Chapel offers beauty, hope

January 24, 2011
Seminary rector Fr. Shayne Craig says the curved walls behind the sanctuary help to give a sense of intimacy within the larger worship area.


Seminary rector Fr. Shayne Craig says the curved walls behind the sanctuary help to give a sense of intimacy within the larger worship area.


Snowflake filtered light illuminates the rich hues of the seven sacrament stained glass windows crafted by artisans at Vitreaux d'art E. Rault in Rennes, France. The murmur of seminarians' voices drift through the closed metal and glass doors. And the aura of sacred peace envelops the visitor as she kneels in prayer in the newly constructed St. Joseph Seminary chapel.

The heart of the seminary, "The chapel, as any chapel, is a place of encounter with the living God," says Archbishop Richard Smith.

"For this reason it must communicate not only beauty, but also hope. Here is where we encounter anew the love of Christ and are filled with the truth that there is nothing more beautiful than our relationship with him.

"Here is where we are able to cast all of our cares upon him, trusting in his mercy and power and thus being renewed and refreshed."

Architect Donna Clare embraced this mandate when she designed this holy place.

"I wanted it to be a place of reflection, a profoundly spiritual place, uplifting and giving the Blessed Sacrament and the calling to priesthood a sense of anchoring in the history of the Church and St. Joseph Seminary itself."

The need to establish a common understanding and vocabulary between Clare, the archbishop and seminary participants rector Father Shayne Craig, director Father Stephen Hero and then-seminarian Michael Schumacher, prompted Smith to plan a week-long trip for the group to visit five United States seminaries that had been renovated or expanded.

Windows depicting the seven traditional steps to the priesthood adorn the back wall of the new chapel.


Windows depicting the seven traditional steps to the priesthood adorn the back wall of the new chapel.

"We attended Mass and I came to an understanding of the process of what becoming a priest was about, what was important to the archbishop and Father Shayne, the seminary and the chapel, and try to reflect that back in the design," explains Clare.


The result is a stunning meld of the poetic and pragmatic, the modern and the Romanesque, the intimate and vaulting grandeur.

"The materiality of the chapel I wanted to feel strong and permanent - the Canadian sedimentary stone floors (from Owen Sound, Ont.), the concrete walls to give that sense of support and permanence, but at the same time feel uplifting," says Clare. "So the ceiling and the way we articulated the ceiling gives you that sense of uplift in the space."

Armed with the information trip plus knowledge gleaned from texts given to her by the seminarians, Clare knew she wanted "a space that feels special and spiritual for generations, really wanting to be timeless and appropriate. Part of us too wanted to make sure there was a sense of reverence in the space that calms, a quiet strength that you feel in very few special places."

Part of the dynamic Clare incorporated in the chapel was the French stained glass windows taken from the former seminary near St. Albert.

She knew the powerful images needed a quiet, calm setting and "the interior of the chapel is fairly neutral and quiet and it really allows the windows to come to life. They don't compete with the different elements in the chapel and have their own space visually, spiritually."


Andre Winter and his father Paul (who has a master's in stained glass from Germany) were the artisans in charge of removing the 50-year-old windows from the original seminary, restoring and repairing them and then installing them in the new chapel.


The statues of Mary and Joseph were carved from a single block of ancient wood.

"We already knew what problems could arise," says Andre. They used a scissor lift to bring the windows down individually "in a very delicate manner and had less than five per cent damage."

Forty per cent of the soldering joints had to be redone (they make their own lead), panes replaced and everything cleaned. "You have over 50 years of being in a Catholic environment - incense, candles being burnt - the smoke residue is like being in a smoker's house," explains Andre.

With the heavy clear glass on the outside and stainless steel frames, Andre says he is "baffled about how they could do such a modern installation so long ago. What we want now is for them to last another 50 years."

While Andre did the heavy work, 80-year-old Paul inspected every square inch of the windows, pointing out which part was done by the apprentice, which by the master.


The windows depicting the seven sacraments flank the main chapel and the traditional seven steps to priesthood are grouped together at the back.

As he watched the sun illuminate the windows during one 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. shift, Andre felt the windows "were telling a story, still contained a medieval feeling, the prismatic sparkles creating a relaxing, calming euphoric emotion."

Craig appreciates the antiquity of the stained glass' interplay with the modern and classical elements of the chapel.

"To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how people would respond to the curved walls behind the sanctuary," says Craig. "But what they do is draw that very large space into an intimate space."

They also complement the curved pews designated to create an intimate place of worship for the seminarians. They are placed in front of traditional straight pews. 'We wanted to create a sense of a place where 40 spirits could fill and inhabit and at the same time have enough room for the greater congregation when they have their larger celebrations," explains Clare.


Craig describes how various elements of the chapel blend the new with the old - the stations of the cross commissioned by the Demetz family in Italy, Joseph and Mary statues sculpted from a single piece of ancient wood by the Sisters of St. Bruno and Our Lady of Bethlehem, a contemplative French religious community, the crucifix brought from the former seminary.

Michael Schumacher, now a priest and part of the original design team, says the chapel's unique design initially surprised him. "But the way she incorporated the sanctuary and the use of light sold people on it. It is more beautiful than what I was expecting and reminds you of the presence of God and leads you to prayer."

Those words would please Clare, for she hopes "there is a sense that the chapel is a strong powerful organizing element in the life of the seminary. This was a profoundly powerful project. It restored my faith."

This unique sacred place meets with the archbishop's approval and he says the design "lifts us out of ourselves and towards God who is both transcendent and near."