Report on St Vincent de Paul’s Church, Redfern, with Recommendations
Regarding Internal Ordering and Liturgical Furnishings and Adornment
This Report and Recommendations follows an inspection of St Vincent’s Church in April 2013 by Rev. Donald Richardson, Director of the Liturgy Office of the Archdiocese, and Mr Harry Stephens, a liturgical architect, Member of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission and Secretary of the National Liturgical Architecture and Art Board. The intent of the Report is to assess the present state of the church regarding liturgical ordering, art and architecture, and in the light of suggestions by the Parish Priest for modifications to enhance the liturgical suitability of the church, to outline the liturgical principles to be born in mind as the Parish moves forward.
St Vincent’s Church Generally
Built in the last decade of the 19th century, this moderately sized Gothic church fronting Redfern Street Redfern, is a highly significant part of the material patrimony of the Sydney Archdiocese. A fine example of its style and type, it boasts a wealth of architectural and artistic elements including walls of high quality red brick and sandstone, six beautifully detailed open hammer beam timber roof trusses supporting a painted timber boarded ceiling beneath a refurbished slate roof, some fine stained glass windows and a variety of fixtures and fitments in original well-crafted timber joinery.
At the outset, it must also be very clearly acknowledged and understood that the building is a highly significant heritage item that is protected by the heritage provisions current in the general community. Any alterations to the building need to meet the requirements of these provisions.
Oriented approximately south-north with its Liturgical East to the south, the church is entered on the east and west byway of two small side porches set approximately two thirds of the way towards the rear of the church. The rear section of the church (approximately a quarter of the length of the nave] is occupied by a tiered timber choir loft supported on timber post and beam construction with access by way of a stair in the north-eastern corner of the church. The space beneath this loft, being considerably less than half the height of the main body of the church with a flat timber panelled ceiling, is somewhat naturally separated from the rest of the church.
The space is currently separated from the main body of the church by means of a temporary lightweight plywood screen. It is furnished with tables and chairs serving a pastoral function that would normally be accommodated in a church hall or similar.
The choir loft is stepped in three transverse sections. It has restricted headroom on the higher sections beneath the steel rod bottom chord/roof truss tie. A modest projection at the front of the loft accommodates an harmonium with a number of false display pipes giving the appearance of a small pipe organ. It is not in a playable condition.
The two entry porches open into a generously sized entry space in the main body of the church directly in front of the space beneath the choir loft. The timber pews (original?] arranged in two rows with a modest centre aisle and two narrow side aisles, occupy the area towards the front of the church. The pews are separated from the entry space by the original curved timber altar rails that have been relocated here. It is estimated that the pews would seat a maximum congregation of about 110.
Of the two original confessionals on opposite sides of the church at about the midpoint along the side walls, the western one is still in use as a confessional. The eastern recess has been opened and is occupied by a slab of rough stone on two rough stone supports. With small depressions on the upper side that can hold a little water, the stone has been used as a baptismal font.
The southernmost bay of the church is the original Sanctuary defined by two vertical timber pilasters, one on each side wall abutting the bottom of the last roof truss.
The liturgical east wall (southern wall) is a single flat plane broken only by two small doorways, one on each side and three high stained glass lancet windows. The most significant feature of the wall is a painted mural bearing a quotation from a speech by Pope John Paul II in Alice Springs in 1986 surrounded by motifs of aboriginal character.
The church is artificially illuminated by modern shallow dish-shaped glass pendant lights hanging on brass rods from the centres of the steel tie rods at the bottoms of the roof trusses and by strip LED up-lighting along the purlins in the roof. The effect of the strip lighting, which is largely unseen from below, is to strongly illuminate the white painted boarded ceiling and to provide a generous level of general illumination throughout the church. The similarly sized pendant light hanging from the tie rod at the bottom of the truss marking the Sanctuary, in an attempt to emphasise the difference between this area and the body of the church, is a six- armed ‘candelabra’ with small glass bowl diffusers.
The underside of the choir loft is illuminated by four smaller versions of the main pendant lights on shorter hanging rods. The level of illumination here is considerably lower than the rest of the church.
The timber altar is located on the main axis of the church beneath the centre point of the last roof truss. It rests on a square of carpet approximately 2.4m x 2.4m on the main floor level. Behind the altar against the end wall and the mural on a one step high carpeted dais are arranged the presider’s chair and two side chairs. On both side walls of the Sanctuary are two pews arranged in an antiphonal setting facing the altar. A sound system box in south western the corner of the sanctuary is covered with a cloth matching the altar cloth and acts as a credence table. A vertical rough stone with a very small inset tabernacle (currently not in use) is located in the opposite corner. The two doors in the end wall of the Sanctuary open to two small spaces behind. The room on the eastern side is currently used as a chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. A wall-mounted Sanctuary lamp adjacent to the door is designed to announce its location to those in the church. The tiny chapel is furnished with a brass tabernacle and a small amount of sitting/kneeling space. The space on the other side is the sacristy. (The vestry consists of a cupboard in the entry porch on the western side of the church.)
