St . Mary ’ s experience demonstrates that a church is not simply a body of believers , nor is it just stone and mortar . Sacred spaces demonstrate the history , interests , hopes , concerns , and values of the people who use them . Moreover , each space also conveys theology and tradition — embodying the belief system of the faith tradition . Spaces can define boundaries and elicit questions , reflection , and insight . Sharing Sacred Spaces believes that we can all deepen our own faith by becoming embodied within the “ faith-space ” of another tradition .
Touring St . Mary ’ s as the originating space of the Knights of Columbus , for example , and witnessing the tomb of the Knights ’ founder Father McGivney , builds instant geographic connections for any New Haven resident who might regularly pass the four-tower Knights of Columbus headquarters that stands at the entry to New Haven ’ s downtown . The origin story of the establishment of St . Mary ’ s , similarly , conjures up parallel histories of discrimination that have been experienced by those from Jewish and Muslims traditions ; indeed , the troubles and tribulations of the early Catholics of New Haven highlight experiences that have parallels in many cultures and religions .
As the members of eight traditions and denominations around New Haven shared the space of St . Mary ’ s on that November night , people found their common humanity . Sacred architecture showed its power to be deeply humanizing and transformational — starting with the crossing of boundaries , exploration of differences , and the discovery of interconnectedness .
Restored nave in St . Mary ’ s is crowned with portraits of Roman Catholic saints significant to St . Mary or the Dominican Order . Photo : Michael J . Crosbie , FAIA
Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley once remarked “ The Church is not a building ,” but is rather a body of believers . But the physical space of St . Mary ’ s and other sacred places are essential and compelling doorways through which interreligious understanding , spiritual reflection , deepening faith , and transformational friendships across difference can transpire . By sharing its sacred space , and the facilitated “ spatial ” experience , the Catholic communal story transcends boundaries and provides inter-human connectedness .
The tomb in the side aisle of St . Mary ’ s of Father Michael McGivney , who founded the Knights of Columbus , is the site of pilgrimage visits from around the world . Photo : Michael J . Crosbie , FAIA
Vanessa Avery is the Executive Director of Sharing Sacred Spaces , Inc ., which builds local , diverse , model micro-communities through sustained partnership and action using the unique vehicles of sacred space , architecture , and radical hospitality . A Lecturer in Interfaith Engagement at Yale Divinity School and affiliate faculty at California State University , Avery is the author of numerous articles on world religions , interfaith understanding , organizational culture , and religion , violence , and peace .
22 SACRED PLACES • WINTER 2021