Catholic World News News Feature

Rome Hits the Brakes September 27, 2001

In an unprecedented intervention, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship has asked Archbishop Rembert Weakland to suspend the interior renovation of his cathedral church while the Vatican reviews a complaint filed by Milwaukee lay Catholics. Renovation work began on the 154-year-old Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist less than a week before the Archdiocese of Milwaukee received word of the request for a suspension through the apostolic nuncio in Washington, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

Alan Kershaw, a canon lawyer who works in Rome, filed a complaint on behalf of James Reiter, representing about 50 Catholics who object to the proposed renovation plan. They believe that that plan would--in the words of Dr. Al Szews, a retired professor from Marquette University--"destroy the cathedral’s beautiful art and environment for Catholic worship."

Archbishop Weakland’s $4.5 million plan converts the traditional basilica into a "theater-in-the-round" arrangement by eliminating the present sanctuary and building a circular altar platform in the midst of the congregation. The oak pews are being replaced by moveable chairs without kneelers, and the tabernacle is being moved from a place of prominence beneath an ornate baldacchino into a side chapel that would not be visible to the main body of worshippers.

The baldacchino—a 40-foot high marble canopy supported by eight marble pillars—with the ornate high altar and tabernacle now forms the visual focal point of the cathedral. However in Archbishop Weakland’s plan, which was engineered by the controversial design consultant Father Richard Vosko, the altar and baldacchino are to be discarded and replaced by the pipes of a new organ and the flexible risers of choir seating.

According to Milwaukee Reporter columnist Mark Belling, "The cathedral redesign could pass for a local dinner theater layout," with the new seats arranged in a semi-circle around a small, barren altar table. "It just seems more appropriate for a church in a suburban neighborhood than the seat of a major archdiocese," he said.


Four days after Kershaw filed the canonical appeal in Rome, he was notified by the Vatican congregation that an initial investigation of Reiter’s complaint revealed "sufficient indications that the proposed restoration would not conform to the relevant liturgical norms." In a letter dated May 22 and signed by Msgr. Mario Marini, the Congregation for Divine Worship informed Kershaw that Archbishop Weakland had been asked "to suspend any work of renovation until the project may be reviewed by the Holy See." The review, said Kershaw, would likely take at least 90 days.

The Holy See’s pronouncement is significant and unusual in three ways, according to Michael Dunnigan, a civil lawyer who serves as counsel for the Saint Joseph Foundation in San Antonio--a group formed by Charles M. Wilson in 1984 to assist Catholics in defending their legal rights under Church law. First, an archbishop is being asked to suspend a renovation project that he has pioneered in his own diocese. Second, the Vatican has acted with uncharacteristic speed. Third, Kershaw--the canon lawyer for the lay Catholics who lodged the complaint--was promptly notified in writing of the steps that the Vatican had taken against Archbishop Weakland.

The most remarkable aspect of the story to date is that a Vatican dicastery is telling a local bishop to suspend his planned renovation. "That’s a first," said Dunnigan. The Vatican intervention is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that the Milwaukee renovation plan is nothing out of the ordinary; equally controversial changes have been made in other cathedrals and parish churches all across the United States.

In the past decade the Saint Joseph Foundation has assisted parishioners involved in disputes over renovation at 88 different parishes or cathedrals, Dunnigan revealed. Most of these cases, he added, have arisen in the past three years alone. Of these, only six have produced formal appeals to the Vatican.

Some of the appeals to the Vatican contested fundraising and marketing tactics, rather than specific issues of church design. In 1998, for instance, Dunnigan assisted a group of 50 parishioners at St. Martin of Tours Church in Cheviot, Ohio. Parishioners there asked the Vatican to halt the remodeling of their parish church interior because the pastor had raised nearly a million dollars based on a plan to "restore" the church’s murals, pews, and woodwork. Three weeks before the restoration was scheduled to begin, the pastor (with the full backing from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati) revealed a new plan that would radically restructure the church’s interior by moving the tabernacle, bringing out the altar, and rearranging the pews.

