There was a time I would drive from Montana back to the Lower Valley, via the Loop, almost every single day of last winter. As I passed Vista Del Sol, I could see crews building a church off in the distance.
So, I began to wonder just how, and where the Catholic Diocese of El Paso decides to build a church.
It’s not the first time I have had these thoughts and questions. I used to work at Our Lady of Assumption, on Byron Street, as the youth director under Fr. Frias.
Back then I had the same questions but also wondered who decided how the church would look.
This past week I sit down with Fr. Frank Lopez, the rector of Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini Church. He explained to me the steps involved, and how it all works. Before our conversation, I thought that the Diocese just purchased a piece of property and the Bishop told someone what the Church was to look like. I was so very wrong.
Establishing a new parish starts with a need in that neighborhood. “Here at Mother Cabrini, they purchased this property realizing that the city is growing in this direction. Once the need is established to build a community, where the need is to build a church, then the diocese purchases the property.”
After the property is purchased and the need is determined that the community would support a new Church building, they still don’t start building right away. “We began by purchasing a parish house-slash- rectory. That’s where the priest lives, and during the early years it also serves as our offices and daily Mass chapel,” said Father Frank. “For Sunday Masses we rent the school, a public school. Because the crowds are going to be bigger than the daily mass.”
“We build by phases,” says Father. After determining the need, and purchasing the parish house, they move forward in steps. “The community starts raising funds to pay for the land that was initially purchased.”
“Whether it stewardship, bazaars, capital campaigns, the community works quickly to raise money. We don’t depend on the Diocese or the Bishop. It’s the people in the community raising money to build their church.”
For a church community to be built, the community itself must raise forty percent of the required funds. Once they have those monies, the Catholic Diocese of El Paso steps in and loans them the remaining sixty percent. “Of course,” Father Frank says, “before they loan you the money they make a feasibility study that you are going to be able to pay the debt, and that the community is growing.”
Once the monies are approved, and they can move forward, what is the first thing they build? I thought it was the Church itself. “We start with a multipurpose building.”
After they build the multipurpose building, Mass is moved to the Church property, and away from the school.
The next phase is building classrooms, and meeting rooms. “As you know, the community is going to continue to grow. Our next phase is to build the sanctuary, which is the Church.”
One of the ways they raise the monies needed to build the church is through a capital campaign. Father Frank says that twice a year, in December, and then again in May they make an appeal to members of the Church community, asking for pledges to pay the outstanding building and land costs.
What comes next? After the Diocese has approved the remaining sixty percent and says build the Church? “Everyone does it differently,” says Father. “I can tell you how we did it here. I am very liturgically inclined. I love the liturgical life of the Church. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to study the liturgy on my own, the documents of the Church, how a Church should be designed, and the purpose and reason why that is.”
It was during this time of study that Father Frank could attend quite a few conferences on the church building. It was at one of these conferences that Father met the couple that would ultimately be selected to design Mother Cabrini Church.
“This was the first architect that we have hired from outside El Paso. Of course, all the architects must be approved by the Diocese. There is a list that is approved by the Diocese.”
In the end, that out of town firm was the one selected. Hyndman and Hyndman have an extensive list of Catholic Churches they have designed, and Catholic worship spaces, according to Father Frank is their specialty.
“They know the design and purpose of a worship setting,” says Father. “They know where the baptismal font should be, where the altar should go.”
In deciding which architect to use they also decided that they wanted to build a space that was both traditional and modern. Mother Cabrini Church does that perfectly. When I first walked into Mother Cabrini, I was reminded of the Mission Churches of El Paso.
The outside of the Church, the façade, is designed to look, and call to mind Ysleta, San Eli, and Socorro Missions. “We wanted something that would speak to the faith and culture of El Paso,” and the front of the Church does just that.
“As far as the interior of the Church, we wanted something that represented the community that was intimate, hospitable, and welcoming,” said Father. “That’s why the altar, and the ambo if you step up there it feels as if everyone is close to the altar. And the floors are a little bit inclined so that you can have that participation.”
So, there is a lot of thought that goes into building a Church, beyond just deciding where to build it. Another thing I learned is that there is a lot of feedback from the community.
“Some of the comments,” says Father, “were that ‘we don’t want a modern looking church,’ or ‘we don’t want a church that looks like a warehouse,’ ‘we want a church that looks Catholic.’” After this, a liturgical consultant took what they learned from the community, they conducted a study of the community and the worship here and put together a document, and that’s what we presented to the architect.”
Hyndman and Hyndman, when talking with Father and the Mother Cabrini community said that they wanted to build a church that, “when people walk in they immediately find the presence of God and peace. They find a prayerful setting.”
Father Frank said he was taken aback by that comment only because no other architect said anything close to that. Hyndman and Hyndman did just that, designed a Church structure focused on God, the Eucharist, peace, and prayer.
Then next step, according to Father, was to begin looking for artists to create the liturgical furnishings, and other items you find within a Catholic Church. Mother Cabrini does have some excellent pieces within the Church itself. One of these is a tapestry that hangs within the vestibule. What makes it unique is that everyone you see within the piece is members of the Church community.
Then there is the crucifix that hangs behind the altar. Just looking at it you can see not only the work that went into creating it but the devotion the artist had towards God and Jesus. It is truly a thing of beauty and calls one to contemplate on the sacrifice made for us.
“I get a kick out of people who say that they want to build a traditional Church,” Father says with a smile. “In a hundred years from now, this will be considered a traditional Church.”
He’s right. One of the things Vatican Council II changed was the Mass and the overall design of Church buildings. We have grown accustomed to the Churches that were built immediately after Vatican II, and people, a hundred years, or more, will see Mother Cabrini as a traditional parish.
“The Church evolves,” says Father. “The Churches from pre-Vatican are still beautiful, but then there were renovations and changes. It was not raising our eyes up to God, but bringing our eyes back to the world where the Lord is found.”
Father mentioned that the Baroque Churches, while beautiful with their gold-leaf columns, and architecture are still beautiful, Vatican II thought they were too much and wanted to remove what they thought was too much distraction and bring them back here.
Today, as Father said, the simplest thing is the whole focal point of the architecture to focus on the altar. “It’s where we celebrate the sacrifice; there should not be any distractions around it.”
Again, a lot of thought went into the design of Mother Cabrini Church. When you walk in you can feel an overwhelming sense of peace. Attending Mass there, you feel as if you are sitting at the same table like everyone else, celebrating as if you are one family. It’s a Church I would recommend a visit to if you find yourself on the east side of El Paso.
From deciding to where the Church should be located, the purchasing of the parish house, to the raising of funds, design, and building, it’s a lot. And they are not yet finished. They still need to build a daily chapel, as well as a smaller structure to use for classrooms.
Of course, the parking lot needs to be finished; it’s still mostly dirt. A lot of work.
That, in a nutshell, is how it is done. As I said, there is still work to do, but it is being done by a community that loves the Church they are building. Stop by and visit Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini Church at 12200 Vista Del Sol Drive.
If you would like Steven to come out and visit your Church, send us an email.
Photos by Steven Cottingham