St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church
Commission brief: Arthur Rigolo commissioned as architect (e) June 1956; Hiemer & Company hired to design figural stained glass windows (e) 1958.
Design brief: Roman Catholic house of worship seating nearly 900. First rendering issued (e) September 1956. Striking geometric design (pyramidal) embracing Modern minimalist matrixes, economical materials, and abstract psychedelic color schemes. Translucent abstract colored glass panes composed in De Stijl style; horizontal bands of figural stained glass styled in Cubist forms.
Building/construction: Brick, concrete, steel, aluminum, timber, colored glass; gabled/canted/steeply pitched roof; interior laminated arch system (11 arches in total; 72-feet long).
Persons/organizations involved: The parish of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, Union City, New Jersey, USA. The Rev. Tom Devine O.A.R.
St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church is a 72-foot high pyramidal house of worship that sits on a flat concrete plinth visually walled off from the sidewalk by perimeter pine-green brick walls. The Modern minimalist edifice, an architectural oddity amid late-19th century and early-20th century building stock, is situated on a narrow lot between two parish structures (parish rectory, 1907; schoolhouse, 1891). Its roof is sharply pitched and—until very recently—adorned with thick terra-cotta tiles composed of polychromatic patterns/pixellations. The main brick entrance wall, set back slightly under the eaves, consists of a 72-foot high main gable window bottomed by three sets of double aluminum doors; these doors, lit by primary-colored glass squares reminiscent of 1950s-era computer mainframe screens, lead into the narrow narthex and an adjoining plate-glass “crying room” chapel for parents and children. Past the narthex, the gaping dark interior, traveling the length of the structure, is made up of eleven colossal lines of prefabricated laminated arches and pine-green brick walls and horizontal bands of figural stained glass interspersed by De Stijl-inspired panes. Alcoves along the side naves are utilized as mini-altars decked with confessionals and wall-clinging statues. A south-side narthex opens up to a courtyard fronting on 39th Street (into the former site of the first 1886 church). The center nave leads to a main alter pinnacled by a large crucifix situated in front of a semi-circular rusticated and patterned white brick wall and under a cantilevered plaster canopy. The organ loft is positioned above the narthex and crying room; its pipes help frame the main gable window: a soaring 72-foot high pointed configuration of colored panes directly inspired by the Modern master Piet Mondrian.
Name(s) of surrounding area/building(s):St. Philip the Apostle Roman Catholic Church (Clifton, New Jersey), In 2006, the parish of St. Augustine initiated a 2-stage comprehensive renovation campaign that threatens to diminish the original 1958 design elements of the church:
1. The first phase (Autumn 2006-Spring 2007) concerns the exterior envelope of the plant. As of this writing, the church’s original High Victorian-inspired gabled roof has been entirely stripped of its polychromatic terra-cotta tiles. These have been replaced with a cheaper grade of hunter-green slate tile. Additionally, work has already begun on the stepped entrance and pedestrian plinth: the original front barrier walls will be removed; the wide staircase will be demolished; and a ramped semi-circular carport will be installed to allow for easy hearse access.
2. The second phase (time table unannounced) will concern the interior of the plant. According to published parish pamphlets, the laminated arches will be hung with new electric light fixtures, and colored glass panels will be replaced with clear glass for better illumination.
The architect of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, Arthur Rigolo, had already established his reputation as a church builder to watch. His 1951 design for St. Philip the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Clifton, New Jersey, was considered technically and architecturally groundbreaking and was included in an architectural review of church construction in the September 19, 1955 issue of Time Magazine. With St. Philip, Rigolo—trained at Cooper Union and the University of Illinois and the main industrial architect for General Motors at the 1939 World’s Fair—created a sweeping campus of gabled, pyramidal chapels connected by low gabled ambulatories. Pre-fabricated laminated arches were used throughout the buildings—a popular and increasingly common post-WWII form of construction due to the timbers’ ease of assembly, durability, beauty and low cost. For his 1956-58 St. Augustine commission, however, Rigolo took his specialty a step further by increasing the roof cant to a dizzying pitch (unlike the sprawling St. Philip the Apostle campus, St. Augustine had only a narrow lot to contend with) and lengthening the laminated arches to cavernous heights.
