By Tracey Primrose
December 4, 2013 — As a young boy growing up in the 1970s in Huntington Beach, Calif., Jesuit Father Gilbert Sunghera didn’t spend much time looking at buildings. When you’re a kid and the Pacific Coast is your playground, you focus on sunsets and summer days. All that changed, however, when Fr. Sunghera was in college at the University of California, Irvine, where he discovered architecture, the first of two great passions that would define his life.
As an undergraduate student in environmental psychology, Fr. Sunghera examined how people respond to the built environment. Among the questions: How do buildings affect happiness and productivity and, conversely, do they contribute to depression and isolation? His studies were animating and after a part-time stint in the campus architect’s office, Fr. Sunghera knew he wanted to be an architect, specializing in the psychological implications of design. After graduation, Fr. Sunghera headed to the University of Wisconsin for a three-year graduate program and a thesis project on homelessness and architecture.
Although Fr. Sunghera, the son of Indian immigrants, had been raised Catholic, he had never met a Jesuit before attending Milwaukee’s Gesu Parish, where he first came to know and love the Society of Jesus. A vocation, however, was not immediately on his radar, and he moved back to California to work for several different architectural firms, where he discovered a love for working with nonprofit clients.
Despite the challenges of his work, Fr. Sunghera still felt something was missing. As he began to consider a vocation to the priesthood, he started meeting with a spiritual director at Dolores Mission, the Jesuit parish in East Los Angeles. Convinced that God had called him to the Society of Jesus, Fr. Sunghera entered the Jesuits in 1991.
After the novitiate, Fr. Sunghera’s Jesuit formation took him to St. Louis for philosophy studies, where he volunteered at a local housing project. Project residents were about to take over management of a multi-million dollar renovation so he trained the future leadership team — some of whom didn’t have high school diplomas — to read blueprints. Along with a fellow Jesuit scholastic, Fr. Sunghera aided the residents with a forensic review of the renovation budget. “It was wonderful as a Jesuit to go in there and train this group and empower them with knowledge,” he recalled.
The next several years included assignments in Los Angeles at Loyola High School, in Detroit with a nonprofit architectural firm and then in Berkeley, Calif., for theology studies. Each step of the way, Fr. Sunghera never gave up his “day job”. His architecture expertise proved invaluable when he was asked to consult with the California Province Jesuits to help convert a single-story infirmary into a gleaming new province office and, later, to spearhead the renovation of a historic parish in Oakland, Calif.
“I entered the Jesuits with the presumption that I would never go back to architecture,” Fr. Sunghera said. “My feeling was, ‘I know architecture is my love and career, and it gave me the freedom to say, I’m open now to wherever God leads me, and I don’t know where I will be led.’ ”
Following ordination and an assignment as the liturgy director at Most Holy Trinity parish in San Jose, Calif., Fr. Sunghera completed a post-professional degree in sacred theology at Yale University and then returned to Detroit in 2005 as an assistant professor in architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy. There, he started an architectural consulting practice focused on contemporary liturgical space, which now counts upward of 50 clients.
One of his most noteworthy collaborations was the new Jesuit residence at Fairfield University in Connecticut, a project that received several professional awards including a 2012 American Institute of Architects’ National Housing Award. Working with the Fairfield Jesuits, Fr. Sunghera helped define goals for the project, addressed questions regarding siting the home in a grove of 100-year-old beech trees and, ultimately, identified an architectural firm that could articulate a simple, spiritual and ecological vision.
As the University of Detroit Mercy’s Architecture School celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Fr. Sunghera is more committed than ever to helping his students become engaged with their adopted hometown “as Detroit reimagines itself and its iconic place in the American landscape.” In the course he teaches on Religion in the Public Square, Fr. Sunghera considers the shifting understanding of how religion is used to frame a changing urban experience, the perfect intersection of his dual passions for architecture and social justice.
“What drew me to the Jesuits is not necessarily what has kept me in the Jesuits,” said Fr. Sunghera. “My interest was propelled by social justice issues, and the Jesuits were always on the forefront of that. What kept me in the Jesuits was the ability to be flexible and not be afraid about how God works with people. Whatever way you define yourself, you are always a work in progress with God. When I work with my students, they are still trying to define who they are, and so am I, and God is in the midst of that.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.