By Jessica Langdon
ROSSVILLE — The calendar read Aug. 4 and the temperature reached the 90s, but to Amanda Clayton, it felt like Christmas morning.
“We’ve been trying to get this church built for a long time,” said Clayton, a parishioner of St. Stanislaus Parish in Rossville.
That dream finally came true, and a dedication Mass that day gave hundreds of people their first glimpse inside the new church.
The congregation gathered outside the locked building before the 4 p.m. Mass.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a day of rejoicing,” Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said, just moments before he was presented the church plans and key.
And then it was time for pastor Father Bruce Ansems to unlock the door.
“Look,” Clayton whispered to her 2-year-old daughter Chloe as the key turned.
“When they opened the doors, it was like that first present you open on Christmas,” Clayton said. “All the anticipation — it’s great.”
The crowd processed inside singing, “All Are Welcome.”
Faces lit up as people took in the church, its statues and artwork for the first time. A few said, “Wow.”
The new church seats about 400, plus the choir, and there was a seat for everyone — something that would never have happened in the old church that still stands nearby.
“We loved our old church, but we just have outgrown it,” parishioner Alexis Ebert said.
She hopes the additional space in the new church will bring back people who had been going to Mass elsewhere to avoid feeling crowded.
Building on tradition
This process really began more than 100 years ago, said Father Ansems, who is also pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in St. Marys.
It was 1898 when Father John Kokenge, SJ, gathered the $1,000 necessary to buy land in Rossville and construct the first building.
“Because there were few parishioners, the whole Rossville community pitched in to help construct the church,” reads the parish’s website.
The church served its purpose over the years, but it had aged and was difficult for the elderly, those with special needs and families with young children to maneuver.
In 2009, a building committee explored possibilities for a new church building.
At the same time, a couple from Great Bend hit the jackpot — literally. Retired truck driver Don Damon bought a $1 lottery ticket and won $96 million.
Looking to make a lot of people happy, Don and his wife Kathleen talked with their nephew Kevin Bittner, who was part of St. Stanislaus’ building committee.
They gave $100,000 to the cause.
A few weeks later, the Damons had lunch with Bittner, who told them parishioners were brainstorming more creative ways to raise funds for the $2 million project.
Not even an hour after they parted, an attorney called with the news that the Damons wanted to give another gift — this time, $1 million.
There have been ups and downs, but many things came together to make this building happen, said parishioner Mark Wilt, who sang with the choir during the dedication Mass.
He remembered the time in 2011 when the parish held a round-the-clock prayer vigil in hopes of bringing the project to fruition.
Even in times of economic uncertainty, he and his wife Carolyn know many people made this a priority.
“A lot of families sacrificed a lot,” Carolyn Wilt said.
And through the work of countless people — among them, architect David Heit with Schwerdt Design Group Inc.; Patrick Tolin, project manager with Ferrell Construction; all the subcontractors; Father Ansems; and many others — the project came together.
Senior project manager Heit knew all along this undertaking would truly impact the community.
“It’s probably the most fulfilling thing about my job and my career so far,” he said, describing the “smiles, tears and gasps” he observed as people took in the sights of the new sanctuary.
The traditional basilica-style church, filled with natural light, is reminiscent of those one might see in Rome.
Although he designed the altar and was familiar with every angle, Heit was moved during the dedication Mass to see the relic of St. Stanislaus prayerfully placed inside.
It was one of many moments — from the blessing and sprinkling of the water to the lighting of the candles — that transformed the roughly 12,000-square-foot building into a church.
It came together for Shelly Buhler, chairwoman of the building committee, when Father Ansems lit the sanctuary lamp to burn before the Blessed Sacrament.
“The church was beautiful,” Buhler said. “But as we added all the symbolism and the candles and the oils, it became even more beautiful. And with the Eucharist, it became complete.”
She thought of the joys as well as the sadness that will be experienced here.
“The faith is the most important thing there is,” she said.
Faith, family and community
Churches “elevate our hearts,” Archbishop Naumann said in his homily.
They show people that “there is a life beyond this world, above this world, that we are part of, in communion with.”
Churches are also a reminder of the dignity of each person.
“We are a living temple of Christ,” he added.
And the church is more than merely a beautiful place to gather.
“Jesus himself is uniquely present here,” he said.
Father Carl Dekat, retired and in residence at St. Joseph Parish in Flush, and Father Al Rockers, retired and in residence at Nativity Parish in Leawood, are both previous pastors of St. Stanislaus. They joined Father Ansems as concelebrants at the Mass, as did Father John Pilcher, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Wamego, St. Joseph in Flush and Sacred Heart in Paxico. Msgr. Gary Applegate was master of ceremonies.
This parish brings people together from several communities, said Ebert.
She and her husband Bill live just a couple doors down from the church.
“It’s a part of our life,” she said.
She has served as religious education coordinator at St. Stanislaus and was always inspired to see kids whose schools compete in sports come together in faith.
“They were your friends,” recalled her daughter Melissa Thompson. Thompson, now a member of Christ the King Parish in Topeka, was excited to attend the dedication Mass and dinner with her husband Lance and their 2-year-old son Cameron — and, of course, her parents.
Three generations of Clayton’s family also attended.
She wants Chloe to grow up appreciating and living her faith.
She also hopes her daughter will look at this church and “realize that if you work hard at something, something that beautiful will come out of it.”