A week after the parishioners' appeal was filed in Rome, Cincinnati’s Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk offered refunds to parishioners who felt they had been deceived in the renovation process. (The archbishop stoutly maintained that neither the archdiocese nor the pastor of St. Martin had been guilty of any wrongdoing.) Both Dunnigan and Charles Wilson of the Saint Joseph Foundation surmise that Vatican officials acted "behind the scenes, as is typical" to promote a resolution to the case.

However, there were important differences between the St. Martin case and the Milwaukee renovation controversy. Although Alan Kershaw also served as an advocate in Rome for the St. Martin appeal, he was never informed in writing that an intervention had been made by the Holy See. And the Vatican did not go so far as to call for the suspension of the renovations at St. Martin--at least as far as the public knows.


Had Kershaw not received notification of the suspension in the Milwaukee case, the public might never have known about the Vatican intervention. If the pressure from Rome had been exerted "behind the scenes," Archbishop Weakland might have refused to comply with the directive to suspend the project.

In fact, when the May 22 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship to Alan Kershaw was made public in Milwaukee by opponents of the renovation, the archdiocese swiftly contradicted the public reports. Archdiocesan officials stated that the archbishop had received no such instruction from the Vatican. Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for Archbishop Weakland, even told the press that it was an "insult to the archbishop" to suggest that the renovation changes are not in line with the Church’s liturgical documents; his statement left the impression that these suggestions were made exclusively by the local opponents of the project, rather than by the Vatican. At that time, the archdiocesan spokesman reassured everyone concerned that the renovation of the cathedral would continue as planned.

Two days later, however, Topczewski admitted that the archbishop had indeed received a communication from the Vatican, through the apostolic nuncio in Washington. He refused to release the letter to the press, citing its confidential nature.

Meanwhile, as renovation crews unscrewed pews from the floor of the cathedral to be shipped off to the Progressive Baptist Church in Milwaukee, the archdiocese continued to claim that the letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship contained no instructions to suspend the renovation project.

In fact, a feature article published in Milwaukee’s diocesan newspaper (dated May 24), stated that the letter sent to Archbishop Weakland simply "informed him that an individual had raised concerns regarding the Cathedral Project," [emphasis added] and reiterated that "nowhere in the letter was there any directive to stop, delay, or change in any way the Cathedral Project, including liturgical designs for the Cathedral interior."


On the very day that the archbishop's newspaper column appeared, the archdiocese held a press conference that received extensive media coverage. Topczewski again reassured reporters that the Vatican had not asked for a suspension of the project, but had merely invited the archbishop to send any documentation he felt was pertinent to the Congregation’s review.

Meanwhile Tom Phillips, a local Catholic activist who has long documented the numerous abuses of Archbishop Weakland’s administration, visited the cathedral and confirmed that renovation work was continuing unabated. "There were at least three different crews working," he recalled; "one crew loading all the pews onto a big truck, one crew removing asbestos, and the main crew inside dismantling the interior."

The following week the archbishop finally admitted to Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel that the Vatican letter "implied they wanted me to stop [the renovation]," but stated that since the letter was not signed by the top Vatican official from the Congregation for Divine Worship, the directive to suspend the renovation was not "official." At the same time he pledged to "defend vociferously" the decisions he has made to date, and promised that the project would continue.

On May 28, Kershaw received a second letter from Msgr. Marini. It stated that the Congregation had received further information from Archbishop Weakland that "left doubts that the project would conform to the canonical and liturgical norms." The letter added that on May 26 the Vatican "moved to suspend the work of renovation until these doubts may be clarified." A May 26 letter sent to Archbishop Weakland was signed by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, the prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship, forcing the Milwaukee archbishop to realize that by his own definition the Vatican suspension was "official."

Only then did Topczewski reluctantly announce to the media that the controversial aspects of the interior renovation would be put on hold until the issue was resolved.

A turning point?