The church has inherited from Fr Ted Kennedy a plywood altar made by sculptor Tom Bass. Currently not in use, it is stored in the space beneath the choir loft under a tarpaulin. It is in poor condition with the ply peeling from its surface. As it has been made of plywood rather than solid timber, it may have been intended as a full scale mock-up for a stone altar. Indeed, the manner of its construction underneath and behind strongly suggest it was not intended as a permanent altar. In any event, it may have been in use as a temporary altar in another church by Fr Kennedy before he brought it to the church of St Vincent de Paul Redfern. The frontispiece is a fine example of the work of this prominent Australian artist, and features a relief taking as its theme the five wounds of Christ, a theme he used elsewhere, as for example on his altar in St Mary’s Cathedral Hobart.
Recommendation 1.Tom Bass plywood altar
The plywood altar is a uniquely important work of art by this celebrated sculptor and a significant part of the patrimony of the Sydney Archdiocese. However, its size, its materials and its poor condition make it inappropriate to be used as an altar today. It is recommended that it be appropriately stored, or located on display. It would be most appropriately exhibited in any future Archdiocesan Museum.
General Principles for Churches
The Church requires that “churches or other sacred places should be suitable for carrying out the sacred action and for ensuring the active participation of the faithful. Moreover, sacred buildings should be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.”
The movement of the People of God towards the Lord and the journey of the spiritual aspirant has traditionally been reflected in and symbolized by the axis of the church. The architecture of St Vincent’s reflects this and gives the church a strong axial emphasis. This axial geometry of our churches has traditionally given built expression to the passage from darkness to light, from death to the world to new life in Christ. This new life is accessible via the sacrifice at the Eucharistic table, the altar. It is not a two dimensional world that we inhabit and our architecture must of course fill itself out into the three dimensions. The archetypal Christian church stands at the centre of the world, the altar transfixed by the Axis Mundi. From this point, the place of sacrifice where the sacred marriage of heaven and earth occurs, the church extends into the four-ness of the earthly plane [west and east, north and south) according to the profound symbolism of number and geometry simultaneously veiled and revealed in the scriptures and handed down through the ages in our Tradition.
Notwithstanding the changes in liturgical emphasis over the years and in particular since Vatican II, it would be unwise to run counter to the strong geometry of the building. Indeed, it offers an opportunity to give voice to these powerful traditional symbols and at the same time to embrace the liturgical norms of our age.
The placement of altar, ambo, chair, baptismal font, tabernacle and assembly all need to be considered with these principles in focus.
In light of the above, the location of the Sanctuary at the end of the church is fitting.
In a church, and especially in a Parish Church, there should be a fixed altar, clearly and permanently signifying Jesus. An altar is said to be fixed if it is constructed so as to be attached to the floor and not removable . The table of the altar should be of stone, although another dignified, solid and well-crafted material may be used. Mindful of the reality that the action that takes place here is ‘vertically’ oriented, beyond our earthly domain to the heavenly domain ‘above’, it is fitting that the altar be raised above the general level of the floor so that we rise up to meet the Lord.
In the case of St Vincent’s, Redfern, a minimum one step high predella is strongly recommended in this instance given the size and scale of the church. This small elevation of the altar will also aid in the call to full conscious and active participation in the liturgy making the altar clearly visible to the whole assembly.
A device to further emphasise the vertical at the altar is also strongly recommended. The six- armed pendant light does very little in this regard. There are many options available to us to do this – a baldachin, crucifix, light fitting etc. It goes without saying that the design or selection of such a device would necessarily take into consideration the architectural and artistic ‘language’ already established in the church.
The proclamation of the Word needs to be given the gravitas it demands. Placing the ambo on the same level as the altar is desirable in this instance and could be achieved by extending the predella to incorporate it. There ought to be sufficient distance between altar and ambo to enable the procession of the Gospel book to take place and be visible. Consideration must be given to sight lines for the assembly and the direction that the speaker will face in proclaiming the Word, both of which have a significant role to play in ensuring full conscious and active participation by all in the liturgy.
‘The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. ‘…the prayers addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ are said in the name of the entire holy people and of all present.’
