by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LANSING — There were a number of miracles leading up to the dedication of the new church at St. Francis de Sales Parish here on Aug. 1. But parishioners agree that the biggest miracle of all involved just getting in the door.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann, several archdiocesan priests and 450 parishioners had accepted invitations to the dedication event scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday. But as of Friday afternoon, event planners were without a certificate of occupancy.
“There was a lot of tension,” said Mary-Theresa Madill, parish project manager. “They had to wait for the permit to get the chairs out of the old church and into the new church, before they could set up tables for the reception in the old church (now the parish center).”
Late Friday afternoon, the certificate arrived and this parish of 500 families went into overdrive — moving chairs, setting up tables, and putting the finishing touches on its new church home. Even the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth came over to lend a hand.
“There were so many people up here, it was like a community barn-building,” said St. Francis de Sales secretary and bookkeeper Helen Nowak.
That outpouring of support was no surprise. The other great miracle of St. Francis de Sales is the parishioners.
Because this is not a large or wealthy parish, the new church has been built on what many refer to as a shoestring budget. But all along the way, parishioners have gladly picked up the laces and tied the final bow.
“We began our campaign with some savings that we had accumulated over the previous years,” explained Nowak. “That amount was about $300,000. The campaigns we undertook brought us an additional $1,875,000. We raised this primarily through pledges, fundraisers and interest on our savings. To cover the total cost of the project, we needed a loan from the archdiocese for about $1.4 million.”
The week before the dedication, parishioners were helping save money by rolling up their sleeves to do landscaping.
“People came out in droves,” said Madill. “By Thursday night, I lost count of how many, but we were there four hours and a bunch of us got poison ivy.”
“There were at least 75 parishioners here working for several hours,” agreed pastor Father Michael Stubbs. “Some were little kids with toy shovels, but they were all willing to dig in, literally, to make this a success.”
Everything was in place by Saturday morning when the dedication began. Parishioners gathered in their old church and then processed the few yards to the doors of the new church.
The choir, made up of parishioners and Sisters of Charity, and the Leavenworth Brass Quartet marched along, singing “Laudate, Laudate Dominum.”
Using the terms “patience and tenacity” to describe the journey of building the church, Hadley Stolte, representing the architects, presented the church plans to the archbishop. Bob Riese, representing the parish steering committee, presented Archbishop Naumann with the key.
The archbishop expressed gratitude to “all those present who brought us to this moment,” and handed the key over to Father Stubbs, who opened the door.
Four banners — representing the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, made by a member of the parish’s arts and environment committee — led parishioners into their new home.
A fifth banner featured the three buildings that have been home to this parish since 1854. The outlines of the buildings, on close inspection, were made up of parishioners’ names.
This newest building is still a work in progress, said Father Stubbs. Final touches are yet to be added, such a reredos behind the altar and a rose stained-glass window above the entrance.
As the parish continues to raise money, the church basement will eventually be finished into office space and meeting rooms.
A good beginning
Parishioners entering the 35,000-square-foot structure on dedication day were pleased with what has been accomplished so far.
The floor of the church entrance is inlaid with a labyrinth pattern designed by parishioner Susan Connelly. The labyrinth path leads to the baptismal font, which is lit overhead by beautifully ornate lamps that bring a bit of history to this new church.
“The lights are out of the mother-house from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth,” explained Sister Roberta O’Leary, director of religious education at the parish. “When they renovated, they weren’t using those in our main hall.”
A large crucifix above the altar overlooks the church. It is inscribed on the back with a quotation from a reflection on the cross by St. Francis de Sales.
On the altar were little church-shaped banks illustrating the significant contribution of the young people of the parish to the building fund.
“Since we started the capital campaign a few years ago, the kids have raised $12,128.29,” said Sister Roberta. “It’s nickels and dimes and quarters and once in a while a five dollar bill. It’s something they have worked hard on.”
The children’s donation will help fund the baptismal font.
“We wanted them to have something they could identify with,” said Sister Roberta. “Because they have been part of this, hopefully their sense of giving will continue.”
During his homily, Archbishop Naumann told the congregation that building this church has been “a profession of faith by this community.”
He discussed how the Catholic faith is based on a belief in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist and said, “We build our churches to house this miracle of God dwelling with us.”
The archbishop said that he would be baptizing his great-niece that evening and discussed the similarities between the dedication of a church and a baptism — the symbolism of the water, oil and light in each ceremony, and how they are used in each to bring the joy and hope of the Gospel to the world.
“Our church is a reminder to us of our own identity as living temples of God,” he said.
As the archbishop anointed the new altar, the choir sang “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place.”
Although the Lord’s dwelling place at St. Francis de Sales is beautiful now, in the coming months it promises to become even more so.
“The mural that eventually will go behind the altar will show the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, the miracle in which Jesus fed the hungry crowd,” said Father
Stubbs. “The mural will be a mirror image of our parish.”
The mural’s artist, Eugene Young, has photographed parishioners and will use them as models for the people in the crowd.
“In a larger sense, the mural will reflect the activity that we are engaged in every Sunday,” said Father Stubbs. “Gathered around the altar, we are fed by Jesus through the Eucharist, in a way analogous to the crowd being fed by Jesus in the multiplication of the loaves and the fish.”
Another addition to the altar are stones from the birthplace of St. Francis de Sales in Thorens-Glières in the eastern part of France, donated by former parishioners who now live in that country. The stones will be encased in a tile and set in the floor before the altar.
“It’s not a relic,” said Madill, “but it’s very meaningful.”
After the dedication service, parishioners were treated to a picnic-fare reception in their former church and “new” parish center.
Father Stubbs said the new church not only gives the parish some much-needed extra space, but also provides it better acoustics for music and a more reverent atmosphere for prayer.
“I hope St. Francis de Sales will answer the challenge of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish,” he said. “In that miracle, Jesus takes the little that the disciples have — the five loaves and the two fish — to feed over 5,000 people.
“Jesus can do the same thing with us — to take the little that we have to do something wonderful, to respond to the needs of the world.”
After the busy week of last-minute preparations, Father Stubbs took a moment to reflect on the continuing journey to this new church.
“We are still a work in progress,” he said. “It has been a gratifying experience but, at the moment, I feel exhausted.”