From Bauhaus to God's House

What happens when cutting-edge architecture collides with surburban sensibilities? Mark Alden Branch tells the unholy tale of Plano's Prince of Peace Catholic Church

Father Jim Balint was nervous when he stepped into the Loews Theater on February 10, 1991. The seats were filling up fast, and he knew the theater would only hold 550.

The priest had scheduled three masses for that morning--the most he could squeeze in before his makeshift church had to turn back into a movie palace. By the end of the morning, 1,200 people had come to the first Sunday masses of Plano's brand-new Prince of Peace Catholic Community.

The theater was one of the few places in Plano big enough for such a crowd. Another likely spot, Renner Middle School, was booked until May by a new Methodist congregation. So until then, Father Balint's new parishioners had to worship on sticky floors amid the scent of popcorn. "Because of the slanting floor, there was a joke that went around," says Balint. "People said that you can always spot our parishioners because they're the ones leaning forward."

A parish like Prince of Peace, fueled by the explosive growth of Dallas' northern suburbs, could not stay in such accommodations for long. Just over three years after that first service, the congregation dedicated a striking new $5.5 million church and school complex. Prince of Peace's new home won top honors in the 1995 annual awards program of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

But even as the congregation publicly celebrated its new home, a private holy war was continuing over its design--a war that led to the dismissal of two prominent architects, including the one who had designed the buildings.

The conflict, mostly carried out behind closed doors, reveals the gap that exists between what some call the "architecture culture" and popular taste--a gap that has perhaps never been wider.

The gap shows when architects sniff their disdain for the developer houses they call "North Dallas Specials," which are nonetheless being built by the square mile in Plano and other northern suburbs. It shows when England's Prince Charles calls a proposed modernist building "a monstrous carbuncle" to score points as a populist.

The Prince of Peace story offers particularly striking questions about the rift between art and popular culture. What--or who--is wrong when architects and critics celebrate a building that divided its clients, produced the sacking and vilification of its architect, and that a local official compared to "a concentration camp or a prison"?

The Diocese of Dallas created Prince of Peace in 1990, in response to the suburban growth that had led to standing-room-only services at three other parishes in Plano and North Dallas.

When fresh boundaries were carved, the new parish ended up with a young and wealthy chunk of West Plano and Far North Dallas bounded by Coit, Frankford, Highway 121, and the Denton County line. The diocese gave the new parish a charter that called for a church and an elementary school that will ultimately serve students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The diocese assigned Father Jim Balint to the new parish. Although Balint was a veteran priest, having served as an Air Force chaplain for many years, Prince of Peace was to be his first parish, and he saw the new church as a rare opportunity to effect change.

Since the Second Vatican Conference (widely known as Vatican II) in 1962, the Catholic Church has encouraged a modernization and simplification of churches and of the worship service itself. Some of these changes have met with resistance in congregations that cling comfortably to tradition. At Prince of Peace, there would be no "old way of doing things" to get in the way.

The results might surprise you if you think you know the Catholic Church. Kneeling, for example, is no longer part of a service; worshippers stand for prayer and to receive communion. The seats are arrayed in a circle to emphasize the church community. There is a prominent pool at the entrance to the worship space for baptism by immersion, a custom more often associated with Baptists but one now favored by the Vatican. And the tabernacle containing the communion wafers--sacred because they are considered to be the body of Christ--sits in a separate chapel, instead of in its traditional place of honor in the sanctuary.

On first impression, Father Balint, gray-haired and 65, doesn't seem a likely agent of change. His solemn demeanor and deep voice exude the gentle but firm authority long associated with Catholic clergy. But Balint says what he is doing is not radical: "We're following the church's instructions. We're one of the few doing it, but we're following the church. If I were to have inherited an existing parish, it would have taken a long time to get people off their knees."

With space in a low-rise Plano office building for church offices and use of the theater on Sundays, the new parish was up and running in early 1991. By April, Balint had appointed a 12-person building committee, which quickly decided to build a 1,000-seat church and school as part of the church's first phase.

Meanwhile, the parish found space for its activities wherever it could: in May, services were moved to slightly less surreal quarters at Renner Middle School, and in August, the Prince of Peace Catholic School opened in a Plano strip mall.

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