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from issue no. 01/02 - 2011

MILAN. The building of one hundred and thirty-five new churches

Free and simple.
Churches according to Montini

They were the years of the great immigration. As soon as he was appointed Archbishop of Milan, Montini called upon the greatest architects of the time to build new churches. With courage and devotion

by Giuseppe Frangi

Giovanni Battista Montini during the laying of the cornerstone of the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Mater Dei, in the Viale Monza area of Milan, in 1961

Giovanni Battista Montini during the laying of the cornerstone of the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Mater Dei, in the Viale Monza area of Milan, in 1961


That 6 January 1955 was a cold and rainy day. It was the date set for the entry into the city of the new Archbishop of Milan. Despite the weather, Giovanni Battista Montini decided to make the journey to the Cathedral that awaited him in an open car so as to be able to respond to the welcome of the crowd of faithful. A moment that the archbishop would remember in precise detail long afterwards: “When, almost seven years ago, crossing the border of the diocese, I set foot on that blessed soil, I bent – it was cold and wet – to kiss it: still today the charity of that kiss wants to be part of our efforts”. Seven years afterwards. It was 12 November 1961 and with those words Montini ended the speech with which he launched his diocese into the task of building within a few years another 22 new churches. “Milan is growing, growing, continuously, rapidly, over our already strained and already creaking possibility of providing the proper measure of pastoral care for the needs of the new districts...”, he explained to the faithful.
Only the year before 60,000 people had come from the southern regions, settling “in new and spreading residential areas”. Buildings were growing and multiplying, streets were being lengthened, but in the eyes of the bishop the new Milan risked remaining a desert where people were left on their own. Montini’s concern was simply that of the shepherd towards his faithful, he had no eagerness to ensure “cultural” hegemony in the new neighborhoods: “We feel the need to take part without tiring and without complaint, with social and Christian solidarity, in the exceptional development of our metropolis, offering it the religious and moral backing of many new parishes”. Then came a bitter emphasis: “We might, yes, have hoped that Milan, from its historical and large parishes and its Christian and sensitive heart, would have lent more effort and more ample help; and we might also have believed that Milan, great and rich, favored now by happy economic circumstances, would have sped our path and made it more pleasant”. Whereas that didn’t happen: the struggle to find resources and shape that vast project had fallen on his shoulders: “But we shall not be sorry to work making of our poverty reason for trust in Providence and in the men who are its ministers”.
During his eight and a half years in Milan, Montini set the works going and, for the most part, finished the building of more than 135 churches throughout the diocese. A program launched by his predecessor, Cardinal Schuster, and which the future Pope pursued feeling all the urgency of that moment in history. The Church opened a new mission land in those vast new agglomerations rising on the outskirts of the city. It was a hard path because, before finding the means to build new churches, the priests camped out, sometimes in worse conditions than their people. “I am proud of you”, Montini told them in 1962, “proud to have priests who accepted the pastoral life in your situation, taking it as an honor to be set into the fray, with formidable responsibilities, without means, almost like beggars in temporary and uncomfortable lodgings. You will recall these days when you have your church and the parish is established... your good fortune is this: you can create your parish freely, giving importance to what is essential in religious life: dogma”.
The whole of Montini’s approach to the challenge of the new churches lies in that adverb “freely”. In the Milan that in those years saw in action some of the greatest talents in European architecture, the archbishop decided to give them credit and entrust them with some important projects. Montini in short, unlike his predecessor, opened up to modernity. His expectations were high: “Art is lending itself to the building site. This crossing of the threshold of our work is very moving”. But his recommendations were also clear: “We want to provide architecture free in its modern inspiration, but contained in a healthy building democracy: this is not the moment to make monuments, mosaics, expensive decorations. It is the moment to save the faith of our people by simple building” (1961).
The first building consecrated by Montini a year after his entrance into the city seems to offer itself as the embodiment of these recommendations. The church of Our Lady of the Poor, in the heart of a new working-class neighborhood near Baggio, was entrusted to a pair of architects, Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini, who had become famous in the world for the design of the Olivetti plant in Ivrea and for all the related buildings, from the housing of the workforce to the infant schools. Figini and Pollini were heirs of Italian rationalism and for Our Lady of the Poor, in the heart of the neighborhood of “minimal housing”, they designed a church of extreme simplicity, inexpensive, with a reinforced concrete structure. But on the facade, with its barely sketched pediment, the two architects made large inserts of Lombard brick, as a simple decoration.

