Materiality as an Expression of the Sacred

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Rita A. Smith, AIA, with photographs by Peter Jordan

Our Lady of the Angels Church with Camelback Mountain in the distance.

View of Our Lady of the Angels Church in the foreground, with Camelback Mountain in the distance. Photo: ©

“The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good.”

Pope Francis, Laudato Si(2015)

As a place for spiritual growth, healing, and transformation since 1951, the Franciscan Renewal Center (the Casa) in Paradise Valley, Arizona, has been a destination for those seeking a place away from the roar of life in order to listen for God. It is a peaceful place of inclusiveness where all are welcome in an environment of intimacy. The grounds and ministries have been a source of comfort and healing for many over the years.

When it came time to build the new conventual church of Our Lady of the Angels, there were many goals but among the most important were intimacy, simplicity, beauty, and authenticity. With these goals, the new church was designed to expand the hospitality and welcome that has long marked the community of the Casa. The community design team, the liturgical design consultant, and the architect spent many hours in deliberation, prayer, and research to achieve those goals.

There are three core ways the substance of the new church was intended to convey the sacred: by acknowledging through the construction, as St. Francis sang in his Canticle of Creation, that all creation sings praise to God; to mediate an experience of God through light, space, and authentic materials; and by claiming our responsibility to steward God’s creation.

Creation Sings Praise to God

Guided by the beautiful imagery of the Canticle of Creation, the Casa community sought to express, according to the art program statement developed for the project, “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Thus, the intent was to choose familiar, natural materials as the source for achieving beauty.

Stone: On both the interior and exterior of the church, stone is meant to draw a distinction between heaven and earth. The grounded, roughhewn Oklahoma stone is split-face to retain its natural character. The honed travertine identifies the purer transcendence of the more ethereal oval upper structure.

Concrete: The choice of a lightly polished concrete floor is in keeping with simplicity and authenticity.

Venetian plaster: Marble-based Venetian plaster is used as a highlight feature on the reredos to identify this space as a focus and to allow the marble in the material to reflect the colors from the adjacent art glass. Thus, earthly stone reflects the beauty of light.

Wood: Reflective of the Arizona environment, wood is used sparingly on the interior. As a material that can be honed to the touch, it helps to shape the space for the assembly on the lower walls and as the pews.

Terra cotta: The narthex walls leading into the nave are constructed of terra cotta tiles. These are of refined clay, much like we, as clay, strive to be refined by our participation in the assembly.

Straw: As an integral element in the representation of the Nativity Creche at Greccio and as a symbol of the personification of Lady Poverty (dear to St. Francis), actual straw is included in the plaster of two wall sections. This meditation on the humility, simplicity, and poverty of Christ is placed in the reredos, beneath the art glass depicting the nativity scene of Greccio and under the Sister Mother Earth window directly across the Nave. In addition, straw is a motif carved in the liturgical furniture and baptismal font.

Canticle of Creation

Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour; and bears a likeness of you, Most High.

Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through whom you give sustenance to your creatures.

Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you light the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.

St. Francis of Assisi

Mediator of the Experience of God

It is infrequent that a community has the opportunity to give its identity physical form, to mediate an experience of God through light and space. A new understanding of our humanity; the nature of the universe; the divine; and our connections to each other, to creation, and to transcendent mystery, has marked each age of man. Buildings for worship have been one of the physical means of marking those new understandings. The leadership of the Casa wanted this church to speak for the age in which it was built. Without abandoning historical relevance or connection, the hope was that this openness to not having a predetermined form or materiality would provide room for inspiration and guidance of the spirit. As Christ is humanity’s mediator to God and the actions of worship mediate meaning into the everyday, architecture acts as a mediator providing opportunities to explore physical and transcendent connections. Thus, the design effort was to connect the Franciscan Christian story to the architectural language of our time, grounded in the Arizona desert.

