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St. John Neumann Catholic Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

The day St. John Neumann Catholic Church opened the doors to its new worship space in Lilburn, Georgia, in the mid-80s, the parish had already outgrown its building. Over the next 25 years, membership grew so much that the church was holding 11 masses every weekend.

"It was wearing the clergy out," says Ernest C. (Terry) Biglow, architect and principal with CDH Partners, an integrated design firm based in Marietta, Georgia.

When the parish consulted with CDH about an expansion at the church, they actually came with another architect's plan in hand. The design included a new parish hall and chapel attached to the existing church building. But something about the plan did not feel right.

"The parish hall was designed at the end of an existing six-foot-wide corridor that ran through church offices, creating a circulation issue. The proposed chapel was small and awkwardly placed," Biglow recalls. His first question to parish leaders was, "Have you ever done a Master Plan?"

They had not. This is when Biglow suggested they take time to determine the needs of the church. Then they could develop a Master Plan for the present and for years to come. It also would serve as a framework for their future building decisions.

"What we realized in the process," says Biglow, "was that they really needed was a church with seating for 900 to 1,000 people. This would allow them to cut back on the number of masses held each week."

The design Biglow presented included scrapping the original plan and constructing an entirely new parish building that would seat nearly 1,000 people. The naturally sloped site also allowed classrooms to be placed below the worship space. The original building would be renovated and made into a parish hall. An addition of an outdoor plaza would connect the new building with the older facility. In the final phase of the Master Plan, a chapel is being constructed between these two buildings and connected by covered breezeways.

The original church building was a 80s design with a soaring, sloping roof, and stonewalls. A school building was added to the campus around the same time and was built in the same style. Thus, the design of the expansion would have to complement the existing buildings.

"We made the decision to do something more traditional in the new construction but also to use stone that matched the existing," Biglow says. The expansion would have a more traditional style but the materials would blend them together "sort of like members of the same family but not identical twins."

For the interior, the church's building committee expressed a strong desire to make the new building accessible not only to parishioners but to clergy, as well. "And not the normal measures or the minimum of accessibility," Biglow says. The parish wanted everyone to feel comfortable in the space. Thus, the plans called for special amenities.

For example, the altar can be lowered from standing to seated height to accommodate persons in wheelchairs. The ambo, which is the pulpit, is adjustable, as well. Behind the altar, the tile texture changes from smooth to rough so that a person, who is vision impaired could discern his location on the predella.

Biglow also made full-sized mockups of the predella and had a committee member in a motorized wheelchair move through the proposed space to determine whether there was adequate room to negotiate around furnishings or if turning ratios were too tight. There was even a mockup made of the baptistery to make sure it was big enough and deep enough for full emersion baptisms. The height of the font above the floor allows a priest or deacon in a wheelchair to perform a baptism.

The ambry where the Holy oils are kept was designed to be accessible from a seated or standing position. The hand-blown glass vessels of the ambry were designed with grips so those with arthritic hands could easily grasp them. The tabernacle is also accessible from a wheelchair. Even pew ends were carved with a subtle curve to help steady parishioners as they enter to sit.

"There were various starts and stops in the planning process," Biglow says, "but by 2009, construction had begun."

For financial reasons at the time, the church chose to built the worship building and make renovations to the existing building to create a parish hall. That work was completed in June 2010.

Today, St. John Neumann continues to thrive with a diverse and growing congregation, and plans are underway to begin construction on the chapel. The new space will provide a more intimate venue for smaller group services and will complete the Master Plan.

"It was very satisfying," says Biglow, "to have been a part of the collective effort to create a parish church, which communicates clearly that 'all, everyone, is welcomed and accepted here.'"

CDH Partners, based in Marietta, Georgia, is a group of creative people who plan and design spaces that make a difference, such as hospitals, schools, churches, and much more, www.cdhpartners.com.









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