The Catholic University of America

June 2, 2015

Design for Papal Altar in D.C. Revealed

Students in CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning Competed to Design Furnishings

  Winners Ariadne Cerritelli and Matthew Hoffman (center) with President John Garvey, Monsignor Walter Rossi, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Winner Joseph Taylor is not pictured.

This afternoon Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, and other dignitaries were on hand to publicly unveil the design for the altar Pope Francis will use at his outdoor Mass on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C.

A jury selected designs for the altar furnishings to be used at the Mass the pope will celebrate on the east steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, overlooking the Catholic University Mall. The altar, ambo, and chair were designed as part of a competition at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington and the Basilica.

A six-member jury composed of representatives from the archdiocese, Basilica, and Catholic University selected the first-, second-, and third-place winners as well as four honorable mentions.

In addition to Cardinal Wuerl, today’s public announcement of the winning design at CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning featured University President John Garvey; Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the Basilica; Bishop Barry Knestout, auxiliary bishop of Washington and chair of the jury; and Randall Ott, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning.

The altar and chair designed by the winning team will be used during Pope Francis's outdoor Mass on Sept. 23 on the east steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The first-place design features arches that mimic the architecture of the Romanesque-Byzantine style Basilica. The chair designed for the Pope features a simple high arch “designed to bring focus not on itself, but on the Vicar of Christ himself who will preach from it,” the team stated in their concept. Members of the winning design team include architecture students Ariadne Cerritelli (Bethesda, Md.), Matthew Hoffman (Pittsburgh), and Joseph Taylor (Eldersburg, Md.).

“As we make plans for Pope Francis’s visit here to Washington this September and the Mass he will be celebrating on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, it is a joy to be here today as we announce the winning design for the furnishings that will be used at that Mass,” said Cardinal Wuerl. ”The creativity, beauty, and thought that went into each of the submitted designs is a visible sign of God’s grace at work among us in a unique way. We look forward to our Holy Father’s visit here as a time to be confirmed more fully as missionary disciples of our Lord,” he said.

“I am always impressed and amazed at the variety of designs that can be presented from a limited program of requirements,” added Bishop Knestout. “The liturgical furnishings are simple and small in number — an altar, ambo, and presidential chair — yet these simple elements find expression in a variety of forms, each unique in creativity and beauty, found in all the 18 designs submitted for the competition. The different styles ranged from classical to modern, each reflecting the unique gifts of the teams that had designed them.”


The Mass will be celebrated during the Pope’s visit to the United States this fall. At the Mass he will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, the first such ecclesiastical event ever on U.S. soil. Sept. 23 will mark the third time a pope has visited the Basilica and CUA. It will also be the second time CUA students have designed furnishings for a papal visit to Washington, D.C., at the behest of the Archdiocese of Washington.

The design competition was announced on April 28. Students were informed that their designs needed to be based on the assumption that the papal Mass furnishings could find continued use after Sept. 23 as permanent fixtures inside the Great Upper Church of the Basilica. Thus, students had to consider the interior architecture of the Basilica in their designs.

“It’s clear to me that the contestants all did their homework. They put a lot of thought and creativity into their designs and rationales,” said Monsignor Rossi.

Eighteen teams of at least two students each competed. They each had to build a scale model of at least one of the furnishings and make presentations of their designs to the jury on May 15.

A team of architecture students, Christian Zeitler and John Homer, won second place. The third-place team was interdisciplinary, with architecture students Alyssa Lapan and Brendan Murphy and philosophy student Rev. John Mellein, O.P. Honorable mentions were awarded in the following categories:

  • Meaningful Simplicity: architecture student William Sullivan and politics student Dennis Nilsen
  • Noble Simplicity: architecture students Phooko Phooko and Margherita Pongiglione
  • Most Innovative Design: architecture students John Abowd and Zach Caplette
  • Best Presentation: architecture students Begona Blasco, Philipe Pessotti, and Alejandra Rossi

At today’s event the winning team received $6,000, the second-place team $3,000, and third place $2,000. Honorable mention teams each received $1,000.

In 2008, architecture students designed the furnishings used at the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at Nationals Park and the chair he used when he spoke to Catholic educators at CUA.

“History repeats itself!” remarked Dean Ott. “Never would I have thought that seven years later we would have the opportunity to do this again.”

Papal Furnishings Announcement from CUA Video on Vimeo.

The winners of the design contest for the altar furnishings to be used by Pope Francis at his outdoor Mass on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., were announced at a June 2 press conference at the Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies. Randall Ott, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, moderated the event, which included remarks by John Garvey, President of Catholic University; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington and University Chancellor; Bishop Barry Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington; contest winners Matthew Hoffman and Ariadne Cerritelli; and Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

> Watch video of the entire press conference






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