by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — Someday, the new Mother Teresa Church here will be a gymnasium. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the backboards now, if not for the beautiful furnishings.
This temporary worship space has been transformed into a sacred space by a grand wood altar and lectern, a stunning sanctuary crucifix, and other pieces of custom-made liturgical furniture.
The story of these unique furnishings began when Dennis Haworth made an offhand remark that many Catholics make, but seldom expect to be acted on: “If you ever need something, Father, just give me a call.”
“It wasn’t but a couple of weeks later that [Father Bill Bruning] gave me a call, and it accelerated from there,” said Haworth, a retired firefighter and part-time woodworker.
When Mother Teresa Parish began work on its new parish complex, planners set out two guiding principles: It should be a worthy place to celebrate the Eucharist and should honor the vision of Mother Teresa by incorporating qualities of simplicity and cost-effectiveness.
That’s where Haworth and several other uniquely talented parishioners came in.
Father Bruning was calling to see whether Hayworth thought it possible for parishioners, rather than professional artisans, to handcraft the major furnishings of the altar. This would not only save the young parish a tremendous amount of money, but would help make the simple building that was being planned the unique product of the new parish community, creating a legacy that will be a witness for generations.
As things turned out, Haworth, then Ray Stuke and Basil Hicks, were all soon incorporated into Father Bruning’s vision, and the three wound up building the furniture for the altar. Other parishioners were identified to take on other projects — Max Kennedy, to carve bas-reliefs for the altar and lectern; Richard Sherer and Ralph Gutierrez, to craft the corpus and cross, respectively.
Despite the countless hours that went into the work, however, the craftsmen couldn’t be happier they were asked.
“A lot of other people have the time and ability, but they don’t have the opportunity to do things like this,” said Stuke, a retired cabinetmaker.
“For me, truthfully and literally, it was a life-changing project,” agreed Haworth. “As I worked on it, I started to realize the importance and value of what we were doing, and it brought me to another level. I would have never believed it. It’s a tremendous honor to do it.” Kennedy, who years ago had carved the reliefs for the doors of Holy Name Church in Topeka, found this new work particularly rewarding.
“Doing the carvings for the altar and ambo was really therapeutic,” said Kennedy. “It was a healing process.”
The thought that generations of Catholics might benefit from their work is overwhelming, he said.
And by working together to build the furniture, said Hayworth, the men have also built a special friendship.
“I’d seen Max, Basil and Ray in church,” said Haworth, “and that was about it. But now we’re a group.”
In addition to the altar and lectern, the four men built the presider’s and acolytes’ chairs; the ambry where the holy oils are kept; and the stands for the Easter candle, altar candles, banners, holy water bowls and processional cross. The designs of all the furnishings are entirely original. The craftsmen used only approximate measurements from commercial products to get an idea of dimensions.
Some of the thinking that went into the work was pretty original as well. The nails in the corpus, created by Sherer, are carriage bolts that he ground down to look like the authentic first-century article. The thorns come from a honeylocust tree in his yard.
“I got the wood from a man in Reed Springs, Mo.,” said Sherer. “When I told him what I was planning to use it for, he donated it to me.”
Sherer used a crucifix in his home as a guide, but he also asked his son in California to take a photograph of himself hanging by his arms from his garage door to get an idea of how the muscles should look.
Father Bruning helped him choose the colors, which Sherer mixed himself. A more difficult task was finding a tasteful way to portray the wounds of Christ.
He was very conscious that he was carving his Lord and Savior.
“Before I’d start carving I’d say a little prayer, ‘Let me carve you as you wish.’ And every time I’d come to a problem, I’d stop and say a little prayer,” said Sherer.
In addition to this, Sherer carved two statues of Mother Teresa and the processional cross.
“Will these ever be great works of art in a museum someday?” Father Bruning asked. “Probably not.
“But are these great works of love? Yes, definitely.
“These men, by putting their hearts into things that are gifts to God, have grown closer to the Lord.”