“Rebuild, restore, and repair our sacred spaces”

An interview with Enzo Selvaggi, founder of Heritage Liturgical, which revives sacred art and architecture in Catholic churches

Enzo Selvaggi, 36, is founder of Heritage Liturgical, a liturgical design firm in Southern California committed to reviving traditional sacred art and church architecturefor the purpose of promoting the New Evangelization. He lived in San Marco Argentano in the Calabria region of southern Italy until age 11.  After living in California for a time, Selvaggi returned to Italy for four years to discern his vocation with the Institute of Christ the King, a society that celebrates the Mass and sacraments in the Extraordinary Form.

Selvaggi combined his artistic talent and formation in the seminary to begin working in the field of church art in 2008. Heritage Liturgical has since become an approved liturgical design firm in the Diocese of Orange in Southern California.  Areas of expertise include liturgical design, sacred art, vestments, and church renovation. Selvaggi has worked on a variety of church projects in the area, most recently the ongoing renovation of St. John Chrysostom in Inglewood in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

He recently spoke with CWR.

CWR: What are you working on at St. John Chrysostom Church?

Enzo Selvaggi: Father Marcos Gonzalez, the pastor, asked me to make improvements. He was handed a church mangled by those who had come before him. It had a poor color scheme—painted in varying shades of green—its marble floors were carpeted over, and its decorative bronze removed. A baptismal font, more like a tub or spa, was placed in the main body of the church by the altar for baptism of both adults and children. Father Marcos is a father to his people, and wanted the church to be a place which would better help them encounter God.

We began by rebuilding an altar similar to the 1959 altar, which replaced a table altar. We restored the Communion rail and its decorative bronze. We removed the tub and restored the existing solid Calacatta Gold marble font in the original baptismal chapel. We repainted the interior of the church, which included a large depiction of the Blessed Mother over the altar. (Before and after photos can be seen here.)

We did all this work as the church continued to function as a parish. Sometimes we’d work while Mass was held in the main church; at other times Mass had to be celebrated in a chapel elsewhere on the grounds. 

St. John Chrysostom is not a rich parish [the 1992 Los Angeles riots began four major streets down at Florence and Normandie], so we’re continuing our work a step at a time, as money is raised. Father Marcos has given me a lot of leeway to propose ideas, as he knows we’re a Catholic firm. I’m responsible for the design and function as the project manager; I hire artists as they are needed. I tell the artist what to paint and where, then I leave it to him to do what he does. Besides being a designer, I’m a decorative painter, so you’ll see me doing some of the painting and gilding.

Besides being a designer, I’m a decorative painter, so you’ll see me doing some of the painting and gilding. Any approvals we need at the archdiocesan level to I leave to Father Marcos. 

CWR: You also design vestments.

Selvaggi: Yes. It’s a big part of what I do. My clients have included the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey, who staff St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa. Its Latin Mass community commissioned a set of vestments for use during celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

I choose the fabrics and designs and bring options to the client. I have to make sure they’re usable to the applications; for example, if you pick the wrong fabric, the vestments might be difficult to clean. I then work with the team doing the sewing.

CWR: Do the faithful appreciate your work?

Selvaggi: The response I’ve received has been emphatically positive. When we’re working in a church, people come up to us and say hello, and tell us how proud they are to have their churches decorated and embellished. The humble, ordinary people in the pews appreciate our work and want it in their churches. If we ever get resistance, it’s from the “educated” people we meet in the boardroom, who tell us things like, “We don’t want repetition of symbols.”

CWR: What was your first project?

Selvaggi: When I was in the seminary with the Institute of Christ the King, I was asked to paint the paschal candle. I found I liked doing it. It paved the way for my founding Heritage Liturgical, which has a primary focus of beautifying churches. We do secular projects, too, but I like to think of that work as subsidizing our work with churches.

CWR: What training have you had?

Selvaggi: My fundamental training was four years of priestly formation at the Institute. It gave me an understanding of the liturgy and why it’s important.

Culturally, my training was living in Italy for many years and being exposed to the work of the finest artists in the history of the world. Formally, my training came through a variety of courses, including a study of plasters and gilding with a French master. He taught me such things a perspective, design, painting light and shadow and trompe l’oeil.

CWR: You referenced your time in the seminary.  Was your time there positive?

Selvaggi: Oh, yes. It was the happiest time of my life. They’re solid doctrinally, and they do well for vocations. There are many fine young men there whose goal is to transform the culture for Christ.

CWR: And what did you learn growing up in Italy?

Selvaggi: I had an idyllic childhood there. I lived in a town of 6,000 on the top of a hill. It’s an old diocese; we’re known for our Norman ruins. St. Peter passed through on his way to Rome, and St. Mark was said to have passed through as well.

In my childhood we still maintained many of our Catholic traditions. For example, I remember when we’d have religious processions through town, for which people would put out lacework on their balconies and toss down flower petals. Our churches were open 24 hours a day, and you’d hear church bells ringing in the morning.

My family would travel throughout Italy and we’d visit famous churches in Rome, Venice, and Florence. You’d have to almost not be human not to develop a love for the beauty all around you. It was a concentration of genius from over the centuries.

