Some moments in life, thankfully or not, remain with us through the years. Due to strong emotion or life-altering change, these experiences– and our circumstances at the time – are permanently stamped onto our memory. For me, a series of these moments began in October 2014.

San Giorgio and Redentore
Palladio’s Il Redentore;  San Giorgio Maggiore (by author)

I was a graduate student at the time, and was privileged to be spending a semester studying in Rome. In October, our class went on a tour of the north of Italy, spending our time sketching and studying its historic architecture and urbanism. One day stands out vividly in my mind: having spent the afternoon studying Palladio’s two Venetian churches, Il Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore, we returned to our hotel. While checking email, I became aware of a rare opportunity: the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had launched a student competition, and the winning design would be used during Pope Francis’ visit to the US.

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Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Benjamin Franklin Parkway – an axis running from the Art Museum to City Hall

The competition called for the re-imagining of the Eakins Oval in front of the neoclassical Philadelphia Museum of Art, the space that would become the stage for an outdoor Mass celebrated by the Pope himself. An interesting aspect of the project was that in addition to the space created by the ‘sanctuary’ platform (and any elements used as a backdrop to the platform), students were asked to design the furnishings: the altar, pope’s chair, lectern, ambo, and deacon’s chair. I felt called to participate and took up the challenge.
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Preliminary sketches for the sanctuary concepts

I returned from Italy and began work on the design during my winter break (the Chicago cold provided good incentive to stay inside and recall the warmth of Rome). Looking back on the memories from this time, I remember both the larger emotions surrounding the opportunity to design for the Pope, but also smaller details from the process, such as breaking in one of my Christmas gifts: a new hand-bound sketchbook. I made notes from Church documents on the liturgy and looked at the architecture of past papal visits. Being from Chicago, the design for Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Mass in Grant Park was a significant precedent, and I recently learned that this was the work of a fellow Notre Dame alumnus, John Jay Fox III.

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Pope John Paul II’s Mass in Chicago, 1979; Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, 1932

As a Catholic, the World Meeting of Families provided great food for thought. The biennial event was created by Pope John Paul II, with the vision of celebrating the family as a visible sign of God’s love. To this end, I sought to incorporate design elements evoking beauty, growth, and stability – these included interlocking members evoking the Cross, as well as traditional elements inspired by centuries of sacred architecture.

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Early sketches for the altar and ambo

After filling a number of pages with hand-drawn design sketches, I subsequently created a computer model of the sanctuary and furniture, and then finally submitted my conceptual presentation. I didn’t dream that eight months later I’d find myself in Philadelphia having been selected as the winner.

City Hall
City Hall with streets closed for the weekend
Washington Square
Washington Square

The weekend of Pope Francis’ visit carried with it an atmosphere of joy and excitement reminiscent of the holidays. Many locals had left the city due to the projected crowds, but the city was filled by good spirits of those who had traveled from near and far – citizens of a hundred countries or more. Walking around, the unusual calm was punctuated by distant cheers along the Pope’s parade route, street vendors selling Pope-delphia shirts, and smoky echoes from a teenage brass band playing the songs of Miles Davis in Washington Square.

Festival of Families
Pope Francis takes the stage for Saturday night; Reading of the Gospel of the Prodigal Son

A chilly and clear Saturday night was the setting for the Festival of Families concert and my first glimpse of the Holy Father. Of course, it was thrilling to see him sit down in the papal chair I had the honor of designing while enjoying speeches, videos and beautiful music (in Andrea Bocelli’s case, heavenly music). On Sunday morning – just hours after the close of the evening – the tireless production crew had set the stage for the main event: the Mass. Following much-anticipated laps in the popemobile and live music, including a few songs from one of the Irish tenors, the orchestra began to play: Mass had begun.

Mass photos The Papal Sanctuary during Mass; Recession after Mass

The beautiful events that had unfolded throughout the weekend, the pope’s words and contagious joy, and the encounter with friends and family resonated as signs of love and hope. To my own family (including my grandfather Ted, the architect I look up to), my friends, and all those who made the weekend possible, I am deeply grateful. Though a fleeting moment in time, it will stay with me for years to come. And perhaps one day that Christmas sketchbook, now sitting on my shelf as a treasured reminder of these moments, will be shared with grandchildren of my own.