Lay Catholics who are involved in similar disputes regarding unwanted and unnecessary renovations to their cathedrals and parish churches might wonder if the Milwaukee case marks a turning point in the Vatican’s method of responding to the concerns of the laity.

Tim Ehlen, spokesman for a group of parishioners opposing the renovation of St. Francis Xavier Church in Petoskey, Michigan, hopes that a change is underway. His group filed a similar appeal to the same Vatican congregation, again enlisting the aid of Alan Kershaw. Thus far, Kershaw has received three letters from the Congregation regarding Petoskey, the latest informing him that the St. Francis Xavier case, too, has been deemed to merit further investigation. The 100-year-old church was recently closed in order for renovation crews to bring the neo-Gothic interior into line with current liturgical fads. For two years, more than 900 parishioners at the Petoskey parish--a majority of parishioners--have been opposing the removal of their ornate pulpit, tabernacle, and communion rail, as well as the elimination of the present sanctuary in order to bring the altar out into the congregation.

Similarly, Milwaukee Catholics led by Dr. Al Szews have waged a year-long protest against the cathedral renovation proposal. They took their appeal to the Vatican only after submitting a petition to Archbishop Weakland signed by more than 2,500 Catholics from his archdiocese. "It probably wouldn’t have made a difference to this archbishop if we had collected 25,000 signatures," lamented Szews, who hired Kershaw to assist his group in the appeal to Rome.

The lingering question at this point--in the minds of both the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and those opposing church renovations--is this: What aspects of Weakland’s project have the Vatican identified as potentially violating "canonical and liturgical norms?" Phillip Gray, a canon lawyer who teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville, suggested two possible transgressions of canon law. The first, he said, is that "the renovation seems to include the possibility of configuring the church for secular uses, such as concerts or recitals." The renovation design certainly supports the theory that some such plans were in place, given that the sanctuary--the natural focal point of the church--is being turned into a stage platform at the head of the building. Its size and arrangement will facilitates a space for a choir, a piano, and other instruments. Further, according to promotional materials available at the cathedral’s web site, seating arrangements in the renovated church are to be suitable "for both liturgical and non-liturgical events."

A second infraction possibly identified by the Vatican, suggested Gray, is the removal of the high altar and baldacchino, both of which are considered historic and artistic monuments. Several Vatican Council and post-conciliar documents issue specific warnings to bishops, advising them of their responsibility to protect the Church’s historic and artistic patrimony [see sidebar "Official Documents on Church Preservation"]. In fact, bishops must seek permission from the Vatican before they dispose of such things as baldacchinos and altars, provided they are of some artistic and historic value, as in the case of the Milwaukee cathedral.

As far as liturgical norms are concerned, Gray allowed that the situation allows more room for interpretation. Being familiar with the renovation plans, he suggested that the Vatican might want to take issue with the relocation of the tabernacle, if curial officials thought it was being removed to an inconspicuous place in the cathedral. Another apparent violation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal could be the absence of a defined sanctuary in the renovation plan. Although a raised altar platform is being constructed, this is not the same as a properly defined sanctuary--a place where the bishop and other ministers, readers, and servers would normally carry out various functions of the liturgy. Such a place does not exist in Archbishop Weakland’s renovation plans.

Setting a precedent?

If the Archbishop of Milwaukee is forced to amend his renovation plans, even amid the vociferous defense he has pledged, will a precedent be set? Will appeals to the Vatican--provided they are made properly and bear a significant grievance--be answered swiftly and positively?

Again, these are by no means theoretical questions; the complaints that have been raised by lay Catholics in Milwaukee could also be raised in many other American cities and towns. At the time of this writing, for example, bishops are promoting similar renovations plans for their cathedrals in Rochester, New York; Covington, Kentucky; and San Antonio, Texas. In each case the cathedral has real historic value; in each case the renovation plans have encountered significant resistance among the laity.

[AUTHOR ID] Michael S. Rose is author of The Renovation Manipulation. His second book on church architecture, Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces-And How We Can Change Them Back will be published this Fall by Sophia Institute Press.



