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  • The Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona Architectural Landmark

The Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona Architectural Landmark

Chapel of the Holy Cross and the Two Nuns red rock formations, Sedona, Arizona.The view approaching the Chapel of the Holy Cross and Two Nuns red rock formations in Sedona, Arizona.

More than half a century after its construction, the Chapel of the Holy Cross continues to be a place of wonder, spiritual renewal, and sublime vistas for all who come to Sedona.

This spiritual citadel on a hill is one of the "must see" sights of Sedona. One of Sedona's earliest landmarks is also one of its most endearing — the Chapel of the Holy Cross, where people of all denominations come to offer their prayers, supplications, and praises--and to marvel at the building's distinctive architecture and the panoramic vistas from its site.

Even after half a century, the chapel has a contemporary, almost out-of-time look, a sculptural feel, and a surreal effect as it juts out of two red mounds on a spur of rock that is 200 feet above the ground.

The chapel's most prominent feature is a cross that seems to have been wedged into the rock by some devout pilgrim, who later built a chapel around it. It is an unforgettable sight from all angles. Looking at it directly, it seems the rocks parted to embrace the structure. From the side, it looks like it was dropped into place; from above, it resembles a diving board or runway where one might leap towards spirit.

Inside, the chapel is intimate and unadorned. On the periphery, benches hug the angular walls. In the center, two rows of pews--seven on each side--provide a place to pray or rest. The feeling in the chapel is uplifting. Wherever one sits, the eye is drawn to the cross in the center and to the floor-to-ceiling windows behind it, which provide a magnificent backdrop.

Apart from two tapestries on the wall, the only color in the chapel are the ruby-red flickering candles, a brilliant display of devotion.

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This spiritual citadel on a hill is one of the "must see" sights of Sedona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross - Another view.Surrounding the chapel are the Mystic Hills, filled with ancient forms, animal faces such as Eagle Rock, and sacred imagery. These energy-rich red-rock formations, which some say are a vortex, embrace the chapel in an arc from behind.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross, a church built right into the red rocks of Sedona Arizona.The Chapel of the Holy Cross, a church built right into the red rocks of Sedona Arizona.

On the sides and in the front, Sedona sprawls out majestically, a sweeping landscape of red rocks, trees, and nestled houses. Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte are visible to the south, and Cathedral Rock to the west. From all angles, photogenic opportunities create unforgettable memories.

"That the church may come to life in the souls of men and be a living reality--herein lies the whole message of this chapel." - Marguerite Brunswig Staude

The Chapel of the Holy Cross was a gift from Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a sculptress, philanthropist, and devout Catholic, who believed the arts should be in service of spirit and indeed, considered the Chapel of the Holy Cross to be her greatest artistic achievement and the fulfillment of her life's mission. In 1932 Staude had an epiphany. While she gazed upon the newly completed Empire State Building, she saw a cross superimposed on the structure, and she thought, "What an idea for a church!" This idea, which affirmed her belief that churches should speak to the people of their time, would haunt and inspire Staude. "God can be worshipped as a contemporary--bringing him closer to earth and every one of us," she said.

Initially, Staude envisioned the chapel as a modern skyscraper cathedral that would encircle one city block. Her early sketches impressed Lloyd Wright, son of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but were not approved by the archbishop of Los Angeles, her home at the time. A nunnery in Budapest became excited about the design and planned to place the church above the Danube River. World War II aborted those plans. Then both of Staude's parents died in the 1940s. It was her mother's last wish that she leave behind a living spiritual trust. This is when Staude decided to resurrect her idea for a chapel, but this time she envisioned it in Sedona, a place she had come to love. "Our monument would become a chapel dedicated to finding God through art," she said.

Marguerite Brunswig Staude Her initial ideas for the church changed in 1950 after she saw a church in France designed by the painter Georges Roualt.

Lloyd Wright clung to the original plans and refused to work with her. So she approached the San Francisco firm of Anshen and Allen, who jumped at the chance to build the unusual chapel.

Staude investigated many potential sites with her husband and the architects, but it was when they flew over Sedona that the future home of the Chapel of the Holy Cross seemed to declare itself. First, an RX-the apothecary emblem--had been painted in the rocks at the foot of the spur. (Staude's father had made his fortune in the wholesale drug business.) Second, and more significant, Staude saw a sight that still delights and humbles visitors to the Chapel-a red rock formation to the east that looks like the Madonna and child, surrounded by rock figures that some people say look like praying nuns; others like the three wise men.

There was one major glitch in securing the land, however. It belonged to the National Forest Service. After unsuccessful attempts to obtain the land locally, Staude flew to Washington, DC, and met with Senator Barry Goldwater, a personal friend. She showed him the rendering and he caught her enthusiasm, marching her to the office of the Secretary of the Interior, who granted the necessary permit.

The groundbreaking for the chapel took place in April 1955. The construction was arduous and sometimes complicated, requiring not only skill but also ingenuity and tremendous commitment. (For a detailed description, refer to Kate Ruland-Thorne's book Upon This Rock.) It took 18 months to complete the Chapel of the Holy Cross at a cost of $300,000, which was a modest sum even in those days; everyone associated with the project generously cut their costs. The chapel was dedicated in the spring of 1957.

Within the year, the Chapel of the Holy Cross achieved national recognition. It was featured in Life Magazine, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and in numerous architectural magazines. In 1956, it was honored with the prestigious AIA National Award for religious structures.

"The Chapel does not seem bothered by the problem of scale. It does not feel called upon to feign modesty or bow to the hills in feeble imitation. Nor does it try self-assertiveness in the manner of a bantam rooster. Rather it seems to appreciate its magnificent setting and react to it like a well-mannered guest," wrote the editor of The Architectural Record.

"Come to me, come to me, come when you are weary. Come to me, come to me and I will give you rest." -Gathering Song

In its early years the Catholic Church, to whom Staude bequeathed the chapel, sometimes held services on the site. But the small size of the space eventually became inadequate to meet the needs of Sedona's Catholic community. So services were held elsewhere, and the chapel remained a shrine for people of all faiths.

The Two Nuns, red rock formations near the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona Arizona.The Two Nuns, red rock formations near the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona Arizona.

In 2005, the parishioners of St. John Vianney Catholic Church decided to hold a Taize Prayer Service for visitors to the chapel, a spiritual gift modeled after an ecumenical monastic community in France that is devoted to a life of prayer and simplicity. The focus of the 30-minute service is sung prayer, in a mantra or repetitive style, believed to help quiet the mind for spiritual communion or meditation. "These frequently repeated refrains lead us to the space behind the chatter and into the silence of our hearts where we meet God," proclaim the service notes.

The Taize Prayer Service is held every Monday of the year at 5:00 p.m. (except when Christmas falls on a Monday.) Whether in formal prayer during the Taize service or in silent reflection, thousands of visitors each year are comforted and affirmed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross and awed by its design and beauty. As the sign on the door proclaims, the chapel is a shrine that offers "peace to all who enter."

If you go: From "uptown" Sedona, take 179 south toward the Village of Oak Creek. Turn left on Chapel Road. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is at the end of Chapel Road. From the parking area there is a steep climb up the ramp to the Chapel, but the ramp is wide enough for a wheel chair.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.

For more information, visit: www.ChapeloftheHolyCross.com

Article by Sylvia Somerville.


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