Ash Wednesday, 1932
An art student stands on the avenue in New York City in 1932, looking up at the Empire State Building, recently completed.
Most people from around the world have been impressed by the mammoth structure, awed by its ramrod straightness. Inevitably some visitors think of King Kong.
But on that day Marguerite Brunswig, en route home from Ash Wednesday mass, saw in the building’s art decco structure something unusual—the bulging form of a Cross. And it spun in her head the idea of a cruciform, almost-Gothic church built in the manner of these massive modern buildings (she passed Rockefeller Center on the way to her 85th St. apartment).
Seventy plus years later I—adopted New Yorker, priest, and fan of the Empire State Building—would find myself face-to-face with the gorgeous result of Staude’s Ash Wednesday encounter, but this chapel situated thousands of miles away in a stunning red rock desert of the Southwest.
Intersections with history
Working for a year with her friend Lloyd Wright (son of the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright ) Marguerite Brunswig formed models and drawings. The archbishop in Los Angeles found it too much for him. Finally in 1937 a visionary order of nuns in Hungary agreed to build it on a mountain overlooking the Danube, but World War II crushed their plans.
The church finally materialized years later, downsized to a chapel, dedicated in 1957 in the tiny Arizona ranch town of Sedona . Marguerite had settled there with her husband Tony Staude and decided a Catholic chapel devoted to art was just what the small town needed. No one yet knew that Sedona’s red rock towers would make it a New Age capital and tourist attraction.
Fast-forward to Cathedral Rocks
July I am standing on the red rock hills of Sedona, across the valley from Marguerite Brunswig Staude’s Chapel of the Holy Cross .
A group of us on R & R in Northern Arizona have hiked to the top of Cathedral Rocks just outside Sedona. It’s a short hike, not too strenuous, a bit on the treacherous side for those of us who don’t like heights too much. We are several hundred feet above the valley floor, and the drop is steep on both sides of the thin peak where we eat our deli sandwiches, bananas, apples, fig newtons, and energy bars.
One of my companions points out the chapel on the other side of the valley.
The setting and the chapel
Sedona is magnificent, in a breathtaking, God-must-be-hovering-here-personally kind of way. You can see why New Age folks come here to sit by their vortexes and get their energy renewed. The place oozes spirituality.
Later we will hike down and cross the valley by car until I kneel before the atlar in the Chapel the art student designed, as a thunderstorm majestically passes through the area. The chapel is thoroughly modern, but its solid cruciform design (with definite echoes of the co-designer’s father Frank Lloyd Wright) belongs in the rocky terrain in which it’s planted. And the Catholic staples are there—crucifix, tabernacle, altar, candles.
I plop $2 in the bin and light two candles for a sick friend and for another who is re-igniting an old love.
Meanwhile back in Gotham
A continent away the building that inspired this chapel towers a mile and a half from my home. I never tire of taking friends and family there when they come to visit; the view is breathtaking, reminds me that cities, the work of human hands, can also be beautiful—giant tributes of light, movement, metal, and brick. In every age human beings do wondrous things with the creative powers with which we are endowed by God.
But in all the years I’ve been going to the Empire State Building I never saw a Cross leap out of its structure.