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The Practice of Church Building

From its inception, a critical component of Christianity has been the congregation of people to worship together. The practice of worshipping together as a crowd has been a guiding principle for Christians, from the time of Jesus to date. Originally, Christians used to gather in synagogues or in other people’s homes to pray. The first Christians residing in Israel worshiped occasionally in the temple of Jerusalem and undertook their weekly prayers in the local synagogues. But as Christianity expanded its flanks and became more accepted by establishments that used to oppose its growth like the Roman Empire, rooms and ultimately entire buildings were designated for the explicit function of Christian worship (Wardell, 2004). This essay will concern itself with evaluating the practice of church building over time through the lives of St Bartholomew, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Kathleen Drixel, and its effect on today’s Catholic Christianity.

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A church building can be described as an edifice or structure that is used for the primary objective of facilitating the meeting of the church. This structure of worship is often endowed with a symbolic form (Wardell, 2004). Historically, places of worship were built in a physical form that served to express the symbolic form of the congregation. The physical form of the structure also served to reflect the explicit character, mission, and requirements of the believers, while making an allusion to the collective nature of the church. In the search for the preferred physical form of the church, the early Christians had to engage in deep thought to answer some lingering questions such as: how their faith and worship should shape the physical structure of the church; how to determine their needs and requirements as a church; how to find the right mix of individuals to design the physical structure and built it; and the resources needed to get the job done (Wardell).

The term ‘church’ was used by the early Christians to refer to the act of gathering together for the purposes of worship rather than the physical structure itself (Wardell, 2004). According to McCallum and Delashmutt (2009), the term is taken to mean a collective body of Christians, or a gathering of all those who acknowledge believing in Christ, professing him as Savior. Though not on all occasions, such a congregation of Christians usually converge at one place to worship – church building.

Nothing much is known of St. Bartholomew except that he was one of the twelve apostles as mentioned in the synoptic gospels as well as in Acts of Apostles. He lived in the 1st century, and scholars and theologians alike believe that he is the same as Nathaniel, mentioned in the gospel of John (Catholic Online, 2009). It is believed that St. Bartholomew preached the gospel in India and Greater Armenia, where he was eventually beheaded by King Astyages. It is also believed that he preached in Egypt, Persia, and ancient Mesopotamia.

During this time (first and second century), the Christian congregation converged mostly in private houses, fields, or remote areas for fear of reprisals from unfriendly forces. The fact that St. Bartholomew was beheaded is proof enough of the grave dangers that Christians faced when they tried to spread the gospel during the early days (Stevenson, 2004). Christianity was not in any way recognized by the Roman State. Christians were tortured, beaten, imprisoned, or even beheaded if they were caught spreading the gospel or worshiping. The character of these congregations mirrored the nature of the Christian faith, with an emphasis on introspection (Wardell, 2004). Christians during this time employed the philosophy of searching for the real meaning of life in the spiritual dimension, not in the material world. Accordingly, they chose to leave their material trappings behind and engage in introspective worshipping. According to Wardell, some of these private homes were converted into places of worship in their entirety.

A living example of these types of homes used by Christians to worship in the first and second centuries is the House-Church found at Dura Europos (Wardell, 2004). A wall was removed from the original living room to create a space large enough for the gathering of the whole assembly of Christians in one room. This was in line with the philosophy left behind by Christ that Christians should pray and worship together. An open court stands at the center of the house to provide light and fresh air to the worship hall, baptistery, and sacristy. The house has a single door for entry, and has no windows on the perimeter walls. This inward orientation of the House-Church reveals both the introspection of the Christian assembly as well as the need to offer necessary protection from the authorities that were keen on annihilating the emerging influence of the early Christian faithful.

The recruitment of Christians was not an easy task during the first and the second centuries. Initially, the Romans originally perceived Christians as a cult of Jews (“Roman Civilization,” 1999). The Roman emperors instituted strategies of suppression and persecution against the Christians, thereby making the process of recruitment difficult. Emperor Nero and Diocletion were the most notorious in this respect. Early Christians such as Perpetua and Agatha suffered awfully under these emperors.

