St. Pius X Catholic Church
2401 31st Avenue
Rock Island's 100 Most Significant Unprotected Structures, 2009
Significance StatementModern, round church design with folded plate roof.
Architect / Builder
Sandberg, Rudolph C.; Arnold, T.W.; Milani, Italo
A Modern Approach
The architectural superiority of this round church puts it on the Most Significant Unprotected Structures list even though it is less than 50 years old. Rock Island architect Italo "Lo" Milani related the backstory regarding the design of this church on the occasion of its 40th birthday. He said Msgr. Jordan first retained architect Ed Lerch to design a new church in the traditional style. However, a diocesan consultant specializing in art and architecture suggested that it was an opportunity to build a church that reflected modern style. When Msgr. Jordan asked the congregation if they preferred a traditional or contemporary design, they voted for the modern option. Mr. Lerch brought in architect Rudolph Sandberg, well known for his innovative structural concrete designs, and the church we see today was the collaborative result. Mr. Milani noted that T. W. Arnold also contributed to the project and he himself designed the altar screen and small chapels.
Aesthetically, Modernist church architecture was inspired by works of engineering including bridges, industrial buildings, and airports, which were large, economical and could be built quickly. Religious leaders followed the example of government and big business by building abstract, asymmetrical and futuristic churches and synagogues in modern materials. Specifically for Roman Catholic churches, the documents of Vatican II were being developed at the same time the Modernist style of architecture emerged. Many Roman Catholic churches of this era evoked buildings emphasizing the assembly, without hierarchical orientation, fixed elements, or traditional architectural language. Affinity for this ideal can be seen in the way the interior of St. Pius X Church is designed.
However, despite the use of steel, concrete, and abstract glass forms, and the lack of traditional Gothic church elements such as arches and steeples, St. Pius X is easily recognized as a church. The roof is solid concrete, formed into a folded plate design. It is supported around the edges and cantilevered over the main entrance. Just as famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright had problems with his experimental structural concrete, the use of Sandberg's folded plate concrete has given the St. Pius congregation problems, too. According to Mr. Milani, the concrete originally was coated with Hypalon, which was replaced with roll roofing, and finally waterproof rubber. A golden cross is elevated above the painted steel crown in the center of the roof that can be illuminated at night. The stained glass windows are from Chartres, France. Other windows are made of three-quarter-inch thick slabs of glass set into concrete. The windows are evenly mixed between religious and abstract designs.
In 1950, Fr. Thomas Jordan, while pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Rock Island, purchased seven acres at 24th Street and 31st Avenue. The parish was established on June 6, 1955, by Bishop William Cousins, and Fr. Edward M. Farrell was appointed the first pastor. At first the congregation used a temporary warehouse on the site for a church, but the priority was to build a new 12 room grade school and convent, which were completed in 1957. Additions were made to the school just three years later, at which time it served temporarily as the church. The cornerstone was laid was laid on October 13, 1963, and seven months later, the church was dedicated. The church's name comes from St. Pius X, a pope and modern saint, who was canonized May 29, 1954, while designs were being made for the new church. The church, which seats 1,300 people, cost a total of $760,000, with the walls costing $65,000.