Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

A modern-style church, this building's open interior reflects the guidelines set forth for church construction under Vatican II, which stipulated that the church’s interior is open so that everyone can see everyone, allowing for an intimate environment.

Located in the Eighth Ward (which includes the neighborhoods of Osborne and Roxbury), this parish was found as a result of a quickly-growing local Catholic population in the 1920s. Concerned about a lack of adequate parishes in the area, local families petitioned the Reverend John J. McCort, Bishop of Altoona, concerning the building of a new parish, and he appointed James B. Hebron as Reverend of the new church named The Church of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The first mass was held on an adjacent street in the basement of the high school, while Father Hebron was placed in residence on Edison Road where he held masses during the week. Both locations were though unsuitable for holding mass, the parish purchased land on McKinley Avenue, for $25,000, and a further $40,000 was raised by the parish to erect both a church and rectory planed by Father Hebron. Construction began in the spring of 1927, and was completed by October 1927. In 1938, two additional wings and some brick was added to the church, at a cost of $13,000, as well as a bell tower. These additions made the church look more welcoming and ornamented.

In 1968, fire consumed the original building and shortly after, Alfred D. Reid and Associates was chosen to build the new church. More land was acquired and building began on June 17th, 1969; it was completed on June 21, 1970. The total cost of the new building exceeded $555,000. In
the 1980’s and 1990’s many small repairs and additions were made to the church such as landscaping and the acquisition of an organ.

As you approach the church you will see that the exterior of the building is in a rectangular tiered design with a box shape completion. There are six long vertical stained glass windows, three on each side. The structure is brown brick, with a flat roof typical of a modern catholic church and the top of the building has a concrete colored border. A post-and-lintel formation near the entrance of the building has three bells suspended to one of the horizontal pillars. The three bells possibly symbolizing the Trinity. The building is rather plain and lacks the attractive colored brick and stone with pitched roofs of previous generations. Outside of the structure there is a white statue of the Virgin Mary and a brass, shaped globe that has an arrow through the center of the sculpture.

The entrance of the church has two wooden doors that are surrounded by a dark timber wall of paneling. This is the church vestibule. When you enter the small vestibule you are greeted by a statue of the Virgin Mary that has more humanistic characteristics than the one outside. The Virgin Mary in the vestibule is painted a flesh color and the clothing is in color as well which gives it a more realistic quality to the sculpture. Adjacent to the Virgin Mary is the holy water casing that is circular in shape and has a metallic finish to the lid as well as the cross located on top of the container to represent Jesus and his sacrifice. Surrounding these two figures are three stained glass windows that have many jewel tone colors as well as other shades of the spectrum. This is the portion of the church for meeting and greeting before and after the church service.

Walk through the vestibule; turn to the left to enter the church. The center aisle is present to the altar. On either side of the aisle are wooden pews for seating. Compared to most churches this church is small in size and seating. The carpet is red wine in color and the ceiling is completely white, which is made of wood. The ceiling has four suspended, rectangular segments that have lights on each of the four segments. This is the main light for the building.

The altar is the next portion of the church that is colorful. There is dark timber paneled wood on the back walls of the altar. To the right of the altar you will see another sculpture of the Virgin Mary placed on a small wooden mantel. Directly left of the altar you will see a sculpture of Joseph who is also placed on the wall aligned with the statue of Mary. Behind the altar is a large mural of a levitating Jesus with a halo around his head. Surrounding Jesus are many colors, but primarily yellow, red, and brown. This signifies Jesus’ resurrection and is a recognition of Jesus’ love for everyone and his selflessness. There are two podiums for readings of scripture and announcements to be made during mass. They are made of wood and cloth is placed on the front of both podiums. Lastly, there is a large wooden altar that has a blue cloth laid on top of it and has a yellow crown in the center of the cloth.

On the sidewalls you will see a total of four banners, two on each side, descending down from the top of the ceiling. The banners have two candles and one star sewn on the cloth. These are probably seasonal banners representing advent. Suspended pictures of the Stations of the Cross are placed on the side walls. Each picture conveys the agonizing fate of Jesus’ journey of baring the cross and finally being nailed to the cross. Each side wall has three large vertical stained glass windows that are multicolored, starting from the floor and ending at the top of the ceiling. The main material on the walls is made of a bland light brown brick.

Deacon John Sroka, from The Church of The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary, personal communication, December 8th, 2010, stated that the church seats 550 people. The building is set under the Second Vatican rules, which stipulate that the church’s interior is open so that everyone can see everyone and it allows for an intimate environment. He did not have historical information to share. The pamphlet on the history of the church is not available anymore.

The churches built today tend to be more modern looking like movie theatres and businesses. Occasionally, there are steeples built on the building, but not with the high spires of the past. Part of this change may reflect cost. This also may signify a change in the need for the church to be visually located in a time when GPS is available and church bells are not needed to alert of disasters. Most interestingly, steeples were similar to the pyramids and the ziggaruts of past architecture where the people believed that the building reached its hand closer to heaven or to the gods. Some Christians believe that the steeples therefore have a non Christian connotation. Standard religious symbolism is not used as much in the new churches. This is done to make newcomers feel at home and believe in a new kind of church reaching their needs with less judgments and rules of the past. Many Catholics, including myself, draw comfort in the symbols of our faith. Some appreciate a church steeple with its beauty and view it as a reminder of a greater power that we can both aspire to and be one with. Fortunately, the Catholic Church still relies on symbols to express its’ faith.

Name: Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Location: 1127 McKinley Road, Johnstown, PA
Religious Affiliation: Roman Catholic
Date of Construction: 1969-70 (after original 1927 building destroyed by fire)
Architect: Alfred D. Reid
Building Style: Modern
Plan Type: open hall
Primary Materials: Brick, Cement, Stained Glass and Wood
Status: Active

Church website
George W. Reid "Steeples and the Church." Biblical Research Institute.
Telephone Interview with Deacon Sroka. 7 December 2010.

researched by David Reasbeck

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