You don’t see many mainstream newspaper stories focusing on architecture, let alone one that digs into what church architecture might say about the people who worship under a particular roof.
That’s why it was a pleasure to read Deborah Schoch’s story in the Los Angeles Times about the new stone sanctuary built in Pasadena, Calif., by members of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church. The one thing the story didn’t do that I, as an Orthodox Christian, wanted it to do was dig into the ancient Eastern roots of the traditions and Traditions that shaped this flock and its sanctuary.
But the story gets so many details right and then follows them up with nice connections to other modern trends. Here is the opening of the story:
In an age when new churches can be as boxy and boring as shopping malls, the members of St. Gregory the Illuminator longed for arches.
They craved warm-hued stone dug from quarries in their ancestors’ Armenia. While other growing parishes settled for former banks or castoff older churches, this parish housed in a former Coca-Cola distribution center wanted a building all its own — a brand-new structure but one that would look centuries old.
Now, the graceful dome of their new stone-walled church rises 85 feet above the auto parts stores of Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, a silhouette that recalls the skyline of Athens or Cairo.
Or Jerusalem, or Antioch, or Constantinople.
This story gets the locals and it gets the ethnic connection to the old country. What it misses are the actual Christian traditions that serve as the bridge. Who are these priests? What is the history of all of this beauty?
And why did these people go to so much expense and trouble to build this temple?
The stone itself becomes the symbol:
As those members put the finishing touches on the new St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church, they are rejoicing in the triumph of tradition: a marble-framed baptismal font, jewel-toned stained-glass windows and particularly the rounded arches both outside the church and setting off its glowing cream interior.
“We didn’t want a box. We wanted arches,” said project manager Hampo Nazerian, motioning at the windows and dome.
“They’re inviting, they’re warm, not squared or cold. Arches are like arms outstretched,” said longtime volunteer Marguerite Hougasian, whose father helped start the Pasadena parish in 1947. The new church’s Old World style reflects the importance of tradition in the 1,700-year-old Armenian faith, she said. “It’s a way of strengthening and holding to the faith, keeping us bonded to our belief.”
This is where the story takes off into some interesting American territory.
What about the glass-and-steel boxes of the modern megachurch? Why are Roman Catholic churches beginning to wonder if they have drifted too far from traditional architectural forms? Why do some people yearn for stone, stained glass, icons, marble and beauty while others turn away into modern forms of one kind or another?
The story raises good questions. Enjoy.
Photo: Inside an ancient Armenian church dome.