The copper dome that tops the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Motherhouse is believed to have never needed repairs. It measures nearly 80 feet high. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
The copper dome that tops the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Motherhouse is believed to have never needed repairs. It measures nearly 80 feet high. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)

Walking down Northwest Savier Street in Portland, local architect John Czarnecki points to the dome at nearby St. Patrick Church.

“What becomes really obvious is the presence that the dome has in relationship to the building and in relationship to the neighborhood,” he said, strolling closer to the historic church. “It had a real place in the community.”

Czarnecki stops, holding his thumb up. He’s measuring the building, pointing out that the dome is the same height as the gable underneath it.

“It comes from a fundamental understanding of the mathematical order of the universe. In Catholic terms, it’s a direct reflection of perfection. It’s a direct reflection of God’s grace. It’s our attempt to make the ideal,” he said.

Czarnecki could talk for hours about the architecture of St. Patrick Church, as he discusses its many ornamentations. He is not just an interested professional, though classical architecture is his business. He also has been a parishioner for 30 years. He and his wife raised their children in a bungalow just up Savier Street.

The church was built in the American renaissance style, he said. Its cornerstone was laid on St. Patrick’s Day in 1889. It’s not a copy of any other building, but it was designed based upon a set of architectural principles.

He draws attention to the Roman style columns that appear to be holding up the building and the intricately carved bands that transition the building’s middle to its top.

“From the exterior, the dome is a beacon to the community,” said Czarnecki. In churches, domes occur at the sacred heart of the building — where the transept crosses with the nave.

From inside the church, a smaller dome is visible to Massgoers. As light enters through the windows of the large dome upstairs, it trickles down through the stained-glass windows that top the smaller dome inside the church. The dome “gives an opportunity to contemplate and to pray while you’re looking at something that is significant — not just beautiful to the eye — but truly significant,” said Czarnecki.

“The dome itself reinforces the architecture as we’ve said, but you also look up and you’re aware of the dome from every corner. So, you’re aware of where the crossing is and you don’t even have to know that it’s the sacred heart,” added the architect.

“It adds spatial interest, of course, because when you see something special, you look at it. You contemplate on it. You take it in. And then it opens the idea of the above, of a deeper meaning that is there for us, that is given to us to receive God’s grace,” concluded Czarnecki.

Domes come early in Christian history, said James McCrery, director of classical architecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“What the dome does is indicate to people, especially inside the building, that they need to have their mind and souls oriented heavenward,” said McCrery.

The earliest Catholic dome, a Byzantine cathedral built in Constantinople, dates back to the fourth century. The church, Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom, possesses one large central dome, surrounded by a ring of smaller domes.

“It’s a singularly impressive Catholic building and an early example of magnificent Christian architecture,” said McCrery. Hagia Sophia now serves as a mosque in the city that is now Istanbul.

Even earlier than Hagia Sophia, however, is the Pantheon in Rome. The pantheon was built in the first century as a pagan temple to worship the many Roman gods. The building is now a Catholic Church, St. Mary and the Martyrs.

Those two examples inspired other architects to create domed buildings, said McCrery. Then came a beautiful dome in Pisa, Italy, and a famous dome in Florence.

“Ultimately that dome in Florence is certainly the most important in the history of Christian church architecture,” said the professor. The Florentine dome inspired architects around the world, including not only Michelangelo’s design of St. Peter’s Basilica but also McCrery’s own design of the new cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee.

When Florence’s church, Santa Maria del Fiore or St. Mary of the Flowers, was being planned in 1296, the community there had no idea how they were going to build the enormous dome.

 “They just had faith that God would provide the right people at the right time. And he did, and they have this magnificent dome,” said McCrery.

The iconic dome that tops the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Motherhouse in Beaverton dates back to 1930, when most of the building was constructed. The building was designed by Portland architects Robert Emmet Barrett and Thayne Johnstone Logan, who also designed the historic chapel at Mount Angel Abbey. The copper dome that adorns the motherhouse is believed to have never needed repairs. It measures nearly 80 feet high.

The dome is a landmark, said Sister Charlene Herinckx, superior general of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. “If I meet people and tell them where I live and they don’t quite get it, I say the big brick building with the green dome,” she said.

“Then I say I live in a castle but it’s not a palace.”

The room that lies beneath the dome was split into two levels. For decades, it was used for storage. Then in the 1990s, architect Dave Richen convinced the sisters to convert the space into a prayer space.

Sister Charlene recalled Richen saying, “You ought to make this a beacon for people in the neighborhood. When they see this and know there’s a light on, they know the sisters are praying for them.”

And that’s just what it is.

In the United States especially, domes are associated with capitol buildings. But those designs are really the exception to the rule, said McCrery.

Domes “signify the sacred. They really do.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org