National ‘Churchpionship’ winner

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Patrick Murray had never seen anything like St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. The Baroque-style cathedral - with its towering columns, circular stained glass windows and pale blue ceiling murals - was stunningly beautiful. He felt the church's art and architecture gave a sense of the 2,000 years of tradition contained within Catholicism. The space encouraged reverence for the majesty of God.

Now Murray, a self-proclaimed "liturgy nerd and art history geek," helps create beautiful churches for a living as a consultant for Granda Liturgical Arts. The Madrid-based company produces everything from vestments to full interior and architectural designs of churches.

Murray works as a liaison between the company's artists and the clients to help tailor their vision to liturgical norms. Much of his work is on-the-job learning about the Catholic Church's many guidelines. "When you grow up Catholic, you get a sense for a lot of it, but there's still so much you just have to learn," he said.

His early liturgical education began at St. Ambrose School in Annandale. In high school, he took an art history class at The Heights School in Potomac, Md., and later majored in art history at Jesuit-run Creighton University. He now lives in the Omaha, Neb., area with his wife.

Researching more about liturgical art inspired him to start his blog, Art and Liturgy. "I describe it as sacred art and architecture for normal people," he said. "Not everyone has the time or interest to read a papal encyclical about the theology of beauty, but that's kind of my job."

The blog includes topics such as distinctive and attractive churches, why side altars exist and the use of liturgical colors. The most popular posts have been the ones about the March Madness-inspired "National Churchpionship," which pitted 64 places of worship against each other for the title of most beautiful church in America.

At first, only a few of his friends and loyal readers were voting in the "Church Madness" matchups. But by the end, more than 16,000 votes were cast. A local TV station in Salt Lake City even had a segment on the nightly news to get the vote out for its hometown Catholic church, Cathedral of the Madeleine. In the end, St. John Cantius took the prize.

Murray plans on running the competition again next year. "I've gotten so many suggestions and comments that we already have received 75 or 80 nominations," he said.

"It was cool to see how it captivated people," said Murray. "We all know of these great cathedrals in Europe, but there are so many here, too. It was great to spotlight these churches individually and hopefully encourage a tradition of beauty in the United States."

Some of his work is simpler than celebrating the grandiose heritage of American cathedrals. One of his favorite projects was helping create a reliquary of St. Gianna Molla, the patron saint of mothers, doctors and unborn children, for a maternity home in Minto, N.D., bearing her name.

"It was fun to work with them on matching the colors and style of their chapel with the reliquary, and nice to be able to support a place with such a great mission," he said.

At the heart of Murray's job is creating something beautiful for God. "We take those dreams and all the sacrifices of the parishioners and use our own resources to help in service to the church," said Murray. "In addition to God being present in each one, churches are interesting because the people there give so much money, time and effort to make them worthy of Our Lord."

Sports teams like to create extraordinary stadiums to mirror the glory of their sport and the skill of their team. Churches are beautiful for the same reason, said Murray. "We want to reflect that something important and momentous is happening inside."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016