Architect cements relationships while building churches

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The last design decision for St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg — to paint the walls behind the statues of saints a deep maroon — was made just days before the church was dedicated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge July 14. Though the process to build the community its first church began in 2005, those involved with the construction and design were working up until the last minute to realize the concepts they had dreamt about for years.

“There’s a tremendous feeling of camaraderie amongst the team as we’re crossing the finish line,” said James Henry O’Brien, president of the architecture firm O'Brien and Keane, which designed St. Jude.

As O’Brien and hundreds of others attended the Mass of dedication, he felt both relief and great joy. “Sometimes as architects we’re self-critical — we tend to see things we wished we had done differently. With St. Jude, I really didn’t feel that way. It's a very happy thing.”

The diocese is going through a construction boom, and several different architects are lending their skills and expertise to various projects.  O’Brien has been involved in a good number of those. “At this point, we’ve designed five new churches, 10 church renovations, six new schools, 12 school additions/renovations, and five new parish or school sites,” he said. “Our firm was founded in 1993 and we started with two projects in hand —one of them was St. Theresa School (in Ashburn). I think we’ve always had something going with the diocese.”

Growing up as an “Army brat,” O’Brien lived in many different places, but considers Arlington his home and St. Agnes his home parish. Both he and his children attended the school. He graduated from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington and then attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He and Nancy Keane founded the firm, though she left a few years later to be a full-time mom. “I’ve never been able to get her back, try as I might,” he said.

Last year, O’Brien and Keane completed their largest project: the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, which Bishop Burbidge dedicated last July. “It’s noted to be the fourth largest Catholic church in the country, with a capacity of over 2,000, an area of 43,000 square feet, and a dome reaching 174 feet above the ground,” he said. But one of his favorite projects is the smallest — a 15-seat family chapel. 

In the diocese, the firm completed Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville and St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, among others. They’ve renovated St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ridge and St. Louis Church in Alexandria. They transitioned Dominican nuns from their home in Washington to a monastery in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Linden, and are now working to complete the second phase of that building project.

“(We’re working toward creating) a proper choir for the nuns, a chapel for lay visitors, guest quarters, and much-needed work spaces for the community,” he said. “It is a great blessing to be able to work with such holy and kind women. We’ve come to appreciate and begin to understand a totally different way of life.”

Building a church or any new structure is a profoundly collaborative process, said O’Brien. “We go back and forth until we get it just the way everybody likes it. That discussion continues throughout,” he said. Because the projects take years to complete, relationships form as the church takes shape.

“Certainly we are in the business of designing buildings, but the motivating forces are the relationships: with our clients, with our team members, and with God,” he said.

With the construction of St. Jude, Father James C. Hudgins, pastor, had both aesthetic and practical requests, such as a church basement and a bell tower. The church community was inspired by the architecture of St. James Church in Falls Church, said O’Brien, and used its design as a starting point for St. Jude.

“Father Hudgins is extremely thoughtful and considerate, and has a great appreciation for architecture and art, so to us he has been the perfect collaborator and client,” said O’Brien. “The parish has been incredibly motivated to make the project happen.”

With each church building project, O’Brien knows he is creating a house of worship where children will be baptized, couples will be married and Mass will be celebrated. It’s a chance to create something beautiful for God. “Churches seem to be the only project type where being beautiful is enough reason to include a feature or element of design, so that is exciting to an architect,” he said.

But it’s also exciting for all involved, from the priest and parishioners to the contractors and craftsmen. “I’ve seen that happen on every church project I ever worked on. Folks tend to bring their best effort for it. We all get caught up in the meaning and what it’s all about,” he said. “We’re instruments of God at that moment.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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