Hopefully this is the rare church architecture post that will be well-received by Catholics and other Christians across the ideological spectrum.
An article that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter last week, “Disabled Catholics praise pope’s example in publicly using a wheelchair” by Aleja Hertzler-McCain, featured several Catholics with disabilities commenting about their appreciation of Pope Francis’s willingness to appear in public using a wheelchair. For example, Erin Murphy of Massachusetts commented, “It’s so valuable to have disabled bodies out there because there’s a lot of power in seeing people who look like you, and to know that you can be a leader in the church, and you can be an integral part of the church.”
The article went on to explain how Murphy and other Catholic wheelchair users often feel in Catholic Churches that aren’t accessible. As she told the Reporter, “Even participating in Mass in many churches, which often do not have cutouts in the pews for wheelchair users, makes her feel isolated because she has to sit at the edge of the church. ‘I’m very obviously not sitting with the body of Christ, and that is really bothersome to me.”
This detail that she mentioned — “cutouts in the pews for wheelchair users” — jumped out at me because it’s a very simple accomodation that I believe should be prioritized in Church design and renovation projects.
My family and I are fortunate to belong to a very diverse parish with people from many cultures and walks of life. We also have a large number of disabled parishioners, including those who live in a nearby apartment complex for adults with disabilities. People of all levels of ability and disability are active in our church community and ministries. They serve our community as readers, choir members, cantors, altar servers, Knights of Columbus, Stephen Ministers, and in other ways of participating.
One of the first things my previous pastor did when refurbishing our church was to add wheelchair insets or cutouts, not only in the front pews, but also halfway up the aisle on both sides (you can see them in the image below).
Our priest was responding to a concern frequently raised by parishioners who use wheelchairs. Many of them, when relegated to the very front or back of the church — or worse, in the aisle — feel as if they are “on display.” To be at the outer edges of the assembly can make someone feel as if they are not fully integrated into the community. Sometimes, when those with disabilities are up front or out in the open by themselves, they can feel as if everyone is staring at them.
With pew cutouts like these (and I just pulled the below images from the internet), wheelchair users are more integrated into the assembly, they can sit with their family and friends, and they don’t have to worry about blocking others or being stared at. As we all know, many Catholics are not “front row people,” and this includes the disabled.
Perhaps this is old news or common knowledge to everyone reading this. Speaking for myself, however, I hadn’t really thought about it until my pastor did it.
My intention in writing this is so that any readers who happen to be pastors (or are simply members of a church that’s being built or undergoing a renovation) will keep this in mind. This is definitely something that many church members with disabilities will be very grateful to have.
Three quick concluding notes:
- Pew cutouts don’t have to be disruptive from an architectural or design perspective. My pastor decided to make the cutouts right in the center of the aisle, such that it forms a cross — integrating it into the church’s design.
- An important reminder: if your Church has these cutouts, don’t turn them into places for display tables or brochure racks or storage space. Please.
- A small but vocal contingent of readers believe pews are a modernist/Protestant/unwelcome feature that doesn’t belong in a church. I am aware of your concerns. This article applies to churches that have pews. Thank you for reading, though.
Featured Image: Adobe Stock. By MIA Studio.
Other images for illustrative purposes: St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church, Silver Spring, Maryland; Westminster Presbyterian Church, Austin, MN; 2 others are from Pinterest.