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Locally known as the “fish church”, St. Francis Xavier church, is the first of the Byrne designs to take on an oval shape. The Art-Deco movement was no more and Barry Byrne now moved toward forms that reflected the technological age that was emerging.
Located on a hilltop, the church’s spectacular shape and silver cross can be seen from miles around. A statue of St. Francis, 2-3 times life-size stands at the front entrance.
The choice of concrete was no doubt based on versatility and cost. The noticeable improvement in the design was the use of smooth tiles on the external walls. This not only provided a fine finish to the exterior but also gave it a much stronger protection over the simple dash finish used on the Cork design.
The entrance porch is curved and provides an almost theatrical appearance to the entrance. The doors are broad and provide an appropriate entrance to the narthex. The metallic rim on the porch reflects the aluminum/silver theme of the decor.
The low-ceiling narthex expands into the nave which itself is defined by curved walls that sweep outward from a tall belfry and then back again toward the sanctuary.
The interior is spectacular with a high ceiling and strong intake of natural light provided by tall glass-tile windows. The flat ceiling was originally designed to be dome shaped but was abandoned for cost reasons.
This design was the first of two to take on an oval form and also a first where Barry Byrne introduced inset side aisles. Both aisles have a low flat ceiling and gradually narrow as they progress toward the altar. Natural light is fed into the aisles by stained glass horizontal windows.
The sanctuary is strongly dominated by a rich rust coloured crucifix-patterned reredos spanning floor to ceiling. Suspended against the reredos is a well proportioned gold and silver statue of Christ by Alfonso Iannelli. The choir gallery is located in the traditional location, behind the congregation with a full view of the altar.
The oval curve used to define the overall shape is further reflected in the shape of the altar.
The Stations of the Cross are painted onto the walls and were most likely executed by Annette Cremin Byrne. The design is modern and reflective of many of the modern Eucharistic art we see today.
Six pairs of side pillars are positioned along each aisle form the support structure for the overhead ceiling. It is likely that these sit under a steel grid from which the ceiling is suspended.
The altar ornaments are rendered in aluminum to theme with the statue and and were also created by Alfonso Iannelli. The aluminum theme is continued in the decor of the Virgin Marys’ altar.
Jesuit Father John Gerst, pastor at the time of construction was quoted as saying, ‘The beauty and nobility of the building will grow on you, I know’.
The design did meet with some tension but was soon acclaimed for its innovation and character. The term ‘Fish Church’ coined on the oval shape and tail-like entrance, was a surprise to Barry Byrne who insisted that in no way did he intend his design to mimic a fish. In 1987, the church received the American Institute of Architects retrospective award for design excellence.
Our appreciation is extended to Vincent Michael and the family of Barry Byrne for providing some of the images shown on this page. Vincent is Director, Associate Professor of Historic Preservation at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an authority on the work of Barry Byrne.
We would also like to thank Amy Wedel, Dallas Texas for a series of internal and external photographs featured on this page and in the gallery.