Mater Dei gets its Irish up

Topeka parishioners get an early look at the renovations of Assumption Church

by Marc and Julie Anderson

TOPEKA — Parishioners at Topeka’s oldest Catholic church are seeing a lot of new life at their church this Lent.

With a major restoration and renovation project underway at Mater Dei Parish’s Assumption Church site, however, the building wasn’t quite ready at the beginning of Lent to reopen its doors to parishioners.

The church will officially reopen, ready for weekend Masses, on April 1 — Palm Sunday.

Before that though, with the work 80-percent complete, the church made an early public debut for a Mass and Irish celebration on St. Patrick’s Day.
Visitors saw for the first time the work that has been completed, from the refurbishing of the marble to the restoration of the artwork.

At the same time, parishioners celebrated their favorite Irish traditions — and added to them with a brand-new Irish Fest, which they hope will become a tradition for the whole Topeka community.

Massive project

Thanks to a major financial gift, Mater Dei’s Assumption Church site has undergone quite a face-lift.

The work has included: lowering of the main altar, replacement of carpeting, cleaning of the stained-glass windows, restoration of murals, upholstering of the pews, and restoration of two statues — one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and one of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Work on this phase of renovations began in mid-November. Weekend Masses moved to the nearby Mater Dei Holy Name site, while weekday Masses were held in Assumption’s Rossiter Hall.

Christmas and its octave Masses were held once again in Assumption Church, but then weekend Masses were moved again after Epiphany in order for the work to resume.

So it was an excited crowd that gathered at Assumption on the morning of March 17 for the church’s unveiling at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass. It was celebrated by former pastor Father Thomas Kearns; concelebrants were current pastor Father Jon Hullinger, and Abbot Barnabas Senecal, OSB.

They were joined at the altar by Deacon Chris Seago.

Traditions and changes

An Irish singalong greeted guests before the Mass, a tradition that goes back to 1980, when Father Kearns was pastor at Assumption.

After Mass, the church was right on the route of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which began at noon.

Located across the street from the Kansas Capitol, Assumption Church has often been a first stop for many St. Patrick’s Day parade spectators.

In fact, for many years the parade started right outside the church’s front doors.

Eventually, the parade grew to include other activities — like a street fair and a bed race — that now draw nearly 50,000 people, not quite half of Topeka’s population.

Over the years, routes have changed to accommodate the growing participation.

The parish has seen some changes as well.

In July 2006, Assumption consolidated with Holy Name Parish, not quite a mile away, to form Mater Dei, a parish of roughly 800 families.

But one aspect of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities that has not changed over the years is the number of hungry parade-goers in downtown Topeka, many longing for traditional Irish fare like corned beef and cabbage.

It has remained a challenge to meet the demand with the number of restaurants open and able to handle the crowd.

Mater Dei parishioner Sarah Hutley and others had an idea they thought might just do the trick.

New ideas

While other parishioners had long thought Mater Dei ought to sell food to parade spectators as a potential fund-raiser, it was Hutley who first articulated the idea.

Hutley saw the parking lot of the former Assumption School — not fully utilized now that the school merged into the Holy Name campus — as a golden opportunity.

“There was a need for food and a need for people to have a place to sit,” Hutley explained. “With the parade going right by the church and the former school parking lot, the idea seemed natural. People who want to sit and eat while watching the parade can do so, especially the elderly who might not be up to standing for a long time.”

Others, including parishioner Brandon Eakes, offered to help study the possibilities.

“The potential is huge,” said Eakes, adding that the parish decided to host Irish Fest, a festival of Irish food and music.

When it came to food, brats and burgers alone just didn’t seem appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day.

“So we told everyone in the parish to pull out their favorite recipes and we would hold a contest,” said Eakes. “We knew we had a lot of excellent cooks in the parish. We only had three guidelines: The food had to be walking food, it had to be affordable, and it had to be Irish food.”

Patty’s Corned Beef Pocket and an offering of bangers and mash won the taste test.

Coming together

Nearly every parishioner helped prepare for the inaugural Irish Fest in some way — chopping onions and potatoes, donating sound equipment for the Irish music, soliciting donations, or coordinating publicity.

“It seemed every time someone brought up an idea, it fell right into place,” Eakes said.

And people kept joining the efforts to coordinate the celebration.
Working to bring Irish Fest to fruition provided Mary Tritsch with many happy hours of fellowship.

“Everyone has come together wonderfully, and it’s been nice to see faces from every parish here today,” she said. She saw countless families volunteering their time — hers included.

Her husband Dan served as a cashier, while their son Jacob, along with many teenage boys of the parish, helped to set up tables and chairs.

Celebrating the parish

Father Hullinger was proud of the parish’s efforts.

“We hope this is the first of many wonderful Irish Fests,” he said. “Our parish has worked hard, and we appreciate all those who have joined us today.”

Perhaps it was Jodi Spindler, though, who best summarized the parish and its efforts to host Irish Fest.

“I am not even from Topeka originally, but our parish has just a big sense of family,” she said. “I’m so happy to be here.”

Parishioners are excited about the festival’s success and the renovations that have brought fresh life to the historic church. The renovation process will be complete with the installation of the new altar, which will then be blessed by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.

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