Day 99 – Mrs. Flusche’s Super Basic Primer on Church Architecture (Part IV)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020 –

And we’re back! Today we are going even deeper into the layout of our ever-growing cruciform church and will be covering: the sanctuary, choir (no, it’s not what you think!), the chancel, a rood screen, the apse, sacristy, and vestry. Do not worry, the standard graphic of new terms is below…now with COLOR because things are getting a little more complicated!

Sanctuary: a sanctuary is a sacred (holy) place. In a Catholic Church, there is no greater holy place than the sanctuary. It is where we have the altar, on which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass takes place! In today’s Church, the sanctuary is the area surrounding the altar. Many times you will see it on a raised platform. This harkens back to when there were steps leading up to the altar (ahem! Remember back to our discussion of the Traditional Latin Mass and how the Priest would say prayers at the foot of the altar, then “ascend” (AKA walk up) the steps of the altar to begin Mass).

Choir: you are probably thinking this means where the singers sit. Sorry…no. This choir means where the religious and Priests (not saying Mass) would sit. There were usually a row or two of benches on each side facing each other with an aisle leading up to the sanctuary and altar.

Way back when we had a plethora of religious and priests, they would sit “in choir” and sing (AHH! There’s the connection to the modern day choir!) the responses at Mass. The Priests and religious would also sit in the choir to chant the Divine Office.

Chancel: basically, a “chancel” is the combined sections of “choir” and “sanctuary.” But, there is more to it! You can basically think of a chancel as the place the religious and Priests sit and sing (choir), or where Priests say Mass (sanctuary).

Chancel comes from the Latin term cancelli, which means railing or grating. This screen separated the congregation from the sanctuary (the Holy of Holies!). This screen came to be called a “rood screen” (see next section). As Church architecture changed over the year, we saw the disappearance of the choir (for religious) as well as the rood screen in Western Churches. Today, many Churches have an altar rail sectioning off the sanctuary from the nave.

Rood Screen: remember, “chancel” comes from the Latin word “cancelli,” which means railing or grating. In Medieval Churches, there used to be a fancy screen between the nave (where the people sit) and the chancel (where the religious and Priests are). Often this screen would be very ornate and have Crosses or Crucifixes on it. “Rood” comes from Old English and means Crucifix, or the “rod” on which Christ was hung.

Apse: up to this point our little imaginary Gothic Church has been nothing but straight lines. Well, I have a confession to make: that is not always the case. Sorry. The apse is the rounded or polygonal (many sided) termination (end) or recess of a building. In a Gothic Church, this meant the “end” on the East. Since altars used to be “against the wall” so the Priest could say Mass facing East, the altar was usually in the apse.

Um, but didn’t I say the altar was in the sanctuary? Yes! Sanctuary is a liturgical term. Apse is an architectural one. So, it is perfectly cool to have the altar in the sanctuary and the apse because they do not violate the laws of physics by existing in the same space. They are two different terms for the same “stuff” but used in different context.

Also, many Churches today do not have an apse as part of their architectural structure. However, they DO have a sanctuary because they DO have an altar. It is just that the altar, and thus the sanctuary, might be in a different location than up against the wall in a rounded alcove at the far East of a building (apse). For example, the sanctuary in a church in the round is usually in the center.

Sacristy: a sacristy is where the sacred vessels and stuff for Mass is kept. For most Churches, the sacristy is a little room (or even two rooms!) off the sanctuary. At my Church, our sacristy is located directly behind the sanctuary, and there are two doors on either side for the Priest to enter / exit the Church.

The sacristy is usually maintained by a sacristan, or person appointed to care for the vessels and such. The sacristies in today’s Churches also house the Priest’s vestments (things he wears for Mass), altar cloths, the vestments of the Deacons and altar servers, the wine and bread used for Mass, and…well…EVERYTHING! The sacristan(s) keep careful track of all the vessels and vestments, and make sure they are in tip-top shape and ready for the Priest.

At our Church, our sacristans also open and close the Church as well as clean the sanctuary and sacred vessels. It is a BIG job with a lot of moving parts!

Vestry: like I said in the last section, the vestments for the Priest are now (usually) kept in the sacristy. However, some older Churches had a separate room just for vestments and for the Priest (and Deacon) to get “dressed” for Mass. Just like the sacristy, this is a small room off of or behind the sanctuary.

Okay, so our little Church is getting a little more complicated, but I think we are going at a good pace! Tomorrow we are going to get into some terms that you do not really see in modern Churches, but are good to know none the less.

Heart of Jesus, of Infinite Majesty, have mercy on us!

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