The following are some of the changes included in plans for the renovation of the Milwaukee cathedral. (The quotations that appear below are from official archdiocesan literature.)

n Altar is being rebuilt on a small platform at the center of the congregation in order to "become central to the assembly." n The ornate and artistically significant high altar surmounted by a 40-foot high baldacchino is being removed from the cathedral. n Aisle shrines are being dismantled because they allegedly look like altars. n Statues from aisle shrines are either being discarded or reused. n In order to allow for different seating arrangements, "new and comfortable seating in the form of individual and moveable chairs" will replace the oak pews. n Oak pews have been removed and shipped to a local Baptist church. n Additional seating will be provided in the apse (where the sanctuary used to be). n The baptistery will be located in the main aisle, near the present main entrance; it will include both a traditional basin font and a wading pool surrounded by a colonnade. n The cathedra (archbishop’s chair) will be reused but without the canopy so that it does not "appear as a throne." It will be moved out of the present sanctuary and placed against a pillar in the nave. n The pulpit is being replaced by a "reading desk" made of natural stone to match the altar. It will be built onto the present sanctuary steps and made handicapped-accessible. n Two new reconciliation chapels are being built to replace the four existing confessionals, "most of which have not been used for years." n The tabernacle will be moved from its current location on the high altar under the baldacchino to its own chapel located in what is now the baptistery. Plans show two kneeling benches placed in front of the tabernacle, which is set upon a pillar. n The choir is being moved from the balcony loft at the rear of the nave onto a platform in the apse (the present site of the baldacchino and altar). Choir members will be seated upon "flexible risers to allow for a variety of music arrangements." n The organ pipes of a new organ will be placed prominently in the spot now occupied by the 40-foot high baldacchino. Space will also be provided for a piano and other instruments. n A "day chapel" seating 75 people will be located in the present vesting sacristy.



In the course of the centuries, [the Church] has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II, 1963, 123

Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or allowed to deteriorate; for they are the house of God. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 126

The Church through the centuries has also safeguarded the artistic treasures belonging to it. Accordingly, in our own times as well, bishops, no matter how hard pressed by their responsibilities, must take seriously the care of places of worship and sacred objects. They bear singular witness to the reverence of the people toward God and deserve such care also because of their historic and artistic value.

It grieves the faithful to see that more than ever before there is so much unlawful transfer of ownership of the historical and artistic heritage of the Church, as well as theft, confiscation, and destruction.

Disregarding the warnings and legislation of the Holy See, many people have made unwarranted changes in places of worship under the pretext of carrying out the reform of the liturgy and have thus caused the disfigurement or loss of priceless works of art. Mindful of the legislation of Vatican Council II and of the directives in the documents of the Holy See, bishops are to exercise unfailing vigilance to ensure that the remodeling of places of worship by reason of the reform of the liturgy is carried out with the utmost caution. Opera Artis, 4 Congregation for the Clergy, 1971

Should it become necessary to adapt works of art and the treasures of the past to new liturgical laws, bishops are to take care that the need is genuine and that no harm comes to the work of art…. When it is judged that any such works are no longer suited to divine worship, they are never to be given over to profane use. Rather they are to be set up in a fitting place, namely in a diocesan or interdiocesan museum, so that they are accessible to all who wish to look at them. Opera Artis, 6

Precious objects, especially votive offerings, are not to be disposed of without permission of the Holy See, in keeping with CIC can. 1532 (1917 Code of Canon Law). The penalties in can. 2347-2349 continue to apply to those transferring ownership of such objects unlawfully; such persons cannot be absolved until they have made restitution for the losses incurred. Opera Artis, 7

… [A]ll the churches should be given a definite arrangement which respects any artistic monuments, adapting them as far as possible to present day needs. Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, Congregation for Divine Worship, 1970

Ordinary concern for preservation and appropriate security measures are to be used to protect sacred and precious goods. Code of Canon Law, 1220 §2, 1994