In 1956, the pastor of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. James J. Healy, desired a new house of worship to replace the parish’s first church building (1886), which had been deemed too small to hold the growing congregation. The opportunity to build anew presented itself to the priest. Father Healy was after something larger (and greater) than the traditional Gothic or Romanesque edifice: to him, the parish no longer only served the founding German and Irish immigrant populations—their numbers had been decreasing as they moved to outlying municipalities—but now welcomed the waves of arriving Cuban and South American families crowding Union City’s ancient tenements. Father Healy desired a distinct kind of house of worship to usher in a new parish phase. He wanted a Modern building that Union City had never seen before—a building that would reflect the vision and vitality of its pastor and communicants. When the church opened in 1958, the Latino community stood at the church’s polychromed crown, eager to enter the futuristic interior.
With St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, Arthur Rigolo set out to make a statement and case for Modernity (although he paid a powerful homage to High Victorian Gothic in his design of the multi-colored roof). Certainly no other church buildings of the period came shrouded in such psychedelic colors; certainly none were a standing tribute to Modern art—De Stijl and Cubism in particular. Rigolo’s ambitious and bold canvas consists of an elongated gable with polychromatic terra cotta tiles animated with a pixellated design reminiscent of computer mainframe screens popular at the time; translucent colored glass panes and figural stained glass panels directly inspired by Piet Mondrian/De Stijl and Cubism illuminate the cavernous interior. All together, these precise, fashionable and elevated design elements transformed the colorful edifice into a gem-like ship sitting on a plinth—a futuristic house of worship made breathtaking and timeless by its own originality. Canonical status: St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church ushered a new Modernity into ecclesiastical design in the Newark Archdiocese, the country’s seventh largest archdiocese covering over 220 parishes. Before St. Augustine’s, Modernism in the archdiocese was modest at best, quiet and virtually invisible; parish pastors turned to it more for its lower construction costs than its architectural/aesthetic possibilities. St. Augustine’s, however, ended all apathetic attitudes and, with a stunningly futuristic design at a cost of $500,000, set a new stage. The local press hailed St. Augustine as “the most modern in this section of the country.” In 1959, one year after St. Augustine’s unveiling, Rigolo received an Award of Merit from the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the New Jersey Society of Architects.
Arthur Rigolo’s heightened Modern design for St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church drew its historicist inspiration from the High Victorian Gothic period (hence its visually resplendent polychromatic gabled roof). But the architect looked forward from there, incorporating powerfully obvious the De Stijl and Cubist art movements into his visual palette. Rigolo also referred to his own previous nationally celebrated pitched roof church design (St. Philip the Apostle in Clifton, New Jersey). After St. Augustine, Rigolo experimented further with ecclesiastical Modernism in such commissions as St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church, Montvale, New Jersey (1957) and the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Maplewood, New Jersey (1957), both of which contain soaring laminated arch interiors and polychromatic/psychedelic color schemes. In Maspeth, Queens, the Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church (1962) is strikingly similar to St. Augustine’s, including a pine-green palette and steeply pitched polychromatic roof. In Australia, the 1968 Manilla Presbyterian Church is also architecturally reminiscent of St. Augustine’s. Rigolo’s work would have been visible to national and international architects as he often appeared in architectural periodicals and was an active member of the AIA.
All available archives/written records pertaining to St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church are located in local public libraries as well as the offices of Richard Rigolo, son of the late Arthur Rigolo:
a. Jersey City Free Public Library, Reference Department (microfilm collections of The Hudson Dispatch and The Jersey Journal), Jersey City, New Jersey, USA.
b. Richard Rigolo, Architect, 151 Grove Street, Clifton, New Jersey, 07013-1550 USA.
Only two principal publications pertaining to the church exist:
a. Healy, James J. “Souvenir Program of the Dedication and Cornerstone Laying of St. Augustine’s Church, Sunday, June 29, 1958.” Union City, New Jersey: Parish of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, 1958.
b. Ciccarino, Christopher. “Seeds of Faith, Branches of Hope: The Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.” Strasbourg, France: Editions du Signe, 2003.