While the art in the big cities was magnificent, I especially like going to the small towns. Each one had an artistic masterpiece: maybe it was a crucifix, a painting, or a fresco. Italians are serious about preserving their artistic treasures, even though we’ve had many years of secular, masonic governments. In fact, when some of our clergy wanted to “wreck-o-vate” Italy’s churches in the 80s and 90s, it was the government that stopped them. They knew Italy’s sacred art had both historic and artistic merit, and that it was important to tourism. In older Italian churches you’ll see a table/altar for celebrating the new liturgy, but behind it you’ll see the original altar and the altar rails as well. Unlike here in America, much of Italy’s sacred art has been spared from destruction.

CWR: Italy likes its sacred art, but what does it think of the Church?

Selvaggi: Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of secularization of Italy since I was a boy. When I go back today, I don’t stay long. It has become a sad society and a sad Church.

People are not getting married and having children, and what few youth there are have left the small towns for the cities so they can get work. My relatives tell me that the family-oriented feasting, partying, and sense of community we had when I was a boy is gone.

With the decline of the family has come hostility towards religion. Italy is becoming more like France, particularly Paris, in that way. I saw it as a seminarian in Florence. I recall going in my cassock to pick up a friend at the train station. People spat at me and said vulgar things. …

Looking back, however, I can see that problems were creeping into the small towns when I was a boy. By that I mean secularism, bad catechesis, and terrible liturgies. The balloon-and-guitar Masses were on their way.

CWR: What’s wrong with much of the newer church art you see today?

Selvaggi: There is an intentional and willed attack on everything that would attract you to fall in love with a beautiful building that you’d want to be in. Greater focus is placed on the prestige of a designer, rather than symmetry and symbolism that teaches Catholicism. 

CWR: In 2012, the Diocese of Orange celebrated the completion of one of its major church projects, Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach. You weren’t among those celebrating. What are some of your criticisms?

Selvaggi: It suffers from what I call the non-distinction of what is office and what is church space. If you look at pagan or New Age symbolism in which the Spirit or God is depicted, you’ll see similar elements visible in this church. 

Its sanctuary has a sacred circle with a square altar in the middle. This is ancient symbolism, but it is not fundamentally Catholic symbolism.

The Blessed Sacrament chapel is awkward, hard to get into, carpeted and mostly asymbolic. … Its door outside looks like something you’d find on an industrial building.

Its windows are blue with symbols which mostly cannot be seen inside, but what light does come through is a blue glow. This is one of many missed opportunities to teach, but its design is intentional by the designer.

It utilizes a traditional crucifix from the old church, but is placed off center on a wooden grillwork which makes it hard to see and appreciate.

There is no desire to put forward Catholic doctrine. The newer churches in Europe look much the same.

There is a poverty in the capacity and will of these designers to evoke higher concepts. For example, the Queen of Angels altar is not elevated. There is a symbolism to walking up steps to the altar; it reminds us of walking up the hill to Calvary. So, this element of the symbolism of the Passion of Christ is gone. 

It’s unfortunate that we remove the richness and wealth of sacred art and architecture that we’ve accumulated over 2,000 years. We’ve embraced the literal and banal, like when you remove adjectives from a sentence. You can remove them and convey a basic meaning, but in a skeletal form, without the full richness of meaning you can convey.

CWR: How important is it that liturgical designers believe in the Catholic faith?

Selvaggi: It’s essential. What’s in your mind comes through your hand. You express what you believe. A Catholic liturgical designer can employ a non-Catholic artist, but he has to be under the direction of the designer. It makes no sense to have non-Catholics designing our churches.

My first professional project was to review and correct work being done on a Catholic church by a non-Catholic designer. The design group was prestigious, known for their work on homes and shopping centers, but not Catholic churches. They don’t understand why it is important to connect the sacristy to the sanctuary, or why to put holy water fonts by entrances, where to place a retablo or even about the right types of sinks or storage needed. It was not the original designer’s fault, he just didn’t know any better. It was not his area of expertise.

CWR: How is it working with diocesan liturgical committees?

Selvaggi: They vary from diocese to diocese. In some places it can be a challenge. Pastors have a certain leeway to make changes to their churches, but more significant changes must go through a liturgical committee. That can lead to conflict.

Recently, I was asked to work on a crucifix in a very modern-looking church. I worked with the pastor, who was very open to what I wanted to do. We took down the crucifix, gave the corpus a cross of wood and embellished it, improving it from its original state. When consulting the diocesan liturgical committee, its head objected to my making the crucifix too realistic. This person said it would scare children.

I’ve also disagreed with liturgical committees over symbols. They argue that there should only be a single symbol; multiple symbols, they say, will dilute the message. But multiple symbols can better help point us to Christ.

There’s also the issue of holy water fonts. Some committees like having a single tub by the main entry, perhaps with a system to make the water circulate. They believe running water symbolizes the living water of baptism. They object to the more functional practice of having smaller holy water fonts by each of the doors.

And, there’s the ongoing battle over the use of ugly colors, ugly linens, or ugly lighting or fixtures which you’d never want in your home, but somehow are appropriate for a church.

Pastors are well meaning and want to create a beautiful church in which their people can worship, but with the wrong designer the priest can be led in a direction which is undesirable, to say the least.

That’s why I founded Heritage Liturgical, as a service to the priesthood and the Church. The priest tells me he wants x, y, and z, and I help guide him in the right direction and bring him the artisans and craftsmen that can help him realize his vision.

I’m very optimistic about the future of sacred art. I think the mistakes are behind us, and there is an incredible opportunity to revive, rebuild, restore, and repair our sacred spaces. Members of my generation who practice the Faith want beautiful churches, and I’m pleased to be a part of the effort to create them.

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About Jim Graves 230 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.