St. Joan of Arc Church is among a handful of masterpieces architecture built during the post baby-boomer years in the Toronto Archdiocese.


St. Joan of Arc Church is among a handful of masterpieces architecture built during the post baby-boomer years in the Toronto Archdiocese.

April 4, 2016

A lot of traditional Catholics would have trouble explaining what a baldaccino is. Even the select few who know might have trouble identifying the hexagonal baldaccino above the altar in St. Joan of Arc on Bloor Street West in Toronto.

St. Joan of Arc is among a handful of masterpieces of modernist architecture built during the post-baby-boomer years in the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Its baldaccino (a canopy covering the altar which often echoes the cupola above, a feature of Church architecture since Renaissance times) is hexagonal and mirrors the interior shape of the church.

When St. Joan of Arc was completed and consecrated in 1967, architect William Saccoccio received an Award of Merit from the Ontario Masons Council and the Ontario Association of Architects.

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and parishioners at St. Joan of Arc love their nearly 50-year-old building that gathers everybody close to the altar and relies on natural light streaming in through abstract stained glass.

Not all our church architecture from the period surrounding the Second Vatican Council - about 1955 to 1977 - has been so cared for.

Early this year demolition crews tore down the chapel that once graced the old Willowdale campus of Regis College. That church had been designed in 1958 by one of Canada's most celebrated modernists, Peter Dickinson.

"If this was a modest Victorian row house in downtown Toronto, it would have been designated (as a heritage building) ages ago," Michael McClelland, an architect and advocate of modernist architecture, told The Toronto Star.

A couple of other modern churches were closed in recent years, leaving about 10 to 12 examples of modernist architecture still functioning in Toronto.

The archdiocese doesn't want any of its churches designated for heritage. The designation makes them harder to sell and impossible to renovate. The archdiocese has no desire to operate museums. Its churches exist to house a community and celebrate Mass.

But there's no denying churches are part of our heritage. If they weren't, the archdiocese would not be spending $128 million to renovate and restore St. Michael's Cathedral.


Dana Saccoccio, who now runs her father's old practice at Saccoccio Weppler Architects Inc., remembers the excitement and the ideals that drove the St. Joan of Arc design process when she was a girl in the 1960s.

"I remember the priests who would come to our house. I guess they went to his office too, but they would come to the house, and there would be all kinds of discussions," she said. "There was a very funky priest (St. Joan of Arc pastor Father Peter Renders) whom we all liked."

What Renders and Saccoccio were talking about at the family kitchen table had its roots in the 19th-century liturgical movement.

"The idea behind the liturgical movement in terms of church architecture was that since the liturgy is what made the community and is important for the salvation of the community and of individuals, individual people had to participate in it," said Catherine

Osborne, a theologian and historian of church architecture.


Long, narrow churches where the priest said Mass at a distant altar at one end and the people did something completely different in their pews at the other end were not the liturgical movement's ideal.

Oreste Campeotto is happy that Toronto's St. Roch Church has stood the test of time.


Oreste Campeotto is happy that Toronto's St. Roch Church has stood the test of time.

They looked back to the early history of the Church and saw people gathered around the altar for the eucharistic feast.

"The Second Vatican Council more or less said the liturgical movement was right," said Osborne, who will soon publish American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow, a book about modernist church architecture in North America.

Rather than simply accepting standard, existing styles of church buildings, priests like Renders started talking to architects like Saccoccio about what happens in the liturgy, asking them to design a building to accommodate the liturgy.

Rather than starting with a steeple, architects began designing from the inside out, making the altar central and gathering the people close to the action. In the post-war period, as building costs grew, less money and time were spent on church exteriors.

As a young man on the building committee and a builder himself, Oreste Campeotto agreed completely of the emphasis on the interior at St. Roch's in northwest Toronto.

"Ideas changed since the Vatican council," said Campeotto. "It's not the walls that count. It's the people."

St. Roch's was built in 1976, a time Campeotto remembers with great fondness. Its exterior is a tall, brick facade with room for a couple of bronze statues that almost blend in with the red brick. Inside, skylights make the sanctuary glow with natural light, even on a cloudy March morning.

The mostly Italian parish wanted people to be part of the liturgy. Campeotto is still happy and proud that the building committee went with a raked floor that raises the back rows higher than the front rows, like a theatre. "You can see the altar," Campeotto notes.

The kind of open, democratic design the modernists brought to church building for 20 years reflected the times the Church was living through, said Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli, who teaches at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn.

"It's impossible to disconnect the history of architecture from the history of the Catholic Church and theology," Faggioli said.

Through the papacies of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the emphasis in church architecture shifted away from modernist design. As post-modernism began taking off in other areas of architecture (houses, office buildings and institutions), the new churches began to revive, meld and remix elements of older styles of church architecture.

In the 1980s and '90s, anxiety about diminishing church attendance and the muted influence of the Church on secular society drove a movement for churches that looked like churches. Once again the money was spent on steeples and other impressive exterior features.

In North America, the dwindling workforce of priests made larger churches necessary, so the smaller number of priests could minister to a larger number of families.

With a new papacy, the problems of Church architecture may be open for a new look once again.

"What's interesting about Pope Francis is that he doesn't care, as his predecessors did, for the beauty, the aesthetic side of Catholicism," said Faggioli.

Massimo Faggioli

"He knows exactly that the truth, in real life, can be ugly - that the truth can be messy. He celebrates (Mass) like a normal parish priest."


Big, postmodern churches try to evoke a certain experience.

"It's trading on nostalgia, for better or for worse," said Osborne. "It's saying there was a time when the Church was at the centre of the community, and it meant a certain thing. But it doesn't mean that anymore, for whatever reason. So, we can maybe get it back if we make these buildings that ring this bell in people."

But what bell are the architects trying to ring? asks Faggioli. The nostalgia of the new, postmodern buildings looks back almost exclusively at European churches - whether Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine or Baroque.

The Church today, whether in North America or elsewhere, is increasingly multicultural, said Faggioli.

"We don't know what a multicultural Catholic church building looks like," he said.


Which is no reason to go back to modernist architecture, said Osborne. "I don't think we're going to suddenly start building modernist churches again under any circumstances.

"What I hope for is just a little bit more respect for the ideals that got these places built in the first place."

Dana Saccoccio remembers her dad as a good architect who did his best work on churches.

"His favourite building type definitely was the church," she said. "We're kind of proud of him. I think he was a good architect. He was also a good Catholic. He understood the Church. He was maybe one of the lucky ones, because he bumped into people who would allow this creativity."