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What is it About 'Sacred Space?'

An Ecclesiastical Architect shares his thoughts about the elements and purpose of sacred space.

What is it about the design of churches and temples that moves the human spirit? What is it about this type of structure that inspires awe? What are the elements of "sacred space?"

“It is a world set apart, that is the primary characteristic of sacred space," said Joseph DeMaria, an architect based in Morristown who specializes in ecclesiastical design. "Generally everyday activity doesn’t occur there. It is a place where the realm of the spirit takes hold.”

Sacred space could take the form of a building or a place, but it's primary purpose is to invite us into another realm, he said.

“Sacred space should give you an existential jolt. The beauty should move you beyond space and time into the realm of the spiritual. When you experience this wonder and awe you’re moved above the workaday world and find yourself participating in the eternal–you’re experiencing God,” DeMaria said.

Certain designs and shapes such as the spire of a church tend to elicit a strong response, but why?

“The obvious reason is that it draws the eyes skyward and pierces the heavens, but there is another reason that both Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci spoke about," the architect said. "The shape of a spire reminds us of the shape of a flame, and what does a flame do? It provides warmth and light, that’s why we’re drawn to it."

When he was only three years old, DeMaria visited St. Vincent’s Church in Madison, and while the original structure has been torn down, the impact of what he experienced has remained with him for a lifetime. “I remember it was a hot summer afternoon and my mother and I stopped into this great Gothic Revival Church to pray and I was completely awestruck," he said. "It was my first conscious experience of a sacred place and I felt as if time just stood still."

DeMaria said in later years, his passion for sacred architecture came from trying to solve the mystery of what he experienced at that time and continued to experience each time he found himself in an old church.

“When I began to study architecture, my initial goal was not focused on designing sacred structures, but I was intrigued by that transcendental feeling of wonder and awe that I experienced as a child."

While he has designed a wide range of buildings throughout his career, DeMaria said he found himself drawn to create architecture that would elicit that same response in others.

“I have had people react to designs that I’ve created for churches by crying; I never got that response to a commercial building I’ve designed,” he said.

DeMaria said he is especially proud of the work he did for The Mother of Mercy Adoration Chapel at Corpus Christi Church in Hasbrouck Heights. “I designed an addition to a 110-year-old brick structure and the Pastor, Msgr. Lew Papera, said that he is constantly told that it looks like it has always been there,” he said.

He said while the small chapel only seats about 20 people, by its first year anniversary, more than 10,000 people had visited the space. “This kind of response gives me great joy," he said.

DeMaria said he delights in the beauty and structures of the Morristown, which he gets to see everyday. For the architect,  is one of the best examples of sacred architecture.

“It’s its own ‘world within a world’ in there," he said. "You can just walk in and after you cross the threshold you’ve completely forgotten about the world outside and you’re in this wonderful mysterious space full of symbolism."

DeMaria also noted his appreciation for  on the Green, which he noted was the site where George Washington took communion, in 1777.

“Morristown’s architectural heritage is excellent, it has just about every style dating back to the American Revolution,” he said.

But DeMaria said that beyond all of the buildings, the greatest architectural achievement in Morristown isn’t necessarily a building–it’s the Morristown Green. 

“The Park ties the architecture together in to a cohesive whole," he said. "It’s a pleasure to walk around it anytime of year. And once you’ve seen it you know you have arrived in Morristown.”

For more information about the work of Joseph DeMaria, visit his website.

What is your favorite sacred space in Morristown? 

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