by Marc and Julie Anderson
BLUE RAPIDS — Merging their two parishes was only the first challenge. The second was possibly more daunting: What to do with their ageing church?
Fortunately, an “angel” showed up.
Six years ago, St. Elizabeth Parish in Blue Rapids and St. Monica Parish in nearby Waterville merged.
Prior to the merge, both parishes struggled to pay bills and stay open.
Under the leadership of then-pastor Father Bill Bruning, the parishes merged to form St. Monica-St. Elizabeth Parish in Blue Rapids, a town of roughly 1,000 located in the archdiocese’s northwest corner. A few years after the merger, the 150 or so parishioners grappled with questions about the church building itself.
The church, built in 1913 and moved to its current location in 1961, had fallen victim to time and was in need of repair. Various ideas surfaced, ranging from redoing all the pews and making other relatively small repairs to possibly building a brand-new church to connect to the newly constructed parish hall. They were unable, however, to choose among those ideas.
Parishioners said, however, that God provided guidance through “an unexpected angel” — Eileen Ratigan.
Ratigan, of Beatrice, Neb., grew up watching her grandfather, father and uncles work on church furniture, statues and artwork. From the time she was in her 20s, Ratigan has made a habit of visiting churches. While in Blue Rapids a few years back, she stopped in the church.
She said she remembered thinking the church had a lot of potential. As someone in the church restoration business, she contacted pastor Father Jim Shaughnessy and told him if the parish ever wanted to consider a renovation project, she’d like to submit a bid.
Sometime in 2009, Father Shaughnessy called her and said the parish’s building committee wanted to hear what she had to say.
Under the leadership of parishioner Ed Henry, the committee met with Ratigan. The committee was impressed with her ideas to renovate the church, but the price made her proposal seem out of reach.
Where there’s a will, however, there’s a way. The parish decided to serve as its own general contractor, thus saving thousands of dollars. Parishioners contributed in other ways, as well.
Bernard Bruna, for example, volunