Saint Francis de Sales Church, located in Muskegon, Michigan, was designed by Marcel Breuer and his associate, Herbert Beckhard, in 1964. The church was designed about the same time he designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Construction was finished in 1966, and the first mass held on December 18, 1966.
The trapezoidal-shaped front wall of the church acts as a “banner” or signage with a large concrete cross on it similar to the way the Whitney Museum’s large concrete façade serves as a sign for the museum. Above this is the bell tower with three large bells protruding over the front wall. The side walls are double curved in parabolic sections with the back wall splaying towards the top. Breuer used the latest technology of the time, reinforced concrete, to create a continuous curved line, which was previously impossible because of the lack of technology. The total cost of the building was $1 million. Made from 14,000 tons of steel and concrete, the building was constructed at a cost of over $1 million.
The sanctuary is windowless except for a few skylights highlighting the seating areas. Originally a skylight designed and crafted in France by the Roemer-Millard studio was in the niche of the sanctuary but was moved to the new Marian Chapel in 1989. This stained glass window was awarded a gold medal by the American Institute of Architects. The entrance to the sanctuary is located under a freestanding balcony that creates a very low ceiling. Breuer created the experience of walking from this squat entrance into the lofty nave to evoke a feeling of the awe-inspiring power of God and to instill a sense of humility in the worshippers. The height in comparison to the length of the nave makes the priest appear to be much closer to the worshippers than they really are.
On either side of the entrance are stained-glass windows designed by Roemer-Millard studios. One is of a red-orange hue while the other is of a blue-green. The brick floor of the nave slopes in a theater-like fashion with the altar at front on display. Above the altar is a concrete canopy which is lit from below. Behind the altar are twelve concrete columns representing the twelve apostles. As one moves about the room the columns appear to move signifying the dynamic people of God. Exposed concrete walls made from wooden forms suggest ties to the traditional methods of construction of the gothic cathedrals of Europe. In front of the altar the Stations of the Cross are embedded in the floor. The altar itself is made of a single piece of white granite weighing eight tons.
Breuer’s design for Saint Frances de Sales Church, along with his designs for another Catholic church in Collegeville, Minnesota, around the same time, revolutionized religious architecture. Breuer subscribed to Viennese architect Adolf Loos’ conviction that “lack of ornamentation was a sign of spiritual strength.” Breuer used the design of the church to strengthen this statement. When the church was built, no statues, decorations or ornamentations were placed in the church. Instead the design of the structure – spatial arrangements, lighting and use of materials – were to bring a worshipper closer to God.