As it is currently placed on the main axis of St Vincent’s Church in the centre of the end wall on a raised dais, it addresses most of these issues. At present, to move from the chair to the altar the presider must descend whereas the appropriate symbolism is that he would rise up to the altar or at least be at the same level. In the context of St Vincent’s, it is recommended that the predella be sufficiently large for altar, ambo and chair to all stand upon it.
Recommendation 2. Sanctuary location, disposition and furnishing.
It is recommended that the sanctuary be permanently constructed at the “East” end on the principle axis, and that the altar, which should be of stone, be elevated by at least one step above the level of the nave, and possibly the ambo and celebrant’s chair likewise; and that consideration be given to a prominent crucifix or other appropriate means such as lighting to highlight the altar and sanctuary.
The Baptismal Font
“The baptistery or the area where the baptismal font is located should be…worthy to serve as the place where Christians are reborn in water and the Holy Spirit.” And “…large enough to accommodate a good number of people.” “The baptismal font…should be spotlessly clean and of pleasing design.”
The current stone font in St Vincent’s is inadequate for the celebration of this fundamentally important ritual. It is too small and it is not crafted so as to serve well as a vessel for containing the baptismal water, especially in the amounts required to be blessed at Easter. It is not of a convenient height. Moreover, it appearance does not convey its purpose. Its replacement ought to be a high priority as soon as pastorally advisable. To place a font of generous size and appropriate material on the crossing of the main axis of the church and the transverse axis linking the two entry porches would be a suitable way to give adequate emphasis to the role of Baptism as a Sacrament of initiation and regeneration.
Recommendation 3. Baptistery and Font
It is recommended that a suitable Font, of practical size and design and more liturgically fit-for- purpose, be acquired and located in an appropriate position, such as the area of the nave between the two entry porches, suitable delineated.
The Church requires that the Blessed Sacrament be reserved “in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, conspicuous, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer.” In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal suggests “either in the sanctuary…or even in some chapel suitable for the private adoration and prayer of the faithful and organically connected to the church and readily noticeable.”
Recommendation 4. Place of Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.
It is highly desirable that a more prominent place be found for the tabernacle than in the small chapel. The possibility of placing it on a raised plinth in the centre of the end wall behind the altar ought to be examined. Ina church of moderate size such as St Vincent’s, this is usually the best location. If it is thought desirable to place the tabernacle in the room behind the sanctuary, some means of making this chapel more evident ought to be found. Given the present lack of parish facilities outside the church for meetings and pastoral activities, it may be appropriate to use the chapel as the place of Reservation unless it is possible to reserve the body of the church solely for worship, as is greatly to be desired.
The Place for the Assembly
The place of the assembly has as its first priority to facilitate full, conscious and active participation of all. Given that the furthest pew from the altar is currently only approximately 8 or 9 metres and that the space is of modest size, the fact that the congregation cannot gather around the altar is of little concern. The acoustics of the church assist in this regard. With bare timber floor and hard masonry walls ensuring a lively acoustic quality where the unassisted voice can carry well, the sense of intimacy with the action at the altar chair and ambo is enhanced.
The narrowness of the main aisle is a concern as it is preferable that three people be able to walk abreast in procession on our central aisles. However, due to the narrowness of the nave, the commendable desire to maintain small side aisles and to ensure adequate seating for the congregation, this is a shortfall for which there is no ready remedy.
Choir-Loft and Space Beneath
Recommendation 5. Choir loft and space beneath
Given the fact that the parish does not have a church hall or similar facility to fulfil various important pastoral functions, it is understandable that this part of the church would be used as it is. If it is to continue being used in this way it would be desirable to create an entry that does not require coming through the church. It would further be desirable that the lightweight screen be replaced with a more permanent wall. This should not be a clear glass wall as there should be a definite separation of the two very different functions.
It is understood that there is a desire to use the choir loft for a pastoral rather than a liturgical function. This would be highly problematic. It would be architecturally disastrous to separate the loft space from the body of the church and to level the floor of the choir loft. In any event heritage provisions would probably not permit such interventions.
Adornment and Images in St Vincent’s
“In the earthly Liturgy, the Church participates, by a foretaste. In that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem, toward which she journeys as a pilgrim, and where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; and by venerating the memory of the Saints, she hopes one day to have a share and fellowship with them.”
Images and decoration in churches, in accordance with the above principles, are properly eschatological in nature, and point to heavenly realities. The stained glass windows high in the liturgical “East” wall reflect this, portraying Christ, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph in glory. Images, especially in the “East” wall of an axially arranged church, ought to point toward and reveal the transfigured reality towards which we move as we approach the altar. The images and decoration in a church ought not enclose us, trapping us in the here and now.
