Artwork seeks to deepen parishioners’ faith experience
by Jessica Langdon
LEAWOOD — Some of the statues inside the newly renovated Church of the Nativity here you can literally reach out and touch — and are welcome to do so.
“I had someone say to me, ‘You’ve got them down so low the kids are going to touch them,’” said parishioner Kelly Samuelson, who served on the steering committee that oversaw recent renovations inside the church.
“That’s exactly the idea,” she said.
Standing beside a new wood-carved statue depicting the moment when a young Jesus was found in the Temple, Samuelson said that these kinds of interactions are teachable moments. Her pastor concurred.
Catholics are sacramental people, explained Father Francis Hund, who was touched to see a close friend in her 90s grasp the hand of a figure in the same statue.
Show-and-tell weaves itself throughout the practice of the faith, said Father Hund. From the statues — both old and new — to the new ambry that holds the oils, parishioners will discover many places where they can learn more about their faith.
This undertaking — called an “interior renewal” — never aimed to make sweeping changes or replace anything inside the already beautiful Nativity, but simply added to it, said parishioner Dave Evers, chairman of the facilities commission and also a member of the interior renewal steering committee.
The parish officially celebrated the renewal with a Mass of thanksgiving and consecration of the altar on Oct. 14.
Deeper relationship, deeper meaning
The seeds for this work were planted years ago, said Father Hund.
The parish first addressed some serious exterior issues, including a leaking roof, a few years ago.
That enabled Nativity to turn its attention to the interior of the 20-year-old church. After careful planning, many discussions and much prayer, the church closed for the 2012 summer months and the work began.
Crews tackled many necessary projects, from giving the pews an overhaul and repairing water damage to installing a new, more permanent baptismal font.
At the same time, the church worked to deepen people’s faith experience through artistic and liturgical elements, with help from Brother William Woeger, FSC, of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb.
“Never once did I feel like we were just picking out colors or tiles,” said Samuelson. “It was all done just knowing that people would come in and have a deeper relationship and deeper meaning when they came into the church. That’s what drove all our thoughts.”
The parish gave J.E. Dunn Construction Company and project manager Susan Schaefer a very tight window in which to complete the work, said Evers. The church turned the building over to the workers at the beginning of June, moving Masses into the gym for the summer. The doors had to be open again for a wedding at the start of September.
“They followed through beautifully,” said Father Hund.
Parishioners returned to the church the first weekend of September — and Samuelson saw tears of joy as people took in the sights for the first time.
Something for everyone
“Everybody points out a certain thing that they’ve seen that they really like,” Evers said.
Where once “everything here was beige,” he said, color, religious scenes and Scripture passages meet the eye — from the moment people walk in.
A richly colored mural of shepherds, wise men and angels beams down into the narthex over the church doors, which really gives people the feeling that they’re in the church of the Nativity, said Samuelson.
“Once we walk into the church,” said Father Hund, “then we find the Nativity star, the source of the light in our lives.”
The parish updated the lighting in the church with tiered chandeliers that can be adjusted for different services.
A new sound system was added, as well as new flooring and ramps, and — responding to parishioners’ requests — planners also created a space to pray individually or in small groups.
A vibrant mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe shines over that space, which is surrounded by tiers of votive candles. It has been beautiful to see people already meeting here to pray the rosary, said Father Hund.
Finally, the images on the new Stations of the Cross are raised, and a few parishioners who are visually impaired have traced the images with their hands.
“I love these Stations,” one parishioner told Father Hund.
‘Make Christ’s love real and alive’
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann celebrated the Mass on Oct. 14. Concelebrating were Father Hund; senior parochial vicar Father Al Rockers; Father Jerry Arano-Ponce, former associate pastor at Nativity and current pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park; Father Vince Huber, AVI, whose family belongs to Nativity; and Father Thomas Cawley, CM, who also served at Nativity.
Monsignor Gary Applegate served as archdiocesan master of ceremonies, and Deacon Michael Schreck assisted at the Mass.
In his homily, Archbishop Naumann told the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who accepted the call to leave everything and follow Jesus.
“Francis understood the Lord was asking him to rebuild his church,” said Archbishop Naumann. At first, the saint took that literally, focusing on renovating dilapidated churches in his community.
Later, he understood the call was not merely to renovate physical buildings, but to rebuild the interior of the church — “the living temples of the church.”
“Our church buildings challenge us to have the same passion for caring for God’s living temples as we do for the care of these buildings,” said Archbishop Naumann.
Nativity has a rich history of giving that extends far beyond its parish boundaries, he said.
“This renovation,” he continued, “is a statement in one sense that we want to build upon this great history, this great tradition, and even with greater zeal and determination reach out from this church building to make Christ’s love real and alive in the world today.”
All along, Nativity has defined this work as an “internal renewal” of the church, said the pastor, instead of simply calling it a renovation or construction project.
“It also, I believe, is an invitation to an interior renewal within our own hearts and lives,” said Father Hund. “In a beautiful way as this physical church renewal is completed, we begin the Year of Faith.”