Some college students go to Cancun or Daytona Beach for spring break.
Ryan Mullen and J.P. Mikolajczyk started theirs inside a cavernous metal shop in Glen Burnie, helping to build an altar for Pope Benedict XVI to use next month when he visits the nation's capital.
The architecture students from Catholic University of America won a competition to design the altar, chair and pulpit for the pontiff when he celebrates Mass at the new Nationals Park on April 17. Construction began last week on the papal furnishings, with four Maryland companies playing key roles in the process - and with the students forgoing a trip home to monitor the work.
"I was thinking of putting a plastic palm tree up in the studio" in lieu of vacation, quipped Mikolajczyk, 23.
The outdoor Mass for 45,000 will be one of the largest U.S. gatherings for the 80-year-old pontiff, who is scheduled to stop in Washington and New York City during his visit from April 15 to 20. It's his first trip to the United States since becoming world leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
While winning the design competition over 20 other entrants was clearly an honor, it also represented a tremendous responsibility for the two graduate students. The furniture they designed must be fabricated quickly, to be ready for a religious service that will be seen on television by millions. The tight schedule would test the most seasoned veteran, but the students are handling it well.
"It's exciting to see the pieces we designed being realized," said Mullen, 24.
Usually, when a pope appears at a ballpark or other large outdoor venue, the local archdiocese works with professionals to design and build the papal furnishings or borrows them from existing parishes. When Pope John Paul II visited Baltimore in 1995, the bishop's chair and candlesticks used during the Mass in Oriole Park at Camden Yards came from the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street.
Other objects, such as a 33-foot-tall translucent cross and large papal altar, were designed and built for the event. For architect Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet and Graham Landscape Architecture, the theme was simplicity with a Tidewater touch: The altar, lectern and chair platform were detailed minimally to place emphasis on the pope and the celebration of the Mass.
The idea to have students design the furnishings for Pope Benedict XVI came from Randall Ott, dean of Catholic's School of Architecture and Planning and member of a committee formed by the Archdiocese of Washington to coordinate planning for the Mass at the ballpark.
The competition was announced in mid-January, and students had just five days to develop a design and presentation.
Mullen, from Manchester, N.H., and Mikolajczyk, from Staten Island, N.Y., were friends from their undergraduate days at Catholic and decided to work together. Mikolajczyk has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. Mullen, who has bachelor's degrees in architecture and civil engineering, currently holds teaching and research positions in the areas of structures and digital computation. They were assisted by two undergraduates in the architecture school, Rachel Bailey of Napa, Calif., and Victoria Engelstad of Bradley Beach, N.J.
Mikolajczyk said he and Mullen are devout Catholics - "regular Mass-goers, at least on Sunday" - and members of the Knights of Columbus. They spent the first two days of the competition researching the subject, including an afternoon at Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, studying altar furnishings.
"We wanted to incorporate elements that would remind us of Christ's active presence and work in the liturgy," Mikolajczyk said.
Their proposal called for a 10-by-4-foot altar with a solid wood top and an open base featuring a repetitive pattern of decorative parabolic arches. The pulpit has the same solid top and ornamental base. The chair is 8 feet tall, with Pope Benedict XVI's coat of arms engraved on the back.
The design for the altar base has historical precedent in the Gothic tracery found in European churches. It also reflects the archdiocese's themes for the pope's visit to Washington and the Mass itself, which involve hope and inspiration. According to Ott, the solid wood top over the delicate tracery is meant to suggest hope, inspiration, even levitation.
The four-member jury that selected the winning design Jan. 24 praised its delicacy and elegance.
After the winning students were announced, they began a process to translate the drawings to three dimensions. They changed the bases from wood to aluminum, for example, after concluding that their intricate designs could be fabricated more quickly in metal.
With the design set, the archdiocese turned to craftsmen with extensive backgrounds in creating ecclesiastical furnishings, starting with Deacon Dave Cahoon of St. Joseph's Carpentry Shop in Poolesville. He enlisted a group of artisans known for their work on religious buildings and custom homes. All are Maryland-based.
The construction work began Monday at E-J Enterprises in Glen Burnie, a metal distributor that fabricated nine pieces of aluminum needed for the altar base, pulpit and chair back. The inch-thick pieces were made by machine in 13 hours with a water jet cutter, following computer drawings provided by the students.
The pieces were then taken to Bruce Machine and Tool in Locust Point to be mitered. Next, they'll go to a Rockville blacksmith, Black Rose Forge, to be welded together.
Wood components are being made either at St. Joseph's carpentry shop or the university's Fabrication Lab.
Greg Campbell, the owner of Black Rose Forge and a "faithful Catholic" with two daughters enrolled at Catholic University, said he has worked for many prestigious clients but considers this the highest honor.
"How can you compare with the pope? He's Jesus' representative on Earth. There's only one person higher. It's humbling for all of us."
The students are staying involved every step of the way, from monitoring the metal fabrication to selecting the white maple for the altar top. They'll use the wood shop on campus to carve crosses into the altar and the papal seal on the chair.
When most architecture students leave school and start job-hunting, instructors say, they don't have much more in their portfolios than drawings and photos of scale models.
"This is an incredible experience" for Mullen and Mikolajczyk, Ott said. "It's a very high-profile event. I've joked to them that their careers may have peaked too early. We don't all get to design papal furnishings that will be seen by millions of people while we're still in school."
For students at the beginning of their training, he said, "it shows the complexity of getting things like this done - the number of people, the pressure of it, the cultural figures involved. It's a boot camp. We rarely get to take a student project this far."
Mullen and Mikolajczyk won $1,500 for taking first place. They'll also receive three credits for "independent study" coursework. After the April 17 Mass, the furniture they designed most likely will be installed permanently in a local church.
Mullen and Mikolajczyk don't know whether they'll get to meet the pope or attend the Mass. At this point, they're just honored to be involved as much as they are.
"St. Paul says, 'Many gifts, one Holy Spirit,'" Mikolajczyk said. "This is our contribution, and we're happy to do it."