How a Glen Ellyn native ended up designing Pope Francis' Philadelphia sanctuary
Jim Lenahan isn't the nervous type.
When the Glen Ellyn native learned of an opportunity to design the outdoor sanctuary for Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia -- a structure that will be seen by an estimated 1 million people in person and millions more throughout the world Sunday -- you wouldn't picture him praying for divine intervention.
Instead, Lenahan got to work. He spent weeks on a project that would rattle any big name in architecture, let alone a 28-year-old who sketched out his design while at home on winter break from grad school.
Lenahan says he didn't have "any hope or real expectation" that his sanctuary would be selected for the historic occasion. But this spring, working in a studio at the University of Notre Dame, he got a phone call from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that proved him wrong.
"There was, you know, some applause or some congratulations from my classmates," Lenahan politely acknowledges.
So what's the secret to designing for the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics? It's best to keep things simple, he says.
Lenahan avoided anything over-the-top and grand because that wouldn't suit Francis, who's famously turned down designer shoes, doesn't mind wearing a red nose for the sake of a picture and rides around in a little Fiat, windows down.
"It's been extremely exciting, I think, for Catholics and non-Catholics to witness the holiness of Pope Francis, and I've certainly been very inspired personally by that," he said.
The challenge is to create an outdoor space that still feels reverent, sacred enough for the closing Mass in the World Meeting of Families, when Francis will preach before the massive crowd.
Duncan Stroik, Lenahan's architecture professor at Notre Dame, says striking the right balance in such a design is a challenge.
"It's much more difficult to get a focus," he said. "First of all, you have a hundred times as many people. Outdoors is inherently more causal."
Stroik sent word of the contest, open only to architecture students at Catholic schools, while Lenahan was studying in Rome last fall and on a field trip in Venice, touring the iconic churches of architect Andrea Palladio.
With all that beauty fresh in his mind, the lifelong Catholic who went to St. Petronille School in Glen Ellyn (his family's parish) and then Benet Academy in Lisle just had to apply.
It was an "opportunity of a lifetime," Lenahan says, not so much for his young career but as a Francis fan and someone brought up in the church. The Mass Sunday -- Lenahan snagged an invite -- will mark the second time he's heard Pope Francis live.
Lenahan remembers well the first, one of Francis' Sunday audiences at St. Peter's Square: the pope's charisma, his message of building bridges despite differences, the "electricity in that crowd."
"It was simple, but very profound," Lenahan said.
Reflecting on his work, Lenahan respects tradition. He wanted the sanctuary, altar and furniture to look classical, but not "ostentatious."
Columns are meant to direct the eye up and toward God. Two crosses join at the middle of the altar to represent a family that puts their faith at the center of their relationships.
That winning design -- considered conceptual -- was the first step toward building the final version of the sanctuary and would evolve after revisions by event organizers who also had to consider security and views for the throngs that will gather along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A live stream will be broadcast on the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops website at 3 p.m. Sunday.
"The archdiocese has been very supportive of my design and really working to ensure that it is as close as possible to the final product," Lenahan said.
And that's no average backdrop for his design, either: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with the same stairs Rocky Balboa climbed to a triumphant fist pump.
Lenahan, now graduated with a master's degree and working for a San Antonio architecture firm, isn't quite ready to be that celebratory. But he knows seeing his work come to life -- and Francis' reaction to the scene -- will be "just very humbling."
Furthermore, he says, "It still hasn't sunk in yet."