A House for the People of God

Volume 50, Issue 2 :: By Robert Habiger, AIA, ACLS with photographs by RMA Architectural Photographers

St. Thomas More Church

The roof of St. Thomas More Church seems to reach out in a welcoming gesture.

Vatican II ushered in a liturgical renewal that was unprecedented in inviting “lay and ordained worshipers to occupy a unified space symbolic of their own unity in Christ.”1 This understanding set in motion post-Vatican II church designs that heralded a centralized plan with nave and sanctuary intimately connected. Why, then, is there now a reemergence of classical, pre-Vatican II churches? In most cases, this return to a pre-Vatican II architectural building style is stated as serving a reform of the reform, or as returning sacredness to our places of worship. Embedded in this return to an architecture of pretentious ornamentation is a clerical culture where it is commonplace to speak dismissively of Vatican II and to demand a return to deep and dark sanctuaries that remove the clergy from the assembly.2 Absent in this view is a respect for Vatican II theology and how an intimate relationships by clergy and laity with the sacramental rites and rituals of the liturgy which then leads to establishing a sacred place and a spirit-filled community.

Worship Space Archetypes

An understanding of worship space archetypes is needed to appreciate what defines a pre- or post-Vatican II church. There are two principal archetypes for the design of a worship space: temple and meetinghouse.3 Another common reference for each archetype is the “House of God” and the “House for the People of God,” terms that imply both a theological distinction and a difference in how the spaces are organized. These two archetypes can also be defined as creating either a two-room or one-room space.4 Having so many different terms to define a worship space can be a challenge, especially when seeking clarity.

From a historical perspective, pre-Vatican II church buildings principally followed the temple, or two-room, archetype. In contrast, the meetinghouse or one-room archetype is perhaps most representative of a Vatican II worship space. In simplified terms, the temple archetype establishes a hierarchically dependent two-room space, while the meetinghouse archetype establishes a unified one-room space.

Floor Plan

Floor Plan

House for the People Of God

Vatican II emphasized a theology that sought to create deeper personal participation in the liturgy. As one theologian recently noted, the Vatican II documents emphasized that it is the “People of God” who are the principal celebrants of the liturgy.5 Of course, this does not diminish the importance of the ordained celebrant, who “represents Christ as the head of the Body.”6 What is expressed throughout the Vatican II documents is the importance of the assembly, their need to be actively engaged in the liturgy, and to have a space that supports, rather than hinders, such participation. The Church has described this major point as follows: “The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations.”7 Active participation comes about when we encounter each other and the sacraments in a setting that promotes communal prayer.8 Communal prayer cannot happen when a physical and psychological separation exists between the assembly and sanctuary.

A major feature of worship space designed for the House for the People of God is that no physical separation exists between the celebration space and the assembly space. A theological understanding for the House for the People of God archetype is that the Eucharist is central to the celebration. Built of Living Stones, the “go-to” document regarding Roman Catholic church design in the US, describes this singular guiding design principle this way: “The community worships as a single body united in faith.”9 In practice this characterizes a one-room space, sometimes referred to as a central-plan space.

While the House for the People of God archetype is the essence of a Vatican II worship space, attributes of the House of God archetype should not be ignored when designing for a sense of place and meaning. People respond in a positive manner to buildings with large linear assembly spaces, clearly defined artistic features, numerous devotional experiences, and tall tower forms.

Seating radiates out from the altar, drawing all into the celebration of the Eucharist.

Seating radiates out from the altar, drawing all into the celebration of the Eucharist.

A Church Attuned to Liturgy

What makes St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Oceanside, California, significant is its good architecture and being attuned to the liturgy. The church building was designed by architect Renzo Zecchetto of Los Angeles (our firm served as liturgical design consultant, involved in liturgical space programming, liturgical furniture design, and artist selection). The design evolved through an informed view of how liturgy affects the design of the worship environment.

Early in the design process a liturgical program was produced in collaboration with the parish interior design committee. This document covered every liturgical aspect of the church, including site features, building spaces, liturgical furniture, devotional art, music ministry requirements, and, of course, how the space was to support the rites and rituals of the Church. When asked if the liturgical program informed the design the architect says that “without question” it did.