The parish church of St Francis of Assisi in Fopponino, Milan, built in the early sixties to the design of Gio Ponti

The parish church of St Francis of Assisi in Fopponino, Milan, built in the early sixties to the design of Gio Ponti

The building was dedicated to a Virgin who appeared in 1933 in Banneux, Belgium, to a girl, Mariette Beco. The Church had given approval to the apparition in 1942, with subsequent confirmation in 1947 and 1949. In 1949 the miners of Limbourg presented the “workers of Baggio” with a copy of the statue of Our Lady of Banneux, which is still venerated in the left aisle of the church. The Figini and Pollini building is extraordinary in its equilibrium, but has no frills. It is almost raw in its nakedness, but the unexpected light that pours down on the chancel is moving: a square lantern, closed at the top by a grid of squares of glass, is the only very simple concession that the architects allowed themselves, calling attention, without exaggeration, to the centrality of the altar and the tabernacle. A design solution the two architects resorted to for another church, that of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Affori. And the enclosing of the chancel with a hexagonal wall painted pink, as if echoing the preciousness of what that place is intended for, is also moving.
The following year Montini immediately found himself consecrating a church, the most adventurous and debated. In Baranzate, a fast growing town just north of Milan, another pair of famous architects, Angelo Mangiarotti and Bruno Morassutti, using the skills of the great structural engineer Aldo Favini, designed a “glass church”. Four slender pillars within support a large, simple, prefabricated flat roof that seems light and suspended. The walls around are unbroken surfaces of glass shielded by sheets of extremely white styrofoam. “Is it possible for your bishop to bless such a church?” Montini asked during the sermon of the Mass for the consecration of the church in 1957. “It is possible because I see a deep symbolism in the new construction, one that recalls the essence of the house of the Lord, that is, a meeting place where people raise their minds to God and find themselves brothers. This church of glass has in fact its own language that can be derived from Revelation, where it is said: ‘Vidi civitatem sanctam descendentem de coelo’, its walls – the Book of Revelation continues – were of crystal”. But Montini went even further and defended the policy that had led him to entrust the new parish dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy to avant-garde architects: “The church also presents a novelty and novelty comes within the category of things sacred: when religion is alive, not only does it not exclude the novelty, but wants it, demands it, seeks it, knows how to draw it out of the soul. ‘Cantate Domino canticum novum’, says the Scripture. And I am here to welcome with open arms everything new that art gives me. I have nothing against novelty, provided that the novelty is not sheer whim”.
The team called in by Montini did not consist only of rationalist architects. There were also some who came out of twentieth century culture, in which monumentality is a criterion. But with Montini they agreed to accept a necessary simplicity. There was Giovanni Muzio, an architect who had experienced considerable success under Fascism, and who between 1956 and 1958 worked on the building of the church of San Giovanni Battista della Creta, in Giambellino, a low building with a brick façade, in which the bricks form delicately patterned decorative friezes. Above, covering the entry of the faithful, there is a free and surprisingly soaring canopy.
The parish church of Our Lady of Mercy in Baranzate, Milan, also known as “the glass church”, built in 1957 to the design of the architects Angelo Mangiarotti and Bruno Morassutti and the engineer Aldo Favini [© Armin Linke]

The parish church of Our Lady of Mercy in Baranzate, Milan, also known as “the glass church”, built in 1957 to the design of the architects Angelo Mangiarotti and Bruno Morassutti and the engineer Aldo Favini [© Armin Linke]

But Gio Ponti, an architect and designer known throughout the world, played a more important role in Montini’s construction sites than Muzio. Over a period of ten years he built three churches in Milan. The first, that of St Luke, between 1955 and 1960, is on the edge of Lambrate. A very simple church, set among the new buildings, and with very little space around it. For that reason Ponti decided to raise it some yards above the street level and designed a concave facade protected by a large roof that conveys the idea of a large hangar opening on the city. The facade is covered with stoneware tiles, a cheap material enhanced by the diamond-shape that Ponti designed. The interior is beautiful and bright with the large back wall painted in blue and white stripes recalling the Romanesque Lombard style. A few years later Ponti was called in for the building of a parish church, in his own parish, more centrally located in the Magenta area. San Francesco al Fopponino is a more ambitious project, on a larger scale, especially in the height of the nave. The diamond motif recurs everywhere, in the small tiles, large windows (some open to the sky), and portal. But everywhere in line with a Franciscan simplicity. It was a building site that Montini was very interested in and visited three times, starting with the laying of the foundation stone, 4 May 1961 (“That the true faith, the fear of God and love of one’s brethren may reign here” he had had written on the parchment, set into the hollow of the first stone). Gio Ponti then built another beautiful church, that of the San Carlo hospital, dedicated to Santa Maria Annuciata: a charming building, with the length and curve of a ship.
In the great effort to equip Milan with the churches it needed, Montini gave a strategic task to the Committee of new churches, the president of which, appointed by Montini, was Enrico Mattei who in those years was building the ENI headquarters in San Donato, near Milan. In 1962, when Mattei died in tragic and still mysterious circumstances, Montini took over the presidency of the committee and invited Ignazio Gardella, another big name in Milanese architecture, to design the church “of the village” of San Donato. In dedicating the church to Sant’Enrico, Montini intended a tribute to Mattei. As a true village church, Gardella conceived a building of extreme humility, with a single nave, shaped like a hangar protected by a low and overhanging roof. The concrete walls are adorned with a simple linear motif of white stone that runs right round the church, outside and inside. And inside light pours down from two adjacent windows that confer harmony, rhythm and lightness.
On 23 May 1963 Montini attended the nth foundation stone laying for a new church, San Gregorio Barbarigo alla Barona. It was to be the last, because a few weeks later, on 21 June, he was elected Pope. We are here, he said, “moved by the good fortune bestowed on us of giving our city a new temple, of creating in its bosom, within its margins, a spiritual family of a good people”.

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