The question has arisen about the appropriate location of memorial images of two important and highly respected figures in the history of St Vincent’s Parish, namely Mum Shirl and Fr Ted Kennedy. The Church’s practice is to clearly distinguish between the images of the Saints, displayed for veneration by the faithful, and memorial images.
Recommendation 6. Memorial Images
Suitable images of Mum Shirl and Fr Kennedy would most appropriately be placed prominently in an area inside the church yet distinct from the main liturgical space. A number of parishes have arranged memorial pictures of pastors and prominent community members in the area most noticeable as people enter the church.
It is the opinion of the authors of this report that a careful reconsideration needs to be given to the liturgical appropriateness of the mural decorating the “East” wall. The present mural on the end wall at St Vincent de Paul church has clearly been installed with serious intent and heartfelt emotion. It is a record of the aspirations of members of the community at a certain point in time and it is crucial that this be acknowledged. And as with all things within the liturgical space it needs to be seriously considered in terms of what it offers the community today and into the future.
The materials from which the mural was made have rapidly deteriorated, and it is unlikely to survive much longer. Moreover, we understand that at the time the mural was painted, the altar and ambo were located in a different location in the church, and thus at that time the mural did not so obviously impinge on the transcendent, eschatological, Christ-centred symbolism of the sanctuary.
The necessity for any artwork or architectural device in this highly symbolic location to open us to the transcendent, to the spiritual dimension beyond the here and now, is paramount. There is without doubt an element of the transcendent in the existing mural – His Holiness Pope John Paul II speaks of the eternal presence of God in the dreaming of the aboriginal people. As inspiring as this is and ought to be for all of us, the limitation of the artwork is that it is locked into space and time by recording in a literal way an historical event. Moreover, the circumstances of the mural’s creation further lock the community into a specific circumstance some years ago.
The words of the mural are memorial to an important moment in the life of the church in Australia when we were called by our Holy Father to open our hearts and minds to a spiritual reality that we are guilty of ignoring and even rejecting. The deep profoundly spiritual roots of our aboriginal brothers and sisters are God given and sacred. They demand and must be afforded the highest respect by all of us.
The task before the community of St Vincent de Paul today is to seek a deep understanding of the call that His Holiness made on that historical moment and to take it to heart in planning for the future. An honest, open and well-intentioned appraisal of the mural must ask, “Does it do what His Holiness asked of us? Does it open the way for us, all of us, to enter the mystery that is our relationship with God?” It is perhaps helpful to recall that St Vincent’s is a Parish Church which must serve the spiritual journey an increasingly diverse community.
Given well directed good intentions that are open to the guidance of the Spirit, a way will be found to bring all of these exceedingly important concerns into focus and for this to result in a beautiful, fitting and creative expression of faith that takes into consideration the profoundly important symbolism of the liturgical eastern end of the church and the historical realities of the faith life of the community.
One course of action to take into consideration is to emulate the decision of the parish of St Paul of the Cross, Dulwich Hill, to commission an aboriginal artist to produce a large painting on canvass, bearing a similar quote from Blessed John Paul 11, and have it installed in a prominent position in the church which would be seen by all but not impinge on the specific symbolism of the sanctuary.
Recommendation 6. Mural
It is recommended that a more liturgically appropriate location and higher quality medium for highlighting the message of Blessed John Paul II and the dignity of Aboriginal spirituality be found in St Vincent’s Church.
As with any parochial community in regard to their Parish Church, the pastor and people of St Vincent’s Redfern must seek to balance the desirable with the achievable. Moreover, the Parish Church ought to be so arranged as to serve the needs of the liturgy and sacraments, especially the Eucharist, since this is both the source of pastoral charity and its fullest expression, and serves to nourish and inspire the Christian life of the local residents. The Parish must meet many needs and will have many activities; the Parish Church must principally meet the needs of the liturgy, which take account of time and place but also transcend them. In a constrained site and within the envelope of one single building, this is indeed a challenge for St Vincent’s Parish as it moves forward to meet the needs of a diverse residential community in Redfern.
Over the past few decades, the arrangement, ordering and adornment of St Vincent’s have become somewhat contingent and inconsistent from a liturgical and aesthetic point of view, which is potentially hindering the capacity of the building to fulfil its purpose as a Parish Church.
In fact it must be said that St Vincent’s Church would benefit from a fresh and consistent application of liturgical pastoral principles in its internal arrangement, ordering and adornment, and the Recommendations made in this Report intend to reflect an objective application of such principles. The authors hope that it provides an opportunity for the parish to treasure its past, present and, most importantly, future.
Rev Donald Richardson
Director, Liturgy Office of the Archdiocese of Sydney
With Harry Stephens,
Member, Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of Sydney