Vol. XVIII, No. 8
Beauty in a Country Church Restored
Pastor describes how this was accomplished with parishioners’ talent – and AB readers’ help
by Father David Fulton
An article about a restoration project at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Constance, Nebraska appeared in the March 2009 issue of Adoremus Bulletin. In the article, “Can We Restore Our ‘Bare, Ruined Choirs’?”, I related how St. Joseph’s sanctuary had been gutted in 1973 and how I wanted to restore it by re-locating the tabernacle to the central axis of the church and re-constructing a high altar, side altars, and communion rail.
When I proposed the project to the parishioners of St. Joseph’s in a couple of public meetings, the response was mostly skeptical. Even the parishioners who wanted to give the project a chance had their doubts. A couple of parishioners sent a letter of complaint to the chancery, and rumors were very commonplace. I assured the parishioners that the money from the project would not come from the parish operating budget, and that we would only do what the money coming in would allow. If we received little or no money, then we would do little or nothing; if we received more, then we would do more.
The parishioners agreed to these terms, but I do not think that they believed that we would receive anything to amount to much. However, I knew that I had a very powerful advocate who has a great reputation for obtaining money in fundraising and for defending the needs of the Church: our parish patron, Saint Joseph.
Along with permission from the chancery and Saint Joseph’s intercession, I also had a fundraising plan. In my seminary days, there was a priest who taught me that parish fundraising went well beyond a pastor’s parish population. A pastor could obtain funds from non-parish sources. With that in mind, I thought about what I would do if I had the opportunity to restore a church and how to fund the project. I got the idea that I could appeal to people who shared my frustrations over the neo-iconoclasm that resulted in the destruction of beautiful church art and the stripping of church sanctuaries.
One option that I considered was to appeal to the readership of The Adoremus Bulletin. I thought that it would be the ideal means to appeal to fellow Catholics who had a passion for divine worship and church architecture. In thanksgiving to Adoremus Bulletin readers literally from coast to coast and the openness of its editor to publish my article, St. Joseph’s in Constance, Nebraska has its restored sanctuary.
Our whole sanctuary project was a leap of faith. Not only did we not have any money designated for the project at the beginning, but our volunteers for building the altars were two brothers of ill health. The brothers, Fred and Melvin Arens of Constance, had been in and out of the hospital over a year’s time.
They have an area woodworking business, which mostly produces high-end cabinet work. When they approached me to do the project, I quickly accepted their offer. After all, they were very talented, and the whole project was a big leap of faith anyway. While there were doubts about their ability to complete the project, I thought the reward of a quality product outweighed the risk of incompletion. Amazingly, both brothers remained healthy enough over the two-and-a-half-year period to complete the project.
In fact, a local artist gave them a simple plan for the altars, and Fred and Melvin more than doubled its size and embellished it much more than was originally planned. Their cabinetry skills are very apparent in the altars, which they built in pieces in their shop and fit together when they installed them in the church. As an act of faith, I made a point to not micromanage the project. Of course, some people worried about the finished product, but it turned out well. In fact, it was jaw dropping! Praise God for the gift of Saint Joseph’s intercession and for showing His power through our human weakness!
Toward the end of the construction of the altars, I asked another local man, Greg Kleinschmit from nearby Bow Valley, Nebraska, to construct the communion rail. While the communion rail is currently white, some parishioners would like to embellish it. The skill in this area in woodworking is incredible. Greg did all of the scroll work and built the gates, which fit perfectly together. After the installation of the altars, local artist Jolene Steffen painted the marbling work in the reredos. With the addition of the full complement of statues in the altars, the sanctuary project will be complete. Again, thank you to all who helped to make the completion of this project possible.
As the Arens brothers worked on the altars, there were other matters to address in our church. First, we had to restore the choir loft in preparing to move the organ there from the nave. After a big clean-up, we carpeted the choir loft and made risers for the choir. Parish volunteers rented a lift and put the organ back in its place. I give a lot of credit to our parish volunteers. Although they had their doubts to various degrees, they were still willing to help where needed. Some of them were even very much against the project, yet there they were contributing their time and talents.
One family even took the responsibility of restoring the vestibule. The floor of the vestibule was so rotted that the carpenter who replaced said that he was surprised that the pallbearers at a funeral did not fall through it. The carpenter also found animal and bird carcasses in the vestibule walls, which would explain the foul smells that would permeate the church at times. At the same time, we had the electrical system replaced, as the system that we had was so old that it had cloth wiring, much of which had been spliced or chewed. We also reshaped the sanctuary so that it stretched from wall to wall, and then a parish volunteer tiled the floor.
The next two items on the list were to insulate the church and to build a confessional. The R rating on the church for insulation was 4 out of 100. Insulating the church was an obvious priority because we wanted to save money on utilities. Not only did we save on utilities once the church was insulated, but we also rid ourselves of an annoying bug problem.
Along with the bug problem, another annoyance for me was the confessional. The confessional was not soundproof. In fact, its door was so warped that it would not close all the way. I hired a local man to build a new one in place of the old one, and now we have a confessional that is good for the sacrament.
With the sanctuary practically completed, along with necessary maintenance, we still have several more goals to accomplish. Not only do we need to replace our furnaces and to purchase an air conditioning unit, but we also need to replace the sacristy floor, which is rotted. We also have the goal of siding the exterior of the church, which gets weather-beaten, making painting impractical. Considering that I have less than two years to go in my six-year tenure here as pastor, I may not be able to see these last few remaining goals completed. However, I find great joy in seeing our parishioners being proud of their parish church and seeing the increase in visitors to our church to see what has happened here with your help.
Again, I would like to thank all of those who made donations toward our sanc- tuary project. I hope that you are pleased with the results. I also hope that perhaps seeing the results of this project in the midst of the challenges that we faced through this whole process will inspire other pastors and parish leaders to initiate similar projects, so that, little by little, our Catholic architectural heritage may be restored and serve its purpose of raising our minds and hearts to things transcendent and to the goal of Heaven.
Thanks, also, to Saint Joseph, husband of Mary and Patron of the Universal Church! Glory to God, in whom all things are possible!
Father David Fulton is pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Constance, Nebraska; St. Boniface Catholic Church, Menominee, Nebraska; and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Fordyce, Nebraska. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska in 2002, and has been pastor of the three parishes since June 2008.