Fiona Hamilton reports from Warsaw on a new wave of Catholic churches
POLAND, a country where architectural design has stood still for 40 years, is witnessing a remarkable boom in church building.
Most Polish cities, decimated by second World War bombing, have concentrated in the post1945 period on producing housing on a vast scale as quickly and cheaply as possible. The result is mile after mile of concrete blocks and monotonous facades. But today, as your eye wanders over a Polish city or townscape, or even a small agricultural village, it is likely to be drawn towards a soaring triangular spire or wooden scaffolding rising from an open patch of land. After decades of being refused permission to build new churches by the communist government, parish councils are making the most of the changing atmosphere of the late 1980s to provide enough churches for the faithful.
But unlike the government with its utilitarian approach to housing, the Church is not ignoring the design aspect in their projects. On the contrary, great care is going into building churches which stand out on account of their attractive contours and their beautifullyfinished interiors. With no financial help from the state as in other "Catholic" nations the building plans are entirely funded by the parishioners and dioceses.
In Poznan, a major city in west Poland, about 40 new churches are currently under construction. One of the most impressive is dedicated to St Jan Kanty. An existing small wooden church was bursting at the seams as long ago as the early 1960s, but it took 13 years to get permission to build a new one. During that period of waiting the parish mushroomed as the concentration of people living in estates of blocks of flats increased. A church which could cater for 17,000 people was needed.
The result is impressive: its red brick exterior looks warm compared with the prevailing concrete and plaster of other buildings around it; its high ceilinged interior can accommodate up to 2000 people at a time. Spacious aisles provide standing room — essential every Sunday at wellattended masses.
The assymetrical design, with staggered balconies along one side for the choir and organ, natural light from skylights, a marble floor and a simple but grand altar give the modern church a air of beauty and calm.
To a westener, such careful design may be taken for granted, but in Poland it is rare and highly valued, not to mention remarkable, given the country's economic crisis. With inflation running at 80 per cent and shortages of even basic commodities, making ends meet is difficult. The shortage of housing is acute.
One priest illustrated the problem graphically by pointing out that when construction of his church commenced, each brick cost four Polish zloties. Now they are 200 zloties.
Yet somehow the funds for each stage of construction of the new churches are mustered.
Many parishioners regularly give a tenth of their wages, though there are seldom special fund
raising events (they are somewhat.difficult to organise). A nurnts ; of the congregation volunteer their labour on the
construction site. Donations from abroad, especially from Polish communities in the United States, are essential, and a little foreign currency goes a comparatively long way.
Obtaining the actual building materials even if you have the money is not easy. Often the priest has to go straight to the director of a building supplies company to explain what the bricks and mortar are needed for. A general consensus among the overwhelmingly Catholic Polish people about the important of well-built churches means that such requests often get preferential treatment from the supplier.
"Once construction has started, the parishioners are determined to see their church completed with the best craftsmanship possible," remarked one Poznan priest.