Jim Roos of RSSC Architects in Wexford is old enough to remember when Vatican II inspired parishes to build contemporary looking churches or to turn traditional interiors into something modern.
In recent years, he’s seen a turnaround as parish leaders planning renovations or repairs looked back to the past to embrace centuries-old traditions.
As senior project architect for the firm, he took on one of those restorations when RSSC was hired to restore Holy Family Church on Ligonier Street in Latrobe. The transformation was so notable that the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) included it in their 2019 People’s Choice Award. The competition is sponsored by Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., which has offices all over the country, including in Pittsburgh.
People can cast votes on the AIA website until Sept. 30.
“I am thrilled that we are nominated and that our work at Holy Family has been recognized by such a prestigious group,” said the Very Rev. Daniel Mahoney, VF, pastor of the parish.
Holy Family, one of 93 completed works listed on the AIA Internet contest, is cited for the restoration “that returned this edifice to the original historical vernacular.”
Although the restoration is not an exact replica of the original century-old interior, the listing notes, “it reestablished the symbols and traditions of Catholic worship in a completely transformed, functional and well illuminated space.”
The stone Romanesque style church was built in 1929, years after the parish was established with a different structure. Not much changed in the next four decades.
“At the end of the Vatican Council in 1967, they took out some of the beautiful things, like pictures of the saints, the statues and the magnificent marble,” Father Mahoney said. “They chopped it up with sledge hammers and threw it out like garbage. Over the years, the church didn’t get much more attention. It was painted a couple of times but nobody made an attempt to do anything else.”
The parishioners responded well to going forward with a restoration project, he added.
RSSC architects was hired to establish a budget, Volpatt Construction Corporation of Pittsburgh was the contractor, and Tower Engineering, also of Pittsburgh, was part of the project. Rusbosin Flooring of Latrobe was one of the subcontractors involved.
“The challenges were in restoring the church back to its historical context,” Roos said. “We were basically faced with the 1970s renovations. The total sanctuary had to be redone, so we rebuilt the sanctuary platform to accommodate restored marble altars. There was new marble flooring, and we had to provide new pew arrangements to accommodate handicap accessibility and we had to totally redesign the lighting system. The church was so dark. The new LED lighting incorporated general lighting, accent lighting and focal lighting in the sanctuary.”
The liturgical artists from New York City who completed paintings in the restoration of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg were hired to provide art work reminiscent of the original church. They also created the paintings of saints and the Holy Trinity on the ceiling, which were not previously there.
The interior structure was not changed. The restoration worked around the original architecture and added furnishings and designs that hailed back to long established church traditions. Some of the pieces came from other churches that were closed or demolished and the furnishings were put into storage until they could be used again. For instance, the high altar where Monsignor Mahoney celebrates Latin Masses came from St. Pius V Church in Baltimore.
The sacrificial altar where the priest faces the people (a post-Vatican II change) is fronted with a carved image of the Last Supper. That came from the original church design.
“One of our parishioners, Don Winklosky, saved it,” Father Mahoney said. “When the altars were being ripped out two men came into the church and saw what they were doing. The demolition crew was getting ready to chop it up. They asked if they could have it, and they somehow got it out of the church and stored in a barn. Don showed it to me and told me, ‘If you can use it, you can have it.’”
Winklosky passed away before the restoration project was completed in June of 2017.
“The symbolism and the history of everything is of extreme interest to me because in worship, all these things mean something to me,” Roos said. “It’s the way churches were meant to be, raising your heart and soul heavenward. This historical restoration brought Holy Family Church back to what the original design was intended to be — a pure worship site.”
The AIA website has several photos of the church’s interior.
“I hope that people will vote for us,” Father Mahoney said.
To cast your one vote, visit aiapgh.org, click on the competition and find Holy Family Church under the “Medium” category. There is also space to submit feedback.