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A Conversation with Jim O’Brien from O’Brien & Keane Architecture

Interview by Erin Fierst

Hi Jim, thank you so much for your time. One of your core specialties is timeless ecclesiastical design. To start, why do you and your firm choose to focus on liturgical architecture?

This question reminds me of the verse in St. John’s Gospel: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” We didn’t set out to design churches, but we were presented with an opportunity to design a church in the mid-1990s. It was such a rewarding project, and it helped me to understand the richness of meaning that is embodied in a church design. The team is given the opportunity to tell a beautiful story in built form. It is a privilege to do so, and we are very grateful for it. 

Starting from the beginning, tell me about the Saint Paul of the Cross project.

So often one finds older buildings that perhaps have seen better days, and one imagines the possibilities for renovation. The “bones” might be great, though it often seems like the underlying qualities of the architecture could never be replicated in this day and age. “If only it could be brought back to glory” was the spirit in which we began the renovation of Saint Paul of the Cross Monastery Church.

Why is stonework important here? 

Stone accomplishes at least two important objectives in church architecture. First, we are taught that the Church itself will prevail until the end of time, so it’s fitting that a material that’s permanent and conveys permanence so perfectly is chosen. Second, our primary motivation is to bring glory to the Creator through the design and building of the church. There’s no better expression of that than to use the incredible beauty of God’s own creation to meet that goal.

Did you discover any interesting history in the course of this work?

I found it interesting to try to retrace the steps of those who built the building, added on to it, and modified it over the years. Every old building tells a story, and it’s fascinating to discover that narrative, and possibly even the moral to the story. But it was most captivating to hear Father Justin speak about the Passionists who had come before, now buried in the crypt or in the yard, especially Father Theodore Foley, whose tomb is located in the church, right near the entrance. Father Theodore was Rector of the Monastery for many years and heard countless confessions in the booth that we restored on the south side of the church. He was later elected Superior General of the Passionist order, and while serving in Rome was the confessor of Pope St. Paul VI. Now on the path toward canonization himself, I believe he’s responsible for a few miracles along the way during the project. You’ll have to ask Father Justin about that.

What elements in this project are you the most proud of?

I’m very proud of how we were able together work as a team. As so often happens on a church project, everyone stepped up and gave their best. It was infectious. There was such a sense of collaboration and good cheer, even during difficult moments. I feel like we had each other’s back. 

What were the biggest challenges to overcome in this project?

This project had a few. The building didn’t really want to cooperate at times and we had to muscle it. The old timber floor had to be shored up and rebuilt in places to accept the weight and materials we were putting on it. We found that the keys of the plaster vaults were failing, so the entire ceiling had to be consolidated, a big unexpected expense.  

But the biggest overall challenge to the project overall was Covid-19, which shut the construction down right at the height of the work. The contractors were really hurt by that, and it hurt to see it happen.  

Why did you choose to work with Rugo Stone on this project?

I’ve been interested in working with Brett for a while and he has a fantastic reputation. I think Brett’s intense interest in the project was reflected in the way he responded. It was an easy decision for the client to make: we could all see his passion.

What is your impression after working with Rugo Stone?

We can judge the tree by the fruit it bears, and this holds true for Rugo Stone. The work speaks for itself, and it is pretty exceptional. The entire organization has a real commitment to quality, from the shop drawings, to engineering, material sourcing, fabrication, and then installation, and that commitment is reflected in the end result.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Erin Fierst

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