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The persecutions necessitated the early Christians to adapt the philosophy of martyrdom as a means of assembling the Christian community and achieving popular support outside the community. This facilitated the recruitment process, which was done democratically. Indeed, the Act of Apostles reveals that early Christians exercised a kind of communism within a Roman community defined by belief (“Roman Civilization,” 2009). The Christians observed strict behavioral codes that defined their lives, therefore providing organizing and identifying principles for the whole congregation. Such principles included the vows of chastity that reflected on the love that bound the Christians together. Available evidence also points to the fact that Christians in the early Roman Empire practiced ritual tattooing as a component of cult initiation.

The Roman opposition faded by the third and forth century, necessitating the Christians to start worshiping in public places without fear of reprisals (McCallum & Delashmutt, 2009). Substantial numbers of people were recruited into the Christian faith after it was ascertained that Christianity was to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. This is where the need to build church buildings arose, since the surging congregation could no longer be accommodated at the meeting halls of House-Churches (Wardell, 2004). Perhaps the earliest form of a church building past the Roman era was the Basilica, which was specifically designed to express the context of the Christian faith. The perception of “path,” symbolizing the road inward to the souls of believers, and “Center,” the point at which the significance of life is revealed became essential spatial relationships that directed the form of the early Christian church. In the design, there was a careful introduction of natural light into the inside of the building. In this manner, the Christian faith was signified in terms of a physical building, the spaces that comprised the interior, and the way that natural light came into the building. This sort of arrangement also symbolized the faith and convictions of the church assembly.

Known as the patron of animals, merchants, and ecology, St. Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni Francesco Bernardone to a wealthy family residing in Italy (Catholic Online, 2009). He lived between 1181/1182 and 1226, and was the founder of the Franciscan Order. Catholics to date hold ceremonies to honor animals around the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi in his remembrance. It is imperative to note that the saint was administered in medieval time, a period in history that spanned from 800 to about 1500. By then, the church had undergone great transformations, and the Christian congregation had increased tenth fold. During the 1100s, Gothic churches had already been started to be built. The concept of God as a never-ending presence found architectural expression in expanded importance on the verticality in the nave of the church (Wardell, 2004). Previously, the dome at the crossing had symbolized the revelation of God in a distinct location. But in the Gothic types of church buildings, God’s revelation is signified by a verticality that is extended into the whole nave.

The Clerestory windows and domed ceilings strengthened the connection between the Christian faithful and the sky, in addition to de-emphasizing the material presence of the church building. The structure and design of the Gothic cathedral symbolized immediacy of God’s presence and the way He communicates directly with the congregation (Wardell, 2004). The architecture of these cathedrals built in medieval times manifested God’s order on the world. Every stone was carved out to stand for a piece of that order. According to Wardell, history, technology, and spirituality made up the components of this stone’s philosophy; that of an individual’s position as a piece of a much larger order. One must therefore first accept his or her place in the kingdom of God before perceiving this order. In all these, Faith was viewed as a prerequisite for reason to exist. It was therefore through these Gothic cathedrals that meaning could be revealed into the lives of people.

During this era, preachers, having understood the practical uses of popular enthusiasm, became more experienced at soliciting funds for purposes of church-building (Heywood, 2001). Available evidence reveals that sustained campaigns to raise money for building of churches began in the 1050s. This was followed by the crusades of the twelve and thirteenth centuries, which insisted on recruitment and revenue. The conflict between the Christians, Jews, and Muslims was at its peak during this era since these groups held and propagated totally divergent views. The crusaders were rooting for religious hegemony by force, a condition that went against the church’s philosophy and teachings of love and harmony. In 1199 CE, the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Innocent III had to stand up and condemn the actions that were being taken by the crusaders against the Jews in their attempt to recruit and convert more people into Christianity. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Christian communities in Northern Spain began to amass political and military influence in the villages in an attempt to militarize and ultimately take control of Muslim Iberia. All these scenarios reflect that recruitment during this era was often accompanied by conflict.

