Form and function: The impact of liturgy, symbolism and use on design

Built in 1836, the Auld Kirk in Mississippi Mills is an early example of a Presbyterian church in Ontario

Photo: Built in 1836, the Auld Kirk in Mississippi Mills is an early example of a Presbyterian church in Ontario


Vicki Bennett

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

During the 19th century, the location, physical condition and stylistic merit of churches were publicly discussed as reliable indicators of a community’s value, moral fabric and work ethic. The very act of church building suggested the potential for stability, growth and even prosperity. Today, these same traits offer historians insight into a community’s views on issues as varied as liturgy, church governance and political opinion.

Of the numerous Christian denominations active in 19th-century Ontario, most fit into one of two basic categories: Catholics, who were ultimately under the authority of Rome; and Anglicans and non-conformists (Protestants who were not members of the Church of England), who typically exercised more congregational independence.

Catholic church architecture, with over 1,500 years of history, was closely regulated by the Church’s hierarchy. Architectural characteristics were determined by the liturgical requirements of the Catholic Eucharistic ritual. The sacrificial aspect of the Catholic mass required a sanctuary, which often took the form of a rounded apse, containing an altar. Sacristies, small ancillary structures built beside the sanctuary, housed ritual vessels and vestments between services.

Catholics gathered in buildings with elongated central naves that accommodated ceremonial processions and side aisles that allowed for the circumambulation of the faithful through the Stations of the Cross. Devotional statuary, paintings and stained glass were all requisite to a properly finished church. While the structural and decorative style varied with the congregation’s cultural and social status, the consistency of liturgical form remained a hallmark of Catholic architecture.

The architecture of the Anglican church of St. Stephen-in-the-Field, Toronto, displays Ecclesiological Gothic influences

Anglican and non-conformist churches in Ontario began the 19th century with uniformly austere structures, due as much to religious conviction as to modest means or scarce resources. In their simplest form, these early buildings were identified as places of worship only by their high walls and large windows. Church buildings were small, and worship was focused on seeing and hearing the word of God. Ministers read scripture and preached from pulpits centred on the axis of the church. Often there was no figurative imagery or stained glass; even crosses were avoided as symbols of superstition and idolatry.

During the late 1830s and 1840s, a movement emerged in England that dramatically and irrevocably transformed Ontario’s church architecture. Anglican Ecclesiologists, seeking to return to what they considered a golden era of idyllic spirituality and national purity, advocated a wholesale, archaeologically correct reinvestment in 13th-century English Gothic architecture and its symbolism. Builders were pressured to include porches, naves, chancels, vestries and octagonal stone baptismal fonts. Churches were elongated to three times their width, with low lateral walls and steeply pitched roofs. The architecture of virtually all other denominations in Ontario were influenced to some degree by this Gothic revival.

The Notre Dame Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica (Ottawa) sensitively adapted its sanctuary to suit Vatican II liturgy

The Notre Dame Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica (Ottawa) sensitively adapted its sanctuary to suit Vatican II liturgy

With the re-emergence of Gothic designs for religious buildings, concerns were raised about the reintroduction of rituals the medieval churches had been designed to accommodate. Faced with growing congregations and increasingly alarmed by the associations of the historic style with its Catholic past, Methodists turned their attention to a new amphitheatre-style model. Its sloping floors and second-storey balconies were reminiscent of contemporary concert halls, emphasizing the boundary between the congregation Built in 1836, the Auld Kirk in Mississippi Mills is an early example of a Presbyterian church in Ontario and those actively involved in the liturgy but significantly improving visibility and acoustics. The pulpit, communion table, organ and choir all enjoyed a new prominence on a raised stage-like sanctuary. These changes represented a dramatic rethinking of Methodist liturgical space, and they were soon assimilated by Presbyterians and Baptists.

At the same time Catholics, who generally used a variant of French Gothic religious architecture, became concerned with Gothic’s perceived association with Protestants. This concern, coupled with an increased commitment to papal authority following Vatican I (1862-70), led to the popularization of the Italianate style, characterized by frontal monumentality echoed in the structure of the high altar, round-headed windows and an increased use of classical detailing. Only after Vatican II (1962-65) did Catholic architecture change substantially. Façades and interiors became more intimate; celebrants faced the congregation from smaller altars near the front of the sanctuary. Such changes coincided with a “modernizing” trend that affected all denominations during the 1960s, as builders explored fresh designs and new materials. Less fortunately, many older churches were “updated” before their heritage value was fully appreciated.