Steve Wiser to chronicle the evolving history of Catholic church architecture in Louisville

Cathedral of the Assumption, 432 S. Fifth St., built in 1852. Architect was Patrick Keely. | Courtesy of Steve Wiser

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican — known more popularly in history as “Vatican II” — changed many aspects of today’s Catholic Church.

The council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965, is most remembered today as an attempt to modernize the church. Priests were permitted to celebrate Mass in the languages of their congregations, and to turn and face the congregation during worship.

Inside the Cathedral of the Assumption | Courtesy of Steve Wiser

Congregants were encouraged to participate actively in the service. The door was opened for women to perform as readers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers and altar servers.

There was a new level of communication and cooperation between the Catholic Church and other worldwide religions. Catholics were no longer forbidden from attending Protestant services or reading from a Protestant Bible.

That also included a radical change in the church’s official position regarding Jews, no longer to be considered enemies or charged at large with the murder of Jesus.

One tangible result of Vatican II, visible to all Louisvillians — and especially its Catholics — was a new look for the churches themselves.

Communion rails, those barriers separating priest and congregation, were mostly removed so the worshipers could feel more involved. The high, formidable altars were lowered to make the priest feel more accessible and reoriented toward the congregation. The tabernacle was moved to the side. And the seating plan was changed from rigid and rectilinear to a less formal, more social circular or semicircular arrangement.

“The call was for ‘full and active participation,’ ” says Sr. Jean Zappa, chapel preservation specialist for the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville. “And the modern architecture was more about being warm and welcoming, versus the enormity of space that makes those feel smaller in the presence of God.”

The Ursuline Chapel on Lexington Road was built in 1917. | Courtesy of Steve Wiser

The exterior architecture of the churches changed as well. Solid stone fortresses with rigid classical forms and steeples reaching to the sky became, more and more, “yesterday’s churches.” More modern buildings with flat or rounded roofs and angled walls began to proliferate.

Still, the classic churches of Louisville — like the Victorian homes and cast-iron buildings — are a part of the treasured architectural history of the city. And Steve Wiser, architect and historian, is the chronicler of that tradition.

On Sunday, Wiser will give one of his many presentations on local architectural history, this one called “Sacred Spaces: Louisville’s Inspiring Catholic Architecture.”

Going chronologically and focusing only on church buildings still in use as churches, Wiser will start with a look at Cathedral of the Assumption, downtown on South Fifth Street, built in 1852 by New York architect Patrick Keely. Evident are all the elements of classic church architecture: the enormous vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses, the high and stately altar, the stained glass, the magnificent pipe organ and the rigid linear formation of the pews.

The exterior of the building was classic, as well: red brick with white trim, symmetrical doors, windows and gables, all pointing to the tall spire in the center.

Shortly thereafter came the St. Martin du Tours church at 639 S. Shelby St. In all, says Wiser, there were 31 parishes established in Louisville between 1850 and 1900, and another 18 between 1900 and 1945 (or roughly one every other year).

Church of the Epiphany at 914 Old Harrods Creek Road, built in 1975 | Courtesy of Steve Wiser

In addition to detailing them, inside and out, he also will discuss many of the prominent architects who built Louisville’s houses of worship, like Keely, Henry Whitestone, James J. Gaffney and Dennis Xavier Murphy.

Even before Vatican II, says Wiser, the classical old church architecture was falling out of favor. “Baby boomer families were moving to the suburbs after World War II,” the historian says. “A lot of churches had to be built in a hurry and without substantial budgets, so the styles were simplified.”

Historian and author Steve Wiser | Courtesy of Steve Wiser

Wiser’s presentation will take place at the Ursuline Chapel on Lexington Road. This is the 100th anniversary of that church building, and the Ursuline Sisters have been holding a year’s worth of celebratory events.

While the 100-year-old motherhouse itself was changed a little bit in the 1960s and ’70s in accordance with Vatican II, the magnificent ceiling, stained glass windows, Catholic statuary and other architectural features of the time are still very much in view.

Plus, this is a rare opportunity for the public to see the interior of this private chapel.

An interesting side story to the building of the motherhouse is that it occurred at the same time the U.S. had entered World War I and a deadly flu epidemic was beginning to roll across the country. At the same time the sisters’ energy and attention were involved in the church construction, they also were actively caring for ill and wounded soldiers at Camp Taylor.

The “Sacred Spaces” presentation will take place on Sunday, Sept. 24, at 2 p.m., at the Ursuline Chapel, 3105 Lexington Road. It is free and open to the public.