About two hours north of Phoenix on Arizona Highway 179 lies some of God’s very best handiwork. Sedona in Arizona’s high desert country is situated at the mouth of spectacular Oak Creek Canyon and is known for its myriad hiking trails and massive red-rock formations named for their likenesses to cathedrals, bells, chimneys, and coffee pots.
But located between Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek is one of the region’s manmade (and woman-designed) wonders: the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Operated by the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, the chapel is open to all but does not operate as a Catholic church. But the story behind its creation is the story of one Catholic architect’s vision, a nagging dream, and her desire to find the spirit of Christ in her art and celebrate it in the world.
European-born architect Marguerite Brunswig Staude first had the idea for a cruciform-shaped church in 1932 while viewing the newly constructed Empire State Building. Years later, she wrote, “When viewed from a certain angle a cross seemed to impose itself through the very core of the structure. What an idea for a church! For days it haunted and obsessed me, insisting on taking shape.”
Staude’s devout Catholic family were from Hungary, and as the Nazis began moving into Austria they fled to New York. Her original idea for the chapel came from a collaboration with Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., the famous architect’s son, and they both envisioned a structure much larger than the one eventually built in Sedona. They dreamed it would seat 2,000 and be built in Budapest overlooking the Danube, but World War II put an end to the idea, and it lay dormant for many years.
The idea comes to Sedona
By the 1950s, Staude owned a ranch in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon, and she wrote that the area around her home seemed to be “calling for the existence of a shrine where God can be brought closer to each and every one of us.” So Staude proceeded on her own, building something on a scale that she could pay for herself.
The location she selected was secluded and part of U.S. Forest Service land. There were no homes in the area and the main highway from the south, Highway 179 today, did not exist. Near the site were two big rocks called “The Nuns” and another nearby that was called “The Madonna.” Close by she saw some graffiti, which included the “Rx” symbol for prescription. This was the spot, she decided. “Rx” marks the spot.
Although much smaller in scale than her original vision, construction on the chapel began in 1955 on the 250-foot-high, twin-pinnacled “Nuns,” and was completed a year later. Staude then gifted it to the bishop of Gallop, New Mexico, as the Diocese of Phoenix had not yet been created. The bishop wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it.
“There were maybe 50 Catholics in Sedona at the time,” explained Fr. Kieran Kleczewski in a recent interview. Fr. Kleczewski is now executive director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Phoenix and serves as pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Sedona and president of the chapel’s board. “The handful of Catholics went to nearby Cottonwood for Mass. So [the bishop] decided that the chapel could be a church for the people of Sedona and the priest from Cottonwood would come once a month to say Mass.”
But in 1965 Sedona got its own parish, St. John Vianney, about five miles away in West Sedona, and Staude continued to “futz” with the chapel, Fr. Kleczewski said. She tried out various uses, including inviting controversial Carmelite mystic Fr. William McNamara to come test new theories of recreating religious life after the Second Vatican Council, an experiment that soon failed. It then became an occasional gathering space for theologians to discuss sacred art and the like. Then it was simply boarded up.
Fr. Kleczewski remembers well the first time he saw the chapel.
“I was horrified,” he said. “The outside and the scenery were beautiful, and then I came inside and [a crucifix called] the ‘Atomic Christ’ was hanging there. The artist’s conception was that it was a body melting before a nuclear blast. It was a horrible, horrible piece.”
As it turns out, the artist of the crucifix was a friend of Staude’s and she couldn’t bring herself to tell him she didn’t like it. From the time the chapel opened until the early ’70s, Staude received a steady stream of hate mail from people about the “monstrosity of the ‘Atomic Christ,’” said Fr. Kleczewski. Finally, in the early ’70s Staude came with workers, removed the “Atomic Christ,” cut it in small pieces, and discarded it in the Mojave Desert.
New life for the chapel
The chapel remained closed until the early ’80s, when it was re-opened as a place for tourists to visit. That was the way it remained until Fr. Kleczewski arrived in 2015 in time for the Church’s Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. (The Jubilee Year started Dec. 8, 2015, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lasted until Nov. 20, 2016, on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.)
Fr. Kleczewski was told by his bishop that, “the chapel needs your attention.” He asked the bishop if the doors could be “Jubilee Doors,” and that request was approved. The chapel was sandblasted and cleaned, and Fr. Kleczewski commissioned new art to celebrate the Jubilee Year, including a new crucifix and corpus.
A local bronze sculptor was chosen for the task of sculpting the corpus. James Muir is a devout Christian but not Catholic, so it took a bit of persuading for him to create a corpus for a crucifix, as it is not a practice of his own faith or liturgical art. He and Fr. Kleczewski went back and forth for about two months until one day in conversation the two reached a place of understanding.
“I said, ‘Look at that cross on my wall over there,’” said Fr. Kleczewski, who has been a priest for 40 years and moved to Arizona when he was 15. “‘Is that a face of anguish or anger or horrible suffering? No. It’s a face of love. The reason we put the corpus on the cross is to remind us of this great act of love of both the Father offering his Son and the Son offering himself for us. That’s what it’s all about.’ I saw the light bulb come on and he decided to do it.”
The idea evolved from a traditional crucifix to a 33-foot “tree of life” that stretches the entire height behind the altar. It was installed and dedicated in April 2018.
“Instead of Christ looking upward or to the side, he’s looking down,” said Fr. Kleczewski. “There’s a place where we’re going to be putting bronze footprints in the chapel and if you stand on those and look up, the Christ will be looking you right in the face. It’s meant to be an encounter.”
Since his arrival in Sedona, Fr. Kleczewski has been trying the change the atmosphere that surrounds the chapel from simply a tourist spot, and the new crucifix has become a big part of that transformation. He has seen the effect it has on visitors.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is reclaim it as a sacred site in the Catholic tradition,” he said. “People come into the chapel now and, even if they are talking loud, they become quiet when they see the crucifix. They just go sit in the pews and pray. It’s a whole different experience, and what it’s doing is re-creating what Marguerite Staude originally had in mind for the place — a place where you encountered God’s love but also the beauty with which he surrounds us.”
TO LEARN MORE: