Spring 2009
The Nautilus

Fr. Gilbert Sunghera's passion for sacred space design unites community


Gilbert Sunghera, S.J., enriches the lives of entire communities with his spirituality and his talent for designing liturgical spaces. On his most recent project, he served as the liturgical space consultant to define the unique style of Catholic worship for a growing Hispanic congregation.

His work to renovate St. Joseph the Worker parish in Grand Rapids, Mich. is the first completed project of the University of Detroit Mercy's Liturgical Space Consulting Service, an offshoot of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

Provided by Fr. Sunghera, also an assistant professor in the School, the service's mission is to re-engage the broader design community into the creation of contemporary sacred space. Progressive AE served as the project architect on the St. Joseph the Worker project with the goal to unite the dynamic spirit of its parishioners who have emigrated from several different Central and South American countries.

Worship space
The completed St. Joseph the Worker Parish.

"The parish has a very enthusiastic style of worship, which is rooted in its culture. The renovated space needed to support the exuberance of the community, as well as its expanding congregation," says Fr. Sunghera, who has a Master of Architecture from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and a Master of Sacred Theology from Yale University, where he focused on contemporary sacred space.

Completed baptismal area

The space they chose to renovate had formerly been a Christian Reform church located about three miles from the original St. Joseph the Worker building. The parish purchased it at an auction. Fr. Stephen Dudek, the pastor at the time, knew it would accommodate the 450 parishioners so that no one would have to sit in chairs in the aisles ever again.

They also knew it needed more than structural repairs. The new St. Joseph the Worker needed to reflect its people. Fr. Sunghera, along with the team of local architects, builders and artists began the overhaul in June 2008 and completed it four months later.

"This church was designed specifically for a Latino community," says Fr. Dudek. "It all fits together. It is an incredible expression of integration and done in a very reasonable way."

Attention to details

At St. Joseph the Worker, Fr. Sunghera incorporated the devotional Marian statues into a single reredos (altar screen) and created a common space for parishioners to light candles and leave flowers. Utilizing the space in this manner helped bridge the various cultures of the congregation.

He commissioned an internationally recognized artist, Jose Narezo, to create contemporary ceramic panels for the altar, ambo, crucifix and tabernacle stand. Grand Rapids artist Madeline Kaczmarczyk hand crafted flower-shaped ceramic tiles to decorate the base of the baptismal font. "The shape of the flowers has sacred meaning to the various ancient cultures," explains Fr. Sunghera.

Fr. Sunghera's attention to details guided the architects in their choice of brass tiles that were inlaid between ceramic ones to animate the floor of the center aisle and sanctuary. They used bamboo and linseed-based natural linoleum products on the floors and walls to be environmentally sensitive. Together, they developed a color scheme which celebrates the cultural dress of the various groups that worship at St. Joseph the Worker.

"Fr. Sunghera has a deep knowledge of parish liturgical life and the ability and sensitivity (to merge) cross cultural issues," says Fr. Dudek. "His love for the arts and his good taste made him the perfect consultant for this job."

See pictures from the dedication of the St. Joseph the Worker Parish.

Career formation

Fr. Sunghera's career aspirations for liturgical space consulting grew from a simple observation and a determination to introduce gifted architects to congregations so that meaningful and beautiful spaces of worship could be built.

"My focus on liturgical space consulting came from a more personal concern about presiding in churches that are poorly designed," says Fr. Sunghera, whose academic career also boasts a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

Before his formation as a Jesuit, Fr. Sunghera launched his architectural career working with nonprofit groups in Los Angeles. This background prepared him for a job at UDM's Detroit Collaborative Design Center in the School of Architecture, where he tailored the hugely successful workshop process of the Design Center for interacting with congregations and religious groups.

"The Design Center has an international reputation for empowering communities of limited means to dream and vision a brighter future," says Fr. Sunghera. "Many of the congregations that I work with have very limited resources and have had little chance to articulate their ideas for their worship space."

Soon Fr. Sunghera will see the results of his consultations in the form of a new Jesuit residence for Fairfield University located in Connecticut, which would accomplish three goals: express Jesuit values, blend a sense of the sacred throughout the residence and feature geothermal heating and cooling systems along with a green roof to support sustainable building principles.

Project architect for this new residence scheduled to open in the fall is Gray Organschi Architecture of New Haven. Further up the Eastern seashore, Fr. Sunghera is consulting with Office dA for the renovation of a school chapel in Boston.

On the West Coast, another project in progress involves the design of a new chapel for a Jesuit High School in Sacramento by the firm of Hodgetts + Fung Design and Architecture that conveys a sacred space for young people yet reflects 2000 years of tradition.

With projects on both Coasts and likely some in between, there's no slowing down Fr. Sunghera whose passion for liturgical space consulting motivates him to share his expertise so that each space emerges as relevant and unique.

See pictures from the dedication of the St. Joseph the Worker Parish.

Commencement photos

See photos from the three Commencement ceremonies on the
UDM photo gallery.

Save the date

UDM Night at Comerica Park, Friday, Sept. 11, 6:30 p.m.

Job search support group for UDM alumni

Introducing Live at Five!, where UDM alumni get assistance and help each other in job searches.

Wednesday sessions begin at 5 p.m. in UDM's Career Education Center. Planned dates: May 13, 27; June 10, 24; July 8, 22.

For information and to pre-register, visit the CEC site.