Our Beautiful Churches: The Church of the Assumption

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Our Beautiful Churches: The Church of the Assumption

Trinidad & Tobago has many beautiful churches, all having a rich history. Senior writer Lara Pickford-Gordon visited a few and writes on the Church of the Assumption, Maraval.

The Church of the Assumption, Maraval, was originally supposed to be a simple structure with a galvanise roof. When young architect Anthony Lewis was asked to design the new church, his vision was something grander and contemporary.

It would diverge from the Gothic and Romanesque style of the early churches. It would have local influences and be in harmony with the surrounding environment.

Catholic News visited the Assumption with architect/restoration expert Rudylynn De Four Roberts, and architect Brian Lewis, son of the original architect/designer. Parish priest Fr Ashton Pierre CSSp was present to welcome us on February 16.

Lewis said, one of the main factors leading to the design concept for the church was the pink poui tree on the land adjacent. It has since been cut down. The story of this project is detailed in Manikin, the Art and Architecture of Anthony C. Lewis (2009).

The land was bordered by trees, with a pink poui dominating. It was an opportunity for Lewis to incorporate the theories and philosophies he had learnt from the work of Ludwig Mies van de Rohe and Lloyd Wright. He used natural pink, blue and yellow sandstone to reflect the colours of the poui. He designed with natural materials in mind, indigenous limestone, and greenheart timber.

Van de Rohe was a pioneer of the modernism architectural style and Frank Lloyd Wright, was the creator of “organic architecture”.

Lewis said, “The original priest who commissioned it asked for a good-looking galvanise shed, that’s what he asked for, but he didn’t do that.” Instead, the senior Lewis prepared “a very contemporary interpretation of ecclesial architecture”.

The design did not include nave and side aisles. “All of which Tony felt interrupted the ventilation and so on and made it complicated,” Lewis said. This was a break in the traditional cruciform design in which the nave, the central part extended from the main entrance/rear wall up to the transepts, the left and right areas at right angle forming the cross shape.

Lewis said, “We built Romanesque churches and so on like St Francis Church in Belmont, when there were real craftsmen. As time went by, all of those people disappeared, and the way of building changed. Construction methods became more economical and so on.”

There were parishioners with reservations about Lewis’ approach to the design. As Manikin retells, the parish priest Fr Lorcan Connolly OP was criticised, and it was foreseen by some that when completed the church would look like an aeroplane hangar.

The 14 pink and blue angular limestone piers are striking. It is a visible example of the painstaking work required. De Four Roberts said, “The stone had to be quarried and then individual stones hand-picked to make sure there was a colour match.

“Even while building the walls, standing looking at each panel, one almost had to hand-pick where the stones were placed so that they did not get too much of one colour in one place and tones bunched up in one place.”

The angled piers  protect the interior of the church from sun and rain and allow for cross ventilation creating a cool atmosphere for the congregation. “The whole church is designed with tropical architectural ventilation concepts. The hot air within the church rises up and goes through the high-level vents up there. This creates a convection air current, pulling fresh air from outside, coming through the church.”

Another feature with ventilation in mind, are the hung windows which could open simultaneously. They are not used because air-conditioning has been installed.

The windows were made by Critall, a UK company that became known for their steel framed windows, and the glass used to be pink. With time, fluorescent lighting has replaced the suspended lighting. There was cove lighting in the ceiling which Lewis said created the effect of lifting the roof.

Lewis (Anthony) also designed the furniture and pews for the church.

The black trusses in the ceiling could be mistaken for steel however, Lewis said they were treated wood. The beams were made then dipped into “creosote”, a wood preservative derived from the distillation of tar from wood or coal and left to soak in. This would make them termite resistant.

“The wood on the outside of the louvres is 70 years old, it is fantastic,” Lewis said. He however acknowledged that such techniques are no longer used.

The original six pillars at the front of the church were Guyana greenheart wood. “He wanted natural materials and it was majestic…. 40-foot high, huge columns” Lewis said.

The choice also references Italian architecture “in a distant way”. Asked why have these huge wooden pillars to the front, Lewis explained, “It gives scale to the front of the building, gives it a dignified grand scale”.

Narrower pillars were later installed but these will have to be changed at some time as signs of decay were visible.

Lewis has another connection to the church. He contributed to the design of the marble altar. As a teen, he would be at his father’s office, #6 Wainwright Street.  “I was there training, as a youngster looking to see if I was going to be an architect which I became, when I went away to England to study.” Supervised by his father, he did the drawings for the altar, which at the time did not have marble. Marble from local company Del Negro was used.

“I am 77 now, I would have been about 17 at the time, I was not even qualified, I was studying, I was drawing…cheap labour,” he said and chuckled.

Anthony C Lewis (1918–2008) was in his twenties and not yet a well-known architect when he designed Assumption church. He worked for free, but his one request was that the original design be preserved.

Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, regarded as one of the leading figures of modern architecture, once visited Trinidad to see the church. Its design brought tears to his eyes.

At the celebration of the golden jubilee of the consecration of the church held on January 20, 2002, Lewis received a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II in recognition of his services in the design of the church. Church of the Assumption was named to commemorate the 1950 dogma of the assumption of Mary. It is celebrating 70 years this year and the Feast Day is Monday, August 15; Mass will take place at 6 p.m.