Church of SS. Peter & Paul, Pierre, South Dakota (1941)


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Father Paul McGuire, who had taken residence in Pierre in 1923, was determined to build a new church. Unfortunately, the market crash of 1929, put a stop to his plans with the complete loss of building funds. However he continued his campaign for fund raising and in 1939 had raised $50,000 to build a much-needed a church for 500 parishioners.

Reading an article of Barry Byrnes, published in a Dubuque newspaper, The Catholic Daily, Fr. Maguire was prompted to contact Byrne and ask if such a construction was possible with a $50,000 budget. Byrne replied that modern construction techniques would make this possible and before long he was offered the job.

sspeterandpaul_pierre_sideviewThe site is a triangular shape, located on the highest hilltop overlooking Pierre. The ground plan is V-shaped and this is likely to have been chosen in line with the site’s dimensions. The use of the V-shape results in the loss of nave and sanctuary integration as achieved in Christ the King, Turner’s Cross, however it must be noted that given the limited budget, a more extravagant design was not an option.

The exterior finish comprises of large flanks of yellow brick, used to convey long and uninterrupted walls. These walls slant backward toward the church and each have a series of 4 narrow windows that reduce in size as the walls expand away from the tower. At the widest point, the walls form a sharp near-90 degree turn and progress inward toward the altar. The windows used as the walls progress inward are plain rectangle windows of equal size.

The bell tower has a tall and narrow void originally designed to house a series of bells or statue. In 1960, a series of bells were installed in the void. These were subsequently removed in later years and now stand to one side of the church.

The entrance, as seen today, is a modification on the original design (see b&w and colour photographs above). While the modifications were no doubt justified for practical reasons, the front facade has lost some of its’ original character.


The church was designed for two functions, a place of worship and a social hall. Byrne achieved this by elevating the floor off the ground and using a basement as a means of hosting the social hall. The entrance takes the form of a tower with two wings emanating outward and apart. These form a porch around the entrance, with the entrance doors located inset on either side of the inner porch walls. The effect is that the doors are partially concealed from the outside. On entering the church, the congregation must climb a half flight of steep stairs located on either side of the entrance. A similar descent is required to gain access to the lower social hall. The irony of the situation is that the social hall is no longer used as the social functions are now held in a local school.

sspeterandpaul_pierre_interiorThe interior is somewhat disappointing in that supporting pillars are used to suspend the large ceiling supports. This introduces a loss of sanctuary visibility from a number of locations within the church.

The seating arrangement is based on two series of seats, that run along the V-shape and terminate at the sanctuary. The resulting V-shaped centre aisle is partially filled by another set of seats organised to fit some of the available space.

sspeterandpaul_pierre_interior_side_altarThe side altars are separated from the main altar by means of wings, similar to the model described at the porch entrance. The result is that the side altars are visible only from the far left and right seating.

As with previous designs, the original choir gallery was located behind the altar reredos.

Natural light enters the nave from the stained glass windows located on either side of the V-shaped walls. The sanctuary itself is badly lit and despite a bright decoration, it suffers in this regard. As the side walls continue behind the altar, so does the positioning of the windows and in fact, the only natural light to reach the sanctuary, is in the form of light that escapes over the altar reredos from the choir gallery.

Despite the many down-sides of the design, it has to be acknowledged that the church was built on a tight budget and it is likely that many sacrifices were made to maintain the budget. An interesting comment by Sally Chappell, author of “Barry Byrne: Architecture and Writings”, is that the church design was a transition toward the concepts used in his later churches. For example, St. Francis Xavier and St Columba, his next two churches, completely abandoned the sanctuary and nave integration in favour of an oval ground plan. Likewise, the side altars in both churches were moved to the side aisles. So the concept of a V-shape and the de-emphasis of the side altars, were foremost on Byrne’s mind as his designs evolved.

Our appreciation is extended Trish Curtis, webmaster for SS. Peter & Paul for providing the high-res images shown on this page and gallery.


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