by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Overcome with emotion. Speechless.
That’s how Teresa Thomas, 68, a lifelong parishioner of Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish, felt after the 10 a.m. Mass on Feb. 16 at St. Joseph Church located just off I-70 in downtown Topeka.
It’s probably because the Mass marked the culmination of years’ worth of work for her and the St. Joseph Restoration Committee’s other seven members.
Since May 2015, Thomas, along with the committee, met twice monthly to pray, review finances and plan the $7.3 million restoration project for St. Joseph Church, one of the two parishes that were merged in 2006.
The original St. Joseph Church building was dedicated on Dec. 11, 1887, and served the parish until 1900, when the current church was dedicated.
By the time pastor Father Tim Haberkorn was assigned to the newly merged parish in 2006, the building was definitely showing its age. A native son of St. Joseph Parish, Father Haberkorn was quick to notice the decline — and quick to decide something needed to be done.
From fogged and perforated stained-glass windows to missing fretwork on the Stations of the Cross, the interior’s decline was pervasive. Eight of the church’s original main frescoes had been painted over — the victims of water damage. And those were just a few of the items that needed repair.
The original plans called only for repairs to the interior and at a cost of about $2.5 million.
However, when a structural engineer identified major exterior problems warranting attention at a cost of around $3.5 million, the parish shifted its efforts. The interior work would have to wait until the building itself was structurally sound, and it was a project the parish and the community embraced wholeheartedly.
The church’s twin spires have served as a Topeka landmark for generations. According to parish staff, many strangers have seen the spires, driven to the church and requested a tour or to at least see the church’s interior.
The first phase consisted of structural and exterior repairs, which were completed in 2015. Then, the next phase kicked in — that of restoring the church to its original 1900 grandeur and glory.
By the time of its completion, the entire project was paid off. Committee members and Father Haberkorn believe that alone attests to the support for the project they received from nearly all of the parish’s 800 members, as well as that of the local community.
In addition to parish support, donations came in from all across the country, as well as from Topeka locals. Additionally, because the church is on the National Register of Historic Places, tax credits offset some of the costs.
A Mass of thanksgiving celebrated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and Father Haberkorn on Feb. 17 featured the dedication of the church’s new altar and marked the completion of the restoration.
Other native sons of the parish returned for the Mass, including Father Justin Hamilton, associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee; Father Mark Ostrowski, associate pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa; and Father Al Rockers, a priest retired from active ministry. Father Carter Zielinski, associate pastor of Christ the King in Topeka, served as the master of ceremonies.
In his homily, the archbishop discussed the importance of beautiful churches within the Catholic tradition.
“Buildings are important in culture and society in many ways,” he said, because they symbolize what cultures deem important. It’s obvious, he added, the people who first built the church prioritized their faith in God above all else.
And now, the archbishop said, it’s obvious the people of Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish still value their relationship with Christ due to their willingness to embark upon the ambitious project and see it through to completion.
“It’s a symbol to this community of Topeka of the priority you place on God first in your life,” he said.
The archbishop said although the restored church is beautiful beyond words, its true beauty lies elsewhere.
“This church is beautiful today, and the work of the artisans that have helped renew it is truly amazing,” he said. “But it’s most beautiful because it’s full today.
“In addition to all the artwork, our churches are most beautiful when the pews are filled with God’s people.”
The archbishop also said the historic day should be a reminder to those in attendance of their responsibility to share the good news with others throughout Topeka — especially those that may not know Christ, and the poor, because all people are the living temples of God, made in his image and likeness.
After Communion, Father Haberkorn addressed the congregation and offered a few words of thanksgiving to all those involved in the project, including the entire parish community, liturgical ministers and the choir as well as restoration committee members, KBS Constructors, Inc., and SFS Architecture. He also praised the work of Conrad Schmitt Studios, a firm founded in 1889 in Milwaukee. The studios are known for their training of artisans in the centuries-old traditions of making stained-glass, decorative painting, sculpture and mosaic, as well as their rich historic glass collection.
“I personally give thanks to God for having the privilege to undertake such a project for his honor and glory,” said Father Haberkorn.
“I am not only amazed and grateful for the beauty and inspiration of the end result of the actual church building,” he continued, “but also by that same beauty and inspiration that has come from the living stones (the people of God) who have supported this project.”