Light was an integral material and the primary means of providing transcendent connections. Sunlight in the desert is both life-giving and dangerous and must be carefully directed into spaces. The use of vertical steel cantilevers allowed the major commitment of the 360-degree skylight that suffuses the plaster walls with indirect sunlight. This concealed light source surrounds the assembly and changes with the time of day and the seasons. As the Art Program statement observed: “The possibility that all of creation—including ourselves—can give praise to the God who calls us into the marvelous light.”

As a facilitator of light, glass is used intentionally in specific locations with specific purpose. Vertical windows bridge the earthy, stone base with the honed, heavenly realm. This sacred exchange between “heaven and earth” prefigured in Jacob’s ladder in the book of Exodus informs the art elements in the new church.

The south-facing and most public window has the patron image of the earthly Mother of God, Our Lady of the Angels, accompanied by angels ascending the heavenly realm. During the day, the intense light animates the image in its richness of color. At night it proclaims welcome to the community. In a conversation with one gentleman about the use of the realistic image of the Milky Way as an expression of heaven, he found it challenging to connect space, the universe, and the heavens of his youthful understanding. The building is already engaged in the process of mediating meaning.

Stewardship of Creation

Most design professionals know about and participate in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) a certification program sponsored by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), but most worship congregations are not as familiar with it or the reasons to participate. It is a somewhat uphill charge to convince a congregation about the usefulness of the costs and paperwork to participate in the process. The Casa community made the commitment to

pursue the certification primarily for two reasons. As a Franciscan community, its spiritual guide calls us to recognize creation as, “a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness,” according to Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si. A practical reason was the knowledge that during the construction process the pressure to save money or make adjustments for ease or schedule can result in the elimination of items designed to protect the environment. The contractual obligation to meet LEED standards makes the environmental commitment clear to all parties. As the first LEED worship space in Arizona and the 15th in the country, there is a strong message befitting St Francis’s legacy.

The largest single contributor to the LEED certification is the design of the HVAC system, which uses 30 percent less energy than one that was simply code compliant. Under the concrete floor, a low-volume fiberglass duct system delivers air to condition the space at the level of the assembly. In contrast, an overhead system would have required much colder air, higher air velocity, and thus more energy.

LEED is not just about energy efficiency but also about the selection and management of resources. Which materials are used, where they come from, how they are made, and how they are disposed of were guiding principles in the design of the church. The focus on natural materials contributed to reduce chemical impact: low-VOC paints; low-VOC joining compounds used throughout the building; HDPE toilet partitions eliminate formaldehyde and are ultimately recyclable.

Outdated modes of construction use resources for building and then dump debris in landfills. Debris is no longer a waste; it is a resource if it is recycled, as was 95 percent of the waste for this project. Items incorporated to manage resources: water-reducing appliances, water-reduced landscape plantings, storm-water management for reabsorption, low-energy LED lighting, and high-performance glazing.

Space for Sacred Conversations

One of the Casa community’s core values is that sacred space is essential: Creating physical space and space within our lives for sacred conversations is essential to wellbeing. The use of materials, detailing, proportions, massing, and integration of the art program have provided an inspiring worship space. Community members have been overcome when going inside for the first time, many reaching out to make physical contact with the building’s materials. The Casa community in its dedication to spiritual growth, healing, and transformation has erected a building to welcome all who enter into sacred conversations.

Design Team

  • Architect/Engineer: DLR Group / Westlake Reed Leskosky, Paul Siemborski, AIA Principal,
    Dan Clevenger, AIA LEED AP Project Director
  • Liturgical Design Consultant: Fr. Mark Joseph Costello, OFM
  • Executive Director: Fr. Joseph Schwab, OFM
  • Rector: Fr. Peter Kirwin, OFM
  • Director of Liturgy: Nobert Zwickl
  • Owner’s Representative: Rita A Smith, AIA
  • Contractor: Haydon Building Corp.

The author is an architect who is a specifications manager at CDM Smith in Phoenix and served as the owner’s representative for Our Lady of the Angels Church.