Everyone knows that a good man is hard to find, but a good artist is even harder—especially in the Catholic art scene. As a result, what is not hard to find are churches resembling space stations, sentimental plaster saints, and modernist nonrepresentational adornments. Sacred art is in crisis, and on June 22, the world lost one who gave his extraordinary talents in response to this crisis by restoring a classical sensitivity and a traditional Catholic architecture. At the age of 73, artist, architect, and professor emeritus of Notre Dame University, Thomas Gordon Smith passed away in South Bend, Indiana.
Of his many ecclesiastical, public, and residential projects, Professor Smith’s memory is especially enshrined in his designs for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, in Denton, Nebraska, and Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, in Hulbert, Oklahoma. These two places and their buildings are hubs of a wonderful revival of the Faith, with the seminary attracting many vocations to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the monastery gathering both monks and families around its church and cloister, recreating the monastic community and culture of the Middle Ages. And it is the noble, traditional beauty of these particular structures designed by Professor Smith that have lent themselves to the growing inspiration of these centers for the Catholic Faith in America, and for these alone he should be revered and remembered.
In these places especially, as well as others, Professor Smith’s legacy serves as an active part of the solution to the crisis of sacred art and the graver crisis—that most Catholics do not realize that sacred art is in crisis. In his life and work as an artist, architect, and teacher, Thomas Gordon Smith recognized that this prevalent artistic ambivalence is one of the sad fruits of the crisis: ambiguous art lends itself to an ambiguous church. Meaningful art, on the other hand, glorifies God by reflecting God and imparts sensitivity to the faithful by participating in the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light. Thomas Gordon Smith knew that if sacred art was to play a role in the restoration of Catholic culture and the new evangelization, it must first be reinfused with meaning, and he strove to give it a meaning—one that was not so much new and exciting as it was old and exciting.