- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI will have plenty of room to sit down before celebrating Mass at the new Nationals ballpark on Thursday. His throne-like wooden chair has been configured with a generous seat and a tall back by two students at the Catholic University of America who also designed the ambo (pulpit) and altar to be placed on the stage.

John-Paul Mikolajczyk, 23, and Ryan Mullen, 25, first-year graduate students at the university’s school of architecture and planning, won the right to create the liturgical furnishings through a competition jointly sponsored by the university and the Archdiocese of Washington.

Since being announced as the winners on Jan. 28 from a field of 21 student teams, they refined their original designs, created computer drawings and mock-ups for fabricating the pieces and made some of the components in the school’s wood shop.

“We are building everything to last, hoping our designs will be used in a church eventually,” said Mr. Mullen, who donated his half of the $1,500 competition prize to a Catholic charity. “It is a great honor to be doing this work.”

The two students, who have been friends since their undergraduate days, combined traditional and modern elements in their pared-down designs of maple and aluminum. They took their inspiration from liturgical furnishings in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and a wooden altar in a Catholic church in Mr. Mullen’s hometown of Manchester, N.H.

“We wanted them to be simple, elegant and dignified and still have a presence,” said Mr. Mikolajczyk, pointing to cardboard models of the furniture in the school’s architecture studio. “They had to be portable so we couldn’t build them out of marble or stone.”

Video:Building the altar

Construction of the three pieces was mostly completed by St. Joseph’s Carpentry Shop in Poolesville and paid for by the Archdiocese of Washington.

The 10-foot-long top of the altar was assembled by the students from solid maple panels set into a frame “like an old-fashioned door,” said Mr. Mullen, to allow the wood to shrink and expand over time. Decorating its sides are five cross-shaped recesses to symbolize the five wounds of Christ. A carved stone from the 1790s, used by the nation’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, is set into the top.

Both the wooden top of the altar and the ambo’s lectern are supported on spider-web-like bases made of interlacing curves of sandblasted aluminum that were inspired by Gothic tracery.

“From a practical standpoint, the Holy Father will be wearing nicely designed vestments, so if you had solid bases, you wouldn’t be able to see them as much,” said Mr. Mikolajczyk, who is from Staten Island, N.Y. The 8-foot-high papal chair incorporates a section of this filigree below a top panel decorated with the papal coat of arms.

The students spent their spring break in early March sawing and planing maple planks for the altar top. They visited E-J Enterprises, a metalworking shop in Glen Burnie, Md., to watch how water jets filled with grains of sand were used to cut the aluminum supports.

“What’s been helpful for me as an architect is doing a set of drawings from start to finish and seeing your designs get built,” Mr. Mullen said.

But, added Mr. Mikolajczyk, “I’m more excited to see the pope than to see the designs in the stadium.”

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