VATICAN II CHURCH — Architect Douglas Cardinal was one of the first to show the post-Vatican II liturgy in a church — St. Mary’s in Red Deer, Alta. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc.)
Cardinal’s church was built for Vatican II liturgy
By Michael Swan
There’s more to the liturgy than which words are spoken when and by whom. There’s more to it than can be captured by any one language, living or dead.
The story of St. Mary’s encapsulates triumphs and
tragedies of the Canadian church against the backdrop of Vatican II ideals.
The church was consecrated as a cathedral by the Oblate Archbishop Anthony
Jordan of Edmonton in 1968, who attended all four sessions of the ecumenical
council in Rome.
Cardinal grew up going to a residential school in the 1940s — St.
Joseph’s Convent School in Red Deer. His father was Blackfoot and
his mother Métis. He was one of the rare success stories — a
smart kid who got top marks, excelled in art and music, studied piano
at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
He was also the head altar boy at St. Joseph’s and
today as he pushes toward 80 years old he can still remember every word
of the Latin Mass and can still sing the chants.
Cardinal’s brilliant career almost never happened.
He was assaulted on the street as a young man in an ugly racial incident.
In the Alberta of the late 1950s, it was naturally the Native kid who
wound up in jail. Jordan got him a lawyer, and helped get him out of
From there, Cardinal travelled Europe — taking in everything from
Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to the baroque
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by his favourite architect, Francesco
Baromini. That was followed by more architecture studies at the University
of Texas and travel through Mexico and the American southwest, where
he saw adobe missionary churches that reminded him of one of the great
20th-century masterworks, Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du
Haut in Ronchamp, France.
When German Oblate missionary Father Werner Merx tapped
the young Cardinal to design a new church the priests didn’t know of the young architect’s
history with his bishop. Merx stormed off to Edmonton prepared to battle
Jordan for the chance to employ this brilliant young architect, not knowing
how pleased his fellow Oblate would be to see the young man he saved
from jail erect the first post-conciliar church in his diocese.
Merx and Cardinal weren’t just going to design a
big building with some pews and a spire. They were going to invent a
church based on the liturgy.
“We started by saying, what is the reason for the space?” Cardinal
told The Catholic Register. “The altar.”
Merx insisted on a spare, unadorned sanctuary without even a cross. The
pastor wanted the altar to be the sole symbol of the real presence, open
and accessible to everyone gathered around it.
Every day at 4 p.m. Merx and Cardinal would meet at the
church, play organ music and go over Cardinal’s designs. Their instruction manual
was Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy. It took months to come up with the spare, unpolished altar that
would dominate the sanctuary.
Cardinal designed a “light canon” — essentially a hole
in the roof — over the altar.
“I wanted divine light coming from the altar,” he said. “That’s
the sacrifice, the table of sacrifice. It should be the symbol of Christ.
So light should emanate from the altar.”
The roof itself became a tent-like baldacchino hovering
over the altar. Merx’s last church had burned down, so he wanted
this one made of pure masonry and concrete. It was a tall order for a
“They told me it was impossible, with 81,000 simultaneous calculations
to be solved. They said it would take 100 years,” recalled Cardinal.
“I want the sound of the church to ring like a cathedral so that
when the priest said ‘Dominus vobiscum’ it would go ‘Dominus
vobiscum-um-um-um,’ ” he said. “Those beautiful Gregorian
chants, I wanted them to sound properly in the church.”
Cardinal rooted his design in the spirit of baroque architecture, with its moving, dynamic forms.
The result is something architecture students everywhere study, said
Toronto architect Roberto Chiotti.
“Cardinal’s church in Red Deer always comes up as one of
the case studies,” said Chiotti. “It’s very influential
on the students and some of their designs.”
But Merx and Cardinal’s vision suffered in the post-Vatican
II era. Merx was transferred to a northern mission almost as soon as
the church was completed.
“Which really broke his heart,” said Cardinal. “He
wanted to be there, but he was too liberal for the community.”
Subsequent pastors and parishioners found the design too austere and
too far off the beaten path of regular church architecture.
“No, they don’t get it. They put all those horrible statues
in there. They’ve got . . . ugh!” Cardinal said.
At one point another architect was brought in to remove
the baptistry from the entrance, where it had been a symbol of initiation
into the church, and to make things a little more conventional. Cardinal
tried to sue for the moral rights to his design, but the courts were
reluctant to limit the parish’s right to dispose of its property.
When the church was built it stood alone on the horizon — a mysterious
and beckoning shape. Today, it’s surrounded by a suburban subdivision
with houses and schools. The bell tower still stands above the entrance,
but the parish has never commissioned a peal of bells to occupy the trinity
of open spaces left for them in the wall.
Despite all these disappointments and compromises, St.
“It’s captured in any historical anthology or survey of Canadian architecture. It would likely be in any major anthology of church architecture because it’s so unique in its form,” said Chiotti. “Cardinal came along just at that moment when we were trying to articulate Vatican II and what does it mean. It’s a major transformation. He was a leader in trying to give tangible, meaningful expression to the documents as they would manifest themselves in church architecture. It was very courageous and bold.”