the legacy of their Roman Catholic faith while responding to the 21st-century context in which they will worship, serve their community, and inspire future generations.

The authors are principals of Larkin Architect Limited, based in Toronto.