Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church
Jackson Heights, NY
Ecclesiastical architects are often unfairly accused of living in the stylistic past. The act of worship, that function for which church buildings are constructed, by its very nature is a perennial enactment of centuries-old traditions. Henry J. McGill was an architect who specialized in religious spaces; but who enthusiastically embraced contemporary design and took any appropriate opportunity to use it to influence his commissions.
McGill’s office began designing buildings for Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Parish in Jackson Heights, New York in the mid-1930s. While drawings for the church were completed at this time, construction and completion of the church would not occur until the late 1940s. The result is a delightful mixture of early Egyptian Art Moderne and post-World War II Gotham City Art Deco. McGill‘s office thereafter specialized in Roman Catholic architecture throughout the New York City area. Blessed Sacrament Parish in Jackson Heights is perhaps the finest example of Henry J. McGill’s vision for the modern urban parish.
Since the church’s completion in 1953, several interior renovations had occurred. By the end of the 20th century, much of McGill’s innovative and cohesive design for the church’s interior had been altered or destroyed. In 2017, MPSB was enlisted to establish and oversee a church interior renovation program that would be inclusive of decorative painting, renovation of the original confessionals, renovation of the various shrines, and a complete renovation of the sanctuary.
For the decorative painting program, MPSB drew inspiration from the Beuron School of ecclesiastical art. As a recognized precursor to the Art Moderne Movement with strong references to Egyptian Art, the Beuronese style proved to be a perfect match with McGill’s interior. Rich shades of blues, reds, yellows, and creams serve as the color palette for bold patterns executed in the flat, two-dimensional style that is a hallmark of the Beuron School. Within the sanctuary, angels in perpetual adoration of the True Presence flank either side of the tabernacle with the cosmos as their backdrop. Beyond the sanctuary lamps, the sun and moon, both in transition, symbolize the angel’s unending songs of praise. This glimpse into heaven takes place under a large lantern trimmed with a border of lotus flowers, an ancient Coptic Christian symbol for rebirth.
The demolition of the sanctuary floor that was installed as part of the renovation of the 1980s revealed Henry McGill’s original sanctuary floor of decorative terracotta tile laid out in geometric patterns. This discovery added credence to MPSB’s bold design of a new sanctuary floor of decorative quarry tile from the Moravian Tile Works of Pennsylvania. Strategically spaced throughout the new floor with its warm earth tones of browns, reds, and creams are decorative tile medallions. The center tile of each medallion bares a hand-stamped representation of one of the theological graces as designed by Henry Mercer over a century ago. According to the Moravian Tile Works archives, this sanctuary floor was the first Moravian Tile installation of a new design for a floor within a public space in almost a century. With the recent closure of the tile works, this floor might very well prove to be the last installation of its kind on such a scale.
For the liturgical furnishings, a new altar of sacrifice and tabernacle stand was created of vintage Tennessee Marble that was sourced to match the existing marble shrine altars. The front panels of McGill’s original high altar were restored and installed in the new altar of sacrifice. MPSB’s treatment of the sanctuary embraced the restoration of the original McGill-designed tabernacle and sanctuary candlesticks and included a new presider’s chair and pulpit, designed by MPSB, and crafted by Stickley Audi & Co.
The grotto-like alcove to the left of the sanctuary was reconstituted as a Marian Chapel. A marble copy of the original Beuron-style statue of the Immaculate Conception graces the small altar. To the right of the sanctuary a baptismal font had been installed as part of a previous renovation. This was replaced with a font of Tennessee Marble placed at the center of a large fountain encrusted with Moravian tiles. Iridescent tile depictions of the peacock, an early Christian symbol of rebirth, adorn each side of the font.
In the nave, the original confessional alcoves were renovated to create modern, welcoming spaces. The restored decorative wood trim of each alcove now frames new doors with stained glass panels created in the style of the existing church windows.
Sadly, much of the new decorative painting details within the sanctuary area of the church were removed within a year by new parish leadership before photographs could be taken. As a result, there are no photographs of the sanctuary and side chapel that show it complete and as originally designed by MPSB
Design & Implementation Team
MPSB Architectural Design Studio
Heimer & Co.
John Tiedemann Inc.
Stickley Audi & Co.
Moravian Tile Works