Brenna Moloney, Michigan State Historic Preservation OfficeLook20
Saint Francis de Sales Church, Norton Shores, Michigan (Photo by Brenna Moloney)
A “Magnificent Work of Genius”
Like all human endeavors, architecture can display for us the heights of human thought and problem solving, or it can fall woefully short. A great building comes together as a work of brilliance when all of its elements combine to affect the senses and evoke emotion. It is neither a building’s site, nor its material, nor its engineering or form that can alone stir us, though each play their part. Additionally, the idea of what the building was to be and the intents of the architect and inhabitant further imbue buildings with meaning. Taking all of these things into account then, it is no surprise that there are relatively few buildings that can truly be classed as magnificent or works of genius. The St. Francis DeSales Church in Norton Shores is one such building, however.
Saint Francis de Sales Church was designed by Marcel Breuer and his associate, Herbert Beckhard, in 1964. The congregation celebrated its first mass there in 1966. The church was designed subsequent to Breuer’s work for the St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The St. Francis De Sales project and the St. John’s Abbey project revolutionized sacred architecture, and this influence can be seen in nearly every mid-century modern church built after this time.
Finding the Church
When I drove over to visit the church one rainy Monday morning in early April, I at first thought I was lost or mistaken. I drove down McCracken St. bewildered. Is it possible that a much-celebrated architectural gem could be found in an ordinary, working class suburb of Muskegon? Among the simple ranch houses, light industrial warehouses, and mid-century shopping centers? But suddenly, there it was, rising like a great gray knife into the flat gray sky, wholly out of proportion with its surroundings. My heart skipped a beat.
A great sculptural mass and engineering wonder, the St. Francis De Sales church can only be adequately described metaphorically. Even a reading of its dimensions does little to convey the impact of this building. It undulates like a banner and looms like the Trojan Horse. The emotional impact of the St. Francis De Sales Church is akin to seeing a mountain range rise up from the edge of the prairie, and this effect is heightened by its simple surroundings. Breuer’s work is awesome, in the grandest sense of the word.