Detroit Mercy professor working to improve faith-based Architecture

February 18, 2019

The inside of the Saint Mary Chapel at St. Mary Mercy Hospital.University of Detroit Mercy’s Gilbert Sunghera, S.J., considers himself very lucky. He’s passionate about architecture and his faith, and as an associate professor of Architecture and the superior of the Jesuit community at Detroit Mercy, he has immersed himself in both.

Sunghera found a way to align his two passions when he created the University of Detroit Mercy Liturgical Space Consulting Service, a national service that has been involved with a number of award-winning projects.

The Liturgical Space Consulting Service helps faith groups articulate their needs and desires for their sacred space, then helps them and their architect achieve it.

“I wanted to focus on churches or other sacred spaces, to help these groups imagine, because some contemporary spaces have struggled architecturally,” Sunghera said. “I wanted to raise the level of design for sacred spaces. I began using engagement techniques developed in the School of Architecture’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center to build a process to work with community groups, parishes, Jesuit institutions and others to envision something that better aligns their dreams and aspirations.”

Sunghera is in a unique position to provide this service because he is an expert in both faith and architecture. He enjoys bringing the two worlds together and bringing the best out in both sides.

“The fun part, for me, is being the translator between the two worlds,” Sunghera said. “I can speak both languages, the design world and the faith world. When a group is interested in designing a sacred space, I can help them determine what they’re trying to achieve, and I’m able to give the architects the power and the freedom to really explore the ideas.

“Being an architectural professor allows me to be able to talk with architects without them feeling like I’m being competitive as an architectural designer. Then, being a priest helps the faith community trust that I know what I’m talking about.”

The list of projects the Liturgical Space Consulting Service has worked on is impressive. It includes the Chapel of the North American Martyrs at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, Calif., the Jesuit residence at Fairfield University, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Wyoming, Mich., St. Mary Magdalen in Grand Rapids, a Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wis., the Mariposa Jesuit Residence in Phoenix, Ariz., and most recently his first local project, the Saint Mary Chapel at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia.

These projects have won several national awards, including the 2012 American Institute of Architects’ National Housing Award for the Jesuit residence at Fairfield.

“I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to work with really high caliber designers, award-winning architects who have done incredible work,” Sunghera said. “They are all fascinated by the sacred, this is usually their first project that has been in the sacred realm.”

The outside of the Saint Mary Chapel at St. Mary Mercy Hospital.Sunghera’s projects are not your typical sacred spaces. He’s not afraid to let the architects take chances and one of his goals is to, “help the architects unleash their energy to think creatively.”

Sunghera considers his style to be very contemporary and the projects he’s involved with reflect that.

“The projects that come to me, the people know my background and they are interested in the contemporary, so that helps,” Sunghera said. “Many in the community are willing to think outside the box. I think they have enough confidence in themselves to not be afraid to take risks. It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but at least there is a sense that we did it right.”

Sunghera has worked on multi-million dollar projects, but he’s also committed to projects with very tight budgets; these are often the most creative. The University has been very generous to allow him to discount his rates for groups with limited resources.  Social justice and Public interest architecture are primary focus areas of the School of Architecture.

“Jesuits are always at the forefront of competing cultures and social justice, and the consulting service reflects that,” Sunghera said.

Sunghera’s consulting work also helps him bring fresh ideas to the Architecture classes he teaches at Detroit Mercy. When issues arise, Sunghera discusses them with the students in class.

“Often, I’ll bring back some of these issues, just to debate them in the classroom setting,” Sunghera said. “The students enjoy it because they realize these are real-world scenarios that are being thought through.”

Sunghera is currently working on several projects, which he has to choose carefully because of his commitments as superior of the Jesuits and professor, but he doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“I love doing it,” Sunghera said.

For more about Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture, please visit

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.