Here are just three examples of how the liturgy gave form to the building. The centrality of the altar in the midst of the assembly came from studying such statements as: “The altar is the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes.”10 The decision to place the baptismal font at the entrance to the worship space and at the main aisle was informed by such statements as: “Initiation into the Church is entrance into a Eucharistic community united in Jesus.”11 Finally, a separate reservation chapel was created from studying multiple documents, including the dedication rite where the instructions state that the “blessed sacrament is carried through the main body of the church to the chapel of reservation.”12

While the liturgy served to guide the project, the architectural design itself is significant. In 2016 the new church garnered the coveted Grand Orchid Award from the San Diego Architectural Foundation. In the award narrative the architect described the main concept as being a space that had to “promote both a sense of community and a sense of transcendence.”13

The architect understood that the tower was more than an exterior form expressing a temple archetype, stating that he was tired of a tower just being a symbol and he wanted it to have a purpose within the building itself. He describes how the tower is placed on “the axis of light” so as to bring meaningful light into sacred elements of the building. This cascading light enters into the Marian Shrine, one of the two prominent devotional spaces in the church. The tower is a visible symbol to the community and is also something more that has a positive impact on the interior space.

The architecture does more than establish a place marked by an iconic tower form. The building has a sheltered outdoor narthex, two outdoor meditation gardens, two significantly scaled devotional shrine spaces, and clearly delineated rooms for each prime liturgical function which all give order and composition to the building. The architect explains that design decisions were made to create layers of transparency and openness. In plan, the Eucharistic reservation chapel is located between the daily mass chapel and main Eucharistic hall. Tall vertical windows separate the rooms from each other. These floor-to-ceiling vertical slits of glass were detailed to provide both privacy and openness.

Location of celebrant and the congregation emphasizes the House of the People of God.

Location of celebrant and the congregation emphasizes the House of the People of God.

The liturgical action of the mass and sacraments are in the midst of the assembly, not removed from the assembly. The large interior volume for the Eucharistic hall is not only shaped to embrace the assembly as a unified Body of Christ, but its large volume was created to support a future pipe organ. The music ministry, including the future organ, completes the circle around the altar so as to establish a unified one-room worship space. The assembly space has a wood ceiling that disappears above the sanctuary. The taller open ceiling at the sanctuary is perceived by the architect as creating “a raw void,” a transcendent space.

One of the most influential design features is the quality of light that enters the building. Through the use of large expanses of clear glass, the light entering the worship space is ever-changing and different throughout the day. This openness to the exterior environment is the principal form-giver of the building and offers parishioners the ability to connect inside to outside on a daily basis so as to experience something greater than themselves. While transparency and openness are hallmarks of the design, the design of the church building is a response to the documents of the Church.

Future of Vatican II Liturgy

Right after Vatican II there was an understanding that the renewed liturgy demanded that worship spaces be designed differently, the principal thought being that the pre-Vatican II church building was no longer an appropriate environment for the renewed liturgy. However, many post-Vatican II worship spaces built immediately after the council had a singular focus on the rites and rituals with little attention given to devotional spaces. An argument can be made that these initial spare and simple spaces overlooked the emotional and spiritual expectancies of a post-Vatican II space. It took many years for liturgical consultants to sufficiently inform how a worship space needed to include devotional shrines and the various other spatial elements that parishioners identify as adding to their spirituality.

In essence there is still a battle underway with regard to understanding the heart and soul of the Vatican II liturgy and how a church should be organized and designed. While some are advocating for a return to pre-Vatican II-type worship spaces, a resilient group is continuing to advance designs that emphasize a unified Body of Christ. Vatican II ushered in the understanding that the assembly is the principal celebrant of the liturgy. This cannot occur when the assembled are merely “observers.”

What makes St. Thomas More special is the collaboration between the architect and liturgical design consultant to create a place that responds to Vatican II liturgy and is great architecture as well. St. Thomas More is an unabashed contemporary piece of architecture that is unmistakably a church. To embrace a House for the People of God approach is to move forward in theology and liturgy. Needing to continue to validate this after so many years since Vatican II is disconcerting, but this does not reduce the need to remain true to the fathers of the liturgical renewal. St. Thomas More parish understood that they wanted a place that fully embraced the renewed liturgy and be a place of beauty and transcendence.


  1. Michael DeSanctis, “Curates and Curators at the High Altar: How the New Clericalism Hurts Liturgical Renewal,” (Emmanuel Magazine, Nov/Dec 2016), pp. 360-370.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Harold Turner, From Temple to Meeting House, New York: Mounton, 1979.
  4. Robert  Habiger, “1 Room Worship,” Modern Liturgy, June-July 1997.
  5. Fr. David Pettingill, “Poisoning the Wells,” Webinar by Association of Consultants for Liturgical Space, January 2017.
  6. United States Catholic Conference, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed, 2000, par 1188.
  7. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963, par 14.
  8. United States Catholic Conference, Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, 2000, par 31.
  9. Ibid, par 51.
  10. Ibid, par 56.
  11. Ibid, par 66.
  12. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dedication of a Church and an Altar, 1989, par 89.
  13. San Diego Union-Tribune, bit.ly/ff-grandorchid, October 13, 2016

The author is a liturgical design consultant and architect who practices with Dekker/Perich/Sabatini with offices in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. He can be reached at roberth@dpsdesign.org.