St. Katharine Drexel is a Roman Catholic Saint who lived between 1858 and 1955. She bestowed her life and possessions to the needs of the oppressed and disadvantaged Americans and Blacks residing in the West and Southwest United States. She advocated for racial tolerance and established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament religious order to help address racial injustice and destitution, in addition to spreading the Gospel to these groups (Catholic Online, 2009). She helped finance more than 60 missions and schools in the U.S. to assist poor Native Americans and blacks get a basic education. She was canonized on October 2000 by John Paul II for her lifelong dedication to the catholic faith and her selfless service to the oppressed.

By the 20th century, millions and millions of people had converted to Christianity. During the early 19th, Century, European society began developing in separate directions, necessitating the architectural styles of the church buildings to follow suit. The Baroque architectural style in Italy developed distinctively from styles found in Germany, France, or England (Wardell, 2004). The ideas and concepts emphasized by the church buildings also parted ways. According to Wardell, the church buildings began to symbolize the ideas and concepts of the local congregations due to increased turmoil within the Christendom that was occasioned by the process of reformation. Villages and towns in the new world strived to institute their congregations as the epicenter of their settlements, further occasioning the church to be viewed as responsive to the local communities.

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American churches during the times of St. Katharine Drexel were derived from the New England Meeting House, an edifice that was often used as a gathering place (Wardell, 2004). These buildings bore effortless spaces, with high ceilings and sufficient natural lighting. Spatially, this reveals the everlasting Christian character of earthly simplicity and inwardness. This expression or symbolization is still revealed by the church buildings that are being constructed in modern days.

The churches became significant elements of the civic expressions of the young American nation as villages and whole settlements expanded into towns and cities (Wardell, 2004). They became the center of spiritual assistance for the worshippers as well as the source of political activities for communities. Hence, the architectural appearances of many churches built in this era sought to signify the unity of the two forces. The building design of many of these churches, turned neo-classical in style, representing the convergence of the political and religious epicenter of the community (Wardell). This situation also continues to affect the Catholic Church and Christianity today. In many nations around the world, the church and politics are inseparable. Churches have taken an active role of watching over the excesses of governments, and the protection of justice and human rights. It is not uncommon to find inscriptions talking about political goodwill and justice on church walls and buildings today.

The Christians during the early days employed the philosophy of searching the real meaning of life in the spiritual dimension, not the material world. This philosophy continues to affect the Christians today as they continue to hold on to the philosophy, and designing structures symbolizing the gratification of the soul over material possessions (Wardell, 2009). In the ancient House-Church, a wall was removed from the living room to create adequate space for the gathering of the whole assembly of Christians. It was a philosophy and principle to pray and worship together in brotherhood. This continues to affect the church of today as we see congregations putting up massive church buildings that can accommodate all members instead of diverting them elsewhere.

It is therefore true to say that catholic Christianity as we know it today has been greatly affected by the practice of church building over time, from the early churches to the more recent ones. Though the philosophies have changed over time, the guiding principle has remained unchanged – love for one another (Stevenson, 2004). The early Christians observed strict behavioral codes that defined their lives, providing organizing and identifying principles that centered on love. The same remains unchanged today.


Catholic Online. Saints and Angels: Katharine Drexel. 2009. Web.

Catholic Online. Saints and Angels: St. Francis of Assisi. 2009. Web.

Catholic Online. Saints and Angels: St. Bartholomew. 2009. Web.

Heywood, W. “Medieval revivalism.” In John Wood’s, Medieval Christianity (eds). Vol. 4.

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Minneapolis: Augsburgfortress Press. Web.

McCallum, D., & Delashmutt, G. The New Testament Definition of the Church. 2009. Web.

Roman Civilization and Christianity. 1999. Web.

Stevenson, P.L. Definition of church. 2004. Web.

Wardell, B.R. A Short History of Church Building. 2004. Web.

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