For more than 50 years, St. George Catholic Church parishioners have worshiped in a building not originally built for that purpose. It is an understatement to say that is no longer the case.
Since March 5, worship services have been held in a $17 million sanctuary with a soaring, arched ceiling, multiple stained glass windows and seating designed to create an intimate feeling for those who gather closest to the altar.
With its Gothic arches and curved roof, the church is an imposing sight on busy Siegen Lane, and the interior is designed to convey a sense of majesty, architect David Hebert said.
“What we’re trying to achieve is you walk through the doors and you feel like you’re in the presence of God,” Hebert said. “If we can achieve that, people are already in the right state of mind before the father (priest) is even walking up to the altar.”
There haven’t been many sanctuaries in the history of St. George, which began in 1908 when the area was rural. The wooden building that served the first half of St. George’s existence was replaced in 1960, when the church was starting plans to add a school, said Martin Hernandez, St. George’s director of administration and facilities.
The pastor at the time, the Rev. James Finnegan, thought it would be better to build a multipurpose building to function as a school gymnasium as well as a place for worship, Hernandez said, until a separate sanctuary could be added.
In the mid-1980s, St. George decided to renovate the building and continued worship services there. But, nine years ago, discussion arose about the need for a building for the school’s prekindergarten through fourth grades. Consultants indicated more money could be raised for a sanctuary than for a school building, said St. George’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Schatzle.
“We really took a risk, because Guidance in Giving, (the consultants) whom we used, said we could raise maybe $7 or $8 million,” Schatzle said. “We’ve pledged $16 million.
“The people here have responded just splendidly."
Before the church was designed, members were extensively consulted about what they wanted in a place of worship, Schatzle said. There wasn’t an obvious consensus.
“We knew there were a lot of young parishioners,” Hebert said. “The average age is the mid-30s or so, so we knew it needed to be something that would speak to a younger age of parishioners.
“But at the same time, there are a lot of people who have ties and roots in St. George for generations, so we didn’t want something that was too contemporary but something … that spoke to the old architecture of liturgical buildings but, at the same time, had some contemporary or 21st-century elements to it.”
Some of the building’s exterior appearance is an optical illusion, using precast concrete that mimics the look of limestone. The cruciform design is another traditional touch. But instead of straight pews, 1,000 of the 1,200 seats are curved into concentric semicircles around the altar.
“It’s almost like sitting at a rectangular table vs. a round table. The round table is a lot more engaging and conducive to meeting and a community feel,” Hebert said.
The peak of the ceiling is 55 feet above the church floor. Local stained glass artist Stephen Wilson produced several designs, including smaller windows representing the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Wilson also designed several mosaics inlaid in the floor.
For daily Mass services, the building includes a 150-seat chapel.
The new sanctuary seats 350 more than its predecessor, a choice that reflects both the parish’s growth and some strategic thinking about Catholicism’s trend toward fewer priests.
“We have a very large congregation here with over 3,000 families, but some day, we may be limited in the amount of clergy that we have, so if we build a smaller church that would require you to have multiple services on a Sunday, it would surpass the ability of us having a priest to do all of those services,” Hernandez said. “We thought that building a larger church would enable us to prepare for the future where we may need to fit more people into fewer services.”
There are modern features like projection screens and glass that, with a flip of a switch, turns frosted to hide the crucifix when the building is used for non-sacramental reasons. The building’s overall effect, however, is timeless.
“We wanted it to look grounded and solid. It’s going to be there another hundred years, hopefully,” Hebert said. “And we wanted it to look like it’s been there for a hundred years.”
St. George Open House
Tours of new sanctuary at St. George Catholic Church
WHEN: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19
WHERE: St. George Catholic Church, 7808 St. George Drive, Baton Rouge
INFORMATION: (225) 293-2212