The Précieux-Sang church merges modernist design and religious revival
While going to visit the Precieux-Sang church in Saint-Boniface, I got lost. There was road construction going on and I somehow missed my turn. I managed to find my way, however, when I spotted this distinctive spiral roofline in the distance.
Etienne Gaboury is one of Manitoba’s foremost architects, and Précieux-Sang is perhaps his most identifiable and iconic design. Firmly anchored in the earth by a low horizontal band of masonry but reaching for the sky with this roof of wild and swirling wood, the church is at the same time vast and intimate, daring and humble.
Philippe Lessard, member of the board of directors of the church who takes me on a guided tour, remembers the construction of the church from 1967 to 1968. “I was in grade 9 on the other side of the street, and I remember that we, the kids, were always looking out the window, ”he recalls.
He admits his grades suffered that year because he was distracted by the construction process. Lessard went on to study architectural drawing, so clearly something stuck with him.
“Can you imagine building this structure? He asks, pointing to the dramatic wooden lines of the central ceiling. “You needed two cranes, one to hold this beam, another crane to hold the other beam, while you intertwine them all on top of each other.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries in North America, architects often relied on an imposing scale, ornate accessories, precious materials, and historical references to create a sense of wonder and majesty in places of worship. .
Precious-Blood is part of a wave of post-war religious structures that emerged when architects created sacred spaces using the more minimalist language of Modernism. These buildings attempt to embody and express spiritual feeling through the subtle interactions of mass, void, and light.
Within the Catholic Church, these developments accelerated after the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965. Vatican II made Catholic religious life more participatory, with the priest facing the congregation and leading the congregation. mass in the language of the parishioners rather than in Latin. . This movement was accompanied by new provisions which officially allowed more freedom in ecclesiastical architecture.
The main space of Precious-Blood is circular and open, but the design quietly encourages a way of moving through the sanctuary, suggesting a form of spiritual journey as people move closer to the altar which is located below the center. of the 29-meter spiral ceiling. “The whole process of the church is that the congregation, when it arrives, is on a journey to the promised land. It goes to the sky, ”Lessard explains.
The design also emphasizes the communal aspects of worship, with simple, sturdy oak pews placed in a semicircle around the altar. “The goal is to have everyone around the altar, so no matter where you sit, you are always part of the ceremony,” Lessard said. The ground slopes very subtly towards the altar, and the bricks of the ground are arranged to lead there as well.
Through his education, his experience, his education and his interests, Gaboury seems particularly apt to merge modernist design and religious renewal. Born in 1930, he grew up in a Franco-Manitoban Catholic family that farmed near Brussels. He then studied architecture at the University of Manitoba, then spent a year in France. As Faye Hellner points out in her essay on her work in Winnipeg Modern, a glimpse into the modernist architecture of our city, Gaboury was deeply touched by Le Corbusier’s revolutionary Notre-Dame du Haut chapel in eastern France, which set aside the traditional rules of church design to express the sacred through what Gaboury called “the immeasurable form”.
In Précieux-Sang, light enters through the windows near the top of the spiral. Even when you experience this light, you cannot directly see the source from below, so the mysterious quality of enlightenment within the church becomes a moving metaphor for spiritual desire. The spiral is also tilted and out of balance, so it appears to be in constant upward, ascending motion, reminding devotees that faith is not a static quality but a dynamic process.
Many recent interpretations of Precious Blood see the church ceiling and its 25 supporting beams as a reference to the structure of a Plains tipi, but not a literal copy. Gaboury is a distant relative of Louis Riel on his father’s side and has an Ojibwa great-grandmother on his mother’s side. He suggested, in a 2015 interview with Indigenous architect David Fortin, that these connections were not talked about much when he was growing up. Gaboury sees layers of religious, cultural, social and personal factors, including his Métis heritage, that have affected his work, particularly his committed regionalism and his deep connection to the natural world.
Précieux-Sang may be inspired by aspects of international modernism, but it is a prairie church. There are few windows, which gives the structure a sense of shelter, perhaps in response to the cold Winnipeg winters. The materials, including glazed bricks and cedar shingles, are modest and locally sourced, with a warm, organic feel and a range of earthy colors. The unifying level of detail comes down to the custom wood door handles of the confessionals.
From those little things to this remarkable ceiling, the church uses simple elements to suggest something much more, what Gaboury called “a mystical space, rising forever and ever”.
A student at the University of Winnipeg and later at York University in Toronto, Alison Gillmor was considering becoming an art historian. She eventually caught the journalism bug when she started as a visual arts critic for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
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