SEATTLE – The remodel that reimagined St. Anne Church and inspires its congregation has won an international Religious Art & Architecture award for local architect Stephen Lee.
Built in 1962, the church on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill “is a remarkably elegant building,” with an iconic roof and curved walls, Lee said.
After the renovations designed by Lee, the church’s long aisle with the main altar at one end has been replaced with pews surrounding a central altar.
“It makes a huge difference with the liturgy in the round,” said Judy Vitzthum, St. Anne’s pastoral assistant for community involvement. “It’s a totally different atmosphere.”
According to Lee, the renovation project was envisioned in 2000 by then-pastor Father Bob Camuso. Lee’s designs, approved that year, included adding a full-immersion baptistry, day chapel, narthex, Blessed Sacrament chapel, a reconciliation chapel and a new entrance integrated into a stained-glass window. New flooring, lighting and an updated sound system were installed.
The project was one of 29 receiving awards from co-sponsors Faith & Form magazine and Interfaith Design, a knowledge community of the American Institute of Architects. The 2019 awards were supposed to be presented at the AIA conference in Los Angeles in May, but the event was canceled because of the pandemic, Lee said.
“Winning an award in this competition is for me a recognition of my work from what I believe is the most prestigious international religious art and architecture competition,” Lee said in an email.
St. Anne Church, built in 1962, had the traditional long aisle with the main altar at one end. Photo: Courtesy Stephen Lee
Transformation takes time
Work was all set to begin on the St. Anne project when the Nisqually earthquake hit on February 28, 2001, Lee said. The parish decided to put the church project on hold so it could make seismic improvements to the parish school first, he recalled.
Once work on the school was completed in 2003, crews began focusing on the church renovations — but not all at once, Lee said. “Every summer, we’d chip away at it,” he said.
Each summer, Masses were held in the school gymnasium while work proceeded in the church. Each fall, parishioners returned to Masses in the church, seeing the progress that occurred.
The first summer, the pews and asbestos-containing flooring were removed; the pews were rearranged around the altar in a temporary configuration. When parishioners returned to the church that fall, Father Camuso waited at the door after Mass to greet them, but no one came out, Lee said. The people had remained in their pews, talking with each other and enjoying the sense of community, he explained.
For some 15 years, through changing parish administrations, St. Anne’s parishioners attended Mass in the old pews on concrete floors, Lee said. Over that time, all the interior fixtures, including the main altar and side altars, were removed and the new features were installed.
Viewing the before and after images of St. Anne’s, the awards jury — composed of clergy, architects, an artist and a liturgical designer — noted: “This project brings the art back to life and reorients the space. … The space works well with no one in it, or when filled with people.”
The new baptistry welcomes those arriving at St. Anne Church through the new main entry doors, integrated into a wall of stained-glass windows, seen in the background at right. Photo: Courtesy Stephen Lee
Vitzthum said parishioners have commented how the light-colored pews add to the space, compared to the old, darkly varnished pews.
“People tell me it’s so uplifting,” she said. “I have not heard any negative responses to the renovation at all.”
The St. Anne renovation is just one of many projects Lee has completed for the Archdiocese of Seattle over more than 25 years. His work has won other honors —including 14 awards for the renovation of St. James Cathedral that was completed in 1994, for which he served as lead designer and project architect at Bumgardner Architects.