Something Lasting

Duncan G. Stroik designs and builds churches that are solid, inspiring, and timeless

South Bend, Ind.

‘Have you ever walked into a church and thought that it looks like a movie theatersomething more secular than sacred?” asks the architect Duncan G. Stroik. He’s talking about the churches built over the last 50 or 60 years, ones that have followed the utilitarian commandments of modernism. “That’s what we’re rebelling against,” says Stroik. “A church shouldn’t be a mere ‘worship space,’ but rather a sermon in stone.”

Pope John Paul II would have understood what he means. In 1999, he visited Rome’s Church of San Mattia, built in the 1960s with the concrete-bunker aesthetic that once was trendy but now looks cramped and ugly. The pope condemned what he saw with words both understated and sweeping: “There is little sense of the sacred in the new churches.”

Stroik has made it his mission to fix this problem. He seeks to restore sacred architecture, reviving classical forms that fell from favor during the second half of the 20th century and still haven’t recovered. He publishes widely, teaches students, and, perhaps most important, designs and constructs churches across the United States. If you’ve ever gazed on a church of recent vintage and sighed, “They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” then Stroik is your man. He does make them like they used to, and although he’s not a celebrity “starchitect” with the name recognition of a Frank Gehry or an I. M. Pei, his ideas are catching on among people who appreciate beautiful buildings.

The 56-year-old Stroik was born in Philadelphia but grew up mostly in Reston, Va., the son of a State Depart­ment architect who liked to live in old houses and talk about their virtues. This background seems to have set Duncan’s course: “I always wanted to be an architect,” he says. Today, he exudes his profession, right down to the bow tie that he usually wears. “Architects like them because traditionally we’re leaning over drafting tables,” he says. “They don’t get in the way.” Stroik uses computers, but he also does plenty of work the old-fashioned way, by hand on slanted desks.

Stroik attended the University of Virginia, with its campus designed by a Founding Father. “Thomas Jefferson was my first hero,” he says. “He built in the classical tradition at a high level.” In the shadow of Monticello, Stroik majored in architecture. He went on to Yale, where he earned his master’s degree. Next he worked for Allan Greenberg, an architect who has strived to keep classicism alive in the face of modernism’s maw. Then the University of Notre Dame came calling: It wanted to reinvigorate its school of architecture by hiring classicists. Stroik signed up in 1990 and has served on the faculty ever since.

During his first year at Notre Dame, Stroik asked students to participate in a weekend competition. Their assignment was to sketch churches — something Stroik himself had not done before, even though he was a regular churchgoer as well as an admirer of great churches. “Their work was atrocious,” he says. “I decided that I’d have to do something about it. Graduates of the architecture school at Notre Dame should know how to design churches.”

Stroik also sensed a magnificent opportunity. “The greatest building in all societies is the temple,” he says. “They are the greatest buildings in the world.” They’re monumental, enjoying prominent locations, good materials, and high purposes. Great architects, Stroik thought, should aspire to build them. Yet churches were out of fashion with a rampant secularism that had infected everything, including schools of architecture. “The best churches bring out un-modern ideas,” he says. “They remind us of God’s perfection and holiness and make us feel humble.” And so they have no place on “the naked public square” — an architectural metaphor devised by the Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus to illustrate the broader problem of ejecting faith from public life.

Stroik’s architectural firm really is on the public square in downtown South Bend. It occupies the top floor of the twelve-story Tower Building, right be­side a big county courthouse. Stroik’s earliest jobs were home renovations and other small projects. He also designed a few churches, though none were built. Then he secured his first religious commission: a Catholic chapel with seating for 50 in the wing of a large house in Omaha, Neb. Soon after, a parish in Walton, Ky., contacted him for advice on a new building. This led to the construction of All Saints Church, finished in 2003. A brick-and-stone structure that can hold 600 worshipers beneath its barrel-vaulted ceiling, it sits on a hilltop and features a stocky bell tower that catches the eye from a distance.

It wound up catching a lot of eyes. “That was my breakthrough project,” says Stroik, who went on to take a series of jobs that earned him a national reputation. He designed and built the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., and the Thomas Aquinas College Chapel in Santa Paula, Calif. He also oversaw major renovations to churches in Connecticut, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, and Texas. On August 7 of this year, he attended the dedication of his latest work, the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School in Tampa. Its simple exterior of red brick masks an octagonal interior, with warm yellow walls, original artwork, and hand-carved marble, plus seating for 900. The next building he’ll complete, in 2019, will be his biggest yet: Christ Chapel at Hillsdale College, with room for 1,400 people.

