Recently, while watching a public television program on American architecture, I was reminded of the role that the late Charles Eames played in architecture and design. His iconic modern home in California and especially his Eames Chair are known far and wide. But few realize that two of Eames' early structures were east Arkansas Catholic churches: St. Mary's of Helena and St. Mary's of Paragould.
Charles Ormond Eames Jr. was born in St. Louis in 1907, the son of a much older Pinkerton railroad guard. His early life was middle class, but the family fell into poverty after his father was shot on the job and forced to retire. At the age of 14, young Charles went to work as a laborer in a steel mill.
After receiving a scholarship to study engineering, he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, but soon switched to studying architecture. A devotee of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Eames was dismissed from the university in 1928, reportedly because "his views were too modern." The fact that Eames' study time was reduced by employment with a local architectural firm probably contributed to his leaving college.
In 1930, Eames and another young architect opened a firm in St. Louis. Times were tough, but he eventually found work with the Historic American Buildings Survey, a WPA program. In 1934 he and architect Robert Walsh established a partnership, which soon led to commissions to build two churches in Arkansas.
The early history of Catholicism in Helena is poorly documented. It appears that the first services were held in a small log structure in the early 1850s. Some sources claim that the first church, named St. Mary's, was burned in 1854 by the anti-Catholic group known as the Know-Nothings.
A new frame church was erected by 1856, but the congregation did not have a resident priest. The Bishop of Little Rock, Right Reverend Andrew Byrne, worked hard to build a Catholic presence in Helena, then one of the major towns in the state. He purchased land for a convent and school and sent the first resident priest in 1858, Father Patrick Behan.
Earlier the bishop had recruited four Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to establish and administer St. Catherine's Academy. All of this early progress fell apart during and after the Civil War. It was 1879 before six Sisters of Charity from Nazareth, Ky., arrived, "resuming arms that had been laid down in despair ..."
The arrival of many Catholic immigrants, especially Italians, bolstered the Catholic presence in Helena after the Civil War. A new school, Sacred Heart Academy, opened in 1879. A new church was built in 1888. In 1928 a mission for black Catholics, St. Cyprian's, was established, followed by the establishment of a school for black children.
Father Thomas J. Martin, who spent most of his priesthood at St. Mary's, promoted the construction of a new church building. A fire in February 1934 damaged the church, probably hastening the decision to build a new one.
The Church hired Charles Eames' firm to design the new $35,000 building. Charles Eames was proud of his Helena project, often speaking of it as one of his finest works.
The nomination of St. Mary's to the National Register of Historic Places describes the structure as being a "Late Gothic Revival building ... a modern church with a medieval feel."
Eames recruited able associates including stained glass window specialist Emil Frei, who often repaired windows at the Vatican. Charles Quest, a young muralist who would go on to work around the world, was hired to paint a mural on the sanctuary wall. It was quite simple, with the use of early Christian imagery resulting in a Byzantine feel. Caroline Risque Janis sculpted a modern interpretation of a Madonna and child, which rests on a pedestal above the front entrance.
One of the most interesting features of Eames' design was the lighting. The suspended lights were round to resemble the world. One half of the orb was dark with small stars visible. The other half--which faced the altar--was clear. Symbolically, communicants walked toward the altar in darkness, but returned to their seats in light.
Even before the Helena church was completed, Eames was chosen to design a new church for St. Mary's of Paragould in Greene County. The Paragould congregation dates to 1883 when famed Monsignor John Eugene Weibel established a tiny church. It met in the Catholic-owned Commercial Hotel.
In 1889, Weibel bought a frame Presbyterian church building and had it moved to lots he had bought earlier on Highland Street. Other buildings were added later, including a school and a convent.
By 1930 Father Joseph M. Hoflinger, pastor of St. Mary's, was making plans to build a new church building, something more substantial than the old white frame structure that had served the congregation for more than 40 years. By 1935 funding was available, and work got underway as soon as Eames finished the plans.
The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program nominated the Paragould church to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014, noting that: "In both the Helena and Paragould churches, Eames stated that they would design all aspects of the church, from the building to the vestments. In Paragould, due to its limited budget and smaller size, many of the elaborate touches that are seen in Helena were omitted."
The nomination described the Paragould church as "an excellent example of a late Romanesque Revival church with early modernist influences." Like the Helena church, this building was built of brick. It has numerous stained glass windows, a three-story tower, and a full basement. Also as seen at Helena, Greek religious motifs are used in the Paragould church.
Except for the replacement of the original oak doors with metal ones, the church has changed little.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 08/19/2018
Print Headline: Modern church, medieval feel