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Bethel Park man's altar design chosen for pope's Mass in Washington

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, June 6, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Matthew Hoffman of Bethel Park, whose team won first place in a national contest to design the altar for Pope Francis during the pope’s first visit to the U.S. in September, stands next to a pair of renderings of the pieces Thursday June 4, 2015, inside Rohn & Associates Design Inc. in Brookline.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Matthew Hoffman of Bethel Park, whose team won first place in a national contest to design the altar for Pope Francis during the pope’s first visit to the U.S. in September, stands next to a pair of renderings of the pieces Thursday June 4, 2015, inside Rohn & Associates Design Inc. in Brookline.

When Pope Francis celebrates outdoor Mass in Washington this September, he'll be using a custom-made altar and papal chair designed by an architecture student from Western Pennsylvania.

Matthew Hoffman, 22, of Bethel Park took first place in a design competition at Catholic University's School of Architecture and Planning.

“I'm happy even if it just brings a little pride back to Pittsburgh,” said Hoffman, 22.

“I'd like to think this is one more small connection, someone from Pittsburgh doing something for the pope, for the Vatican, that will be noticed.”

The North Catholic High School graduate was on the three-man team whose simple, elegant designs won over a six-member jury of representatives from Catholic University, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“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,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and former bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said at a ceremony announcing the winners earlier this week.

Francis is poised to make history Sept. 24 as the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to address Congress, with Washington one of three stops he is expected to make during his first visit to the United States as pope.

The day before his appearance at the Capitol, the pope will canonize the Rev. Junipero Serra and lead an outdoor Mass at the basilica — the largest Roman Catholic church in North America.

Hoffman found out about the design contest from Catholic University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in architecture last month. He recalled a similar opportunity afforded to the school's students in 2008 for a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.

“I thought I would probably never get a chance like this ever again, and so it was a pretty fast decision to do it, and we got started quickly,” he said.

The 18 teams of contestants had two weeks to submit entries. They were told to keep the designs in line with the pope's understated style, and to ensure they fit the look of the basilica, since they will be permanent pieces.

Hoffman estimated the designs took his team more than 150 hours to complete. He credited the intensity and hard work of his partners, fellow Catholic University architecture students Ariadne Cerritelli and Joseph Taylor, both of Maryland.

Their winning designs featured high arches mimicking the ones throughout the basilica and three types of marble. They will share a $6,000 prize.

Hoffman drew on knowledge from school, as well as his summer work experience at Rohn & Associates Custom Studio Inc., an interior-design studio in Brookline specializing in liturgical buildings.

“We're so proud of him,” said Kathleen Maglicco, vice president at Rohn & Associates. “He's a quick learner, he wants to learn and he's very dedicated to working in the Catholic church.”

This summer, Rohn & Associates is sending Hoffman to work on some of its projects in Rome. He's eager to get back to Italy; during his semester abroad there, Hoffman visited 226 churches. Among his favorites in Rome: St. John Lateran's Archbasilica and the Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven.

“I couldn't take pictures because I thought I just couldn't capture their beauty,” he said.

Hoffman enjoys playing the violin and collecting stamps and military medals. He plans to pursue a master's degree in architecture this fall.

A contractor for the basilica will build the chair and altar based on the designs. “It's still taking time to sink in because it's still on paper,” said Hoffman. “Once I see Pope Francis up there, sitting in the chair we designed ... it's going to have a really deep impact on me.”

The pope's visit to America will include a stop in New York, where he is expected to address the United Nations and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden. It will culminate with the closing events to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, including an outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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