Each of these buildings strikes a blow against modernist architecture, an industrial-era movement whose central principle was perhaps best summarized by Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, Louis Sullivan, who famously said, “Form follows function.” That’s a good rule of thumb for a fast-food joint with drive-through service in the parking lot of a strip mall. To Stroik, however, it leaves little room for beauty or humanity, creating challenges for everyone from urban residents who want livable environments to church­goers who hope for transcendent surroundings. “The modernists are iconoclasts,” he says. “They reject figures and ornaments and even people in favor of glass and steel.” The modernists’ greatest offense, he believes, is to have scarred cities and towns with buildings that mean nothing and inspire nobody.

They’ve achieved this by turning away from reliable traditions that suggest how buildings ought to look. A church, says Stroik, should display verticality, length, and harmonic proportions — not the modernist preference for horizontality, proximity, and unbalanced ratios. Stroik especially scorns fan-shaped churches that feel more like assembly halls than sacred spaces. “Emphasis should fall on the altar and tabernacle, not on the pastor or the congregation,” he says. “A good church is figurative. It reflects us, imitates us. It has a top, a bottom, and a middle. Doors and windows are like facial features. The moldings are like body parts.”

The stakes are high. “We’re losing Christians like crazy,” says Stroik, referring to the rapid growth of the religious “nones,” a category that includes atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated and makes up nearly a quarter of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. Stroik believes that architecture can serve as an unconventional tool of conversion. He points to a 2016 survey of young Christians in Britain, sponsored by the Hope Revo­lu­­tion Partnership. Asked to identify their reasons for becoming Christian, almost half cited the most obvious influence: their families. Yet 13 percent also mentioned “visiting a church building,” an experience that produced better results than more conventional approaches to evangelization such as youth groups (11 percent), youth services (8 percent), and youth camps (4 percent). For Stroik, the lesson is clear: “When buildings are likeable, you’re promoting the faith.”

Everyone benefits, even the poor with their pressing problems and special claims on Christian charity. “We need to feed the poor, but we also need to think about churches as places for spiritual feeding,” says Stroik. “A beautiful church is for the poor as much as it’s for anybody. In fact, it might even be more important for them because they have fewer chances to visit beautiful buildings.”

The biggest stumbling block may be money: It costs a lot to erect a grand church. Stroik knows this: “It’s hard and expensive and takes time. Beauty isn’t fast and it isn’t cheap.” Yet the payoff can last a long time. “We still marvel at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome,” he says. “In Italy, almost every town has an old church that’s worth visiting. That’s not true in America. When was the last time you went out of your way to see a piece of contemporary religious artwork or architecture?” The real question, he insists, is this: “Can we afford not to build beautiful churches?” The failure to invest in architecture puzzles and frustrates him: “We’ve never been wealthier than today, and yet we’re building the cheapest churches in history.”

Fears about cost, in fact, may be overblown. When the people at Tampa’s Jesuit High School first contacted Stroik about their chapel, they thought they wanted only to renovate. “They assumed that a new building would be too expensive,” he says. “But I made a case for it, drawing a design and providing a cost estimate — and when they saw that the price wasn’t prohibitive, that’s what they chose to do.” The old chapel came down and a new one went up in its place.

Finishing a project such as the one in Tampa doesn’t bring relief, says Stroik. Instead, it makes him sad: “The work is great. You get to know the place and the people. You solve problems together. Then you’re done, and you don’t go back.”

That’s not strictly true. Like any good architect, Stroik checks up on his creations from time to time. He also shows them to potential clients. Yet the regular visits do cease. The result of his work, though, is something as close to permanence as human hands can make: a church that will outlast its builders and offer a sense of uplift for generations unborn.

About Me

John J. Miller lives on a dirt road in rural Michigan. He is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and writes for National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. His books include The First Assassin, a historical thriller set during the Civil War, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, and The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America. He is the founder and executive director of the Student Free Press Association, a non-profit group best known for its news website, The College Fix. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called Miller “one of the best literary journalists in the country.”