By Father Jamie Hottovy
To enter Marycrest chapel, one enters into the heart and center of the Marian Sisters’ Motherhouse convent. This chapel is where the Marian Sisters enter daily into the Holy Mass, communal and private prayer, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Sisters embody joyful service in imitation of Mary and Saint Francis of Assisi. The newly renovated chapel is layered with theological, liturgical, Marian and Franciscan significance.
The Renaissance style was chosen because St. Francis was a forerunner of the Renaissance. He planted some of the initial seeds of the Renaissance with his focus on meditating on the humanity of Christ in his birth and passion. The Franciscans also have a rich history of artistic patronage throughout the centuries. Assisi’s Basilica of St. Francis – the place of his burial – is a priceless jewel of Italian art.
The interior of the chapel employs a palate of warm Italianate colors that remind us of St. Francis’ Umbrian heritage. Inspiration for the design was taken from examples found in Assisi, the Renaissance architecture of Filippo Brunelleschi and Andrea Palladio, as well as the Holy Family Church adjoining the convent of the Mercy Sisters of Saint Francis in Brno, Czech Republic. This descriptive tour of the chapel will highlight fundamental components, inspirations, and imagery of the new design.
Upon entering the chapel one gazes upward to the coffered ceiling, one that is reminiscent of the Holy Family Church in Brno. The word “ceiling” comes from the Latin word for heaven or sky and churches evoke the sense of a heavenly realm above by adding this elegant detail. The geometric pattern of the coffers – which are ornamental sunken panels – points to the cosmos being restored to perfection from the disorder of a fallen world.
The stylized floral design in the ceiling panels represent the multitude of Hail Marys offered within the chapel as ascending up to Our Lady. Leaves, buds, flowers, and beads imply ritual festivity and a return to paradise. Garden imagery also illustrates the understanding of a church as the restored Garden of Eden and the glorified order of creation.
Moving from the ceiling to the upper walls, the arch detail found in the chapel is another mirrored architectural element from the Brno church. The walls of the chapel take on the radiance and qualities of heaven itself as they gleam with new custom stained-glass windows.
The windows incorporate rich gem-like colors that represent the jewel-laden walls of the New Jerusalem as described in St. John’s vision in the Book of Revelation. Light radiating through the Marian blue windows evokes the diffusion of God’s graces, through Mary, into the world.
The windows are comprised of symbolism in an upper tier and a lower tier. Upper tier imagery contains representations of the twenty Mysteries of the Rosary, whereas lower tier imagery contains various icons from Marian, Franciscan, Czech, and Marian Sisters’ history.
At the center of each window is a fleur-de-lis. Throughout Church history, the fleur-de-lis has represented Mary, as the lily signifies her purity. It has also been a symbol of the Holy Trinity with its three petals and an emblem of Christ’s resurrection with the stylized lily.
An intertwining, flowering vine motif within the windows, paired with the foliage pattern embellishing the ceiling panels, evokes the Temple of Solomon. This life-giving vine detail also points to the biblical language of Christ, who refers to Himself as “the Vine.”
As we move down the walls, the horizontal band of the entablature is painted an umber tone, which gets its name and color from the Italian region of Umbria – the home of St. Francis. The gold inscriptions are taken from the tombstones of the two foundresses of the Marian Sisters – Sister Teresa: “The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever” (Psalm 89:1), and Sister Marta: “That they may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (John 17:21).
Located beneath the entablature are the columns. In the Classical world, columns symbolized people. As Christian architecture developed, so did the idea of viewing the saints as “pillars of the Church” and “living stones” of the heavenly Jerusalem. The twelve square columns signify the Church built upon the apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel. The capitals that sit atop the columns incorporate a gilded Franciscan cincture molding to personify St. Francis, who is now an inhabitant of the heavenly city.
To give greater visual prominence to the preexisting Stations of the Cross – a devotion which St. Francis gave to the world – classical-styled frames were added to this meditation on Christ’s passion and death. The deep red background added to the Stations evokes Christ’s blood poured out in His passion.
The original pews were refashioned with rounded arch ends, stained a rich Franciscan brown and reupholstered in Marian blue damask.
Floors take significance
Throughout the centuries, floors in churches have taken on theological significance. The new tile floor incorporates Italianate tans and polished gold marble accents to evoke the streets of the heavenly Jerusalem paved in gold as described in the Book of Revelation.
The central processional aisle of reflective gold marble gives a gemlike overlay of geometry and order that reveals the radiance and order of heaven.
Proceeding from the body of the chapel up to the sanctuary one sees four ornate Ionic columns which represent the Virgin Mary through their feminine beauty and balance. The Classical understanding of the Ionic Order is that it conveys the proportions of a woman and mother, that of which is brought to its highest fulfilment in the Blessed Mother.
A triumphal arch frames the crucifix and statues of Our Lady of Grace and St. Francis. The triumphal arch motif is borrowed from ancient Rome, which used this architectural device to honor the entry of victorious rulers into the city. In this sanctuary, it reminds us of the victory and presence of Christ the King, in our world through the Eucharist, in which He enters our lives as the Victor over sin and death.
A new handcrafted altar of sacrifice, altar of repose, and ambo were custom-made for the sanctuary. The altars are adorned with gold Franciscan cincture molding, echoing the detailing in the square columns, and are both capped with St. Clare granite. This granite is speckled with blood red flecks which are embedded in the stone that signifies the Blood of Christ and the stigmata of St. Francis. Both the gold highlights and the rich stone convey the heavenly qualities of radiance, splendor and beauty.
On the front of the altar of sacrifice is a hand-carved, three-dimensional image of the Lamb of God, “who takes away the sins of the world,” a depiction that Jesus is the One who has come to be sacrificed for us. He is the Lamb who has conquered sin and death and brandishes the victorious banner of the Resurrection.
This is also the Lamb from the Book of Revelation, mounting the book with seven seals, ready to break open the seals and judge the world. This image embodies the Mysterium fidei: We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.
Harmoniously, the ambo displays a hand-carved book of the Gospels surmounted by the cross which conveys the fact that St. Francis proclaimed the gospel of Christ to the world.
The preexisting communion rail was embellished with a rounded arch detail. The symmetric floor pattern of radiant marble and porcelain in the sanctuary was inspired by the chapel that houses the original San Damiano Cross in Assisi that spoke to St. Francis saying, “Francis, rebuild my church.”
Gazing Upward Again
As we conclude the tour, and turn to exit the chapel, turn your eyes once again heavenward. Gracing the upper back wall are three original paintings by Corbert Gauthier of the Assumption, St. Francis and St. Joseph in heaven. Inspired by Renaissance master paintings, the Blessed Mother has her gaze and hand raised to heaven in a posture of, “behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). She is assumed into the heights amid the breaking clouds and the attendant cherubs. These images are reminding the faithful of what eternal realities they are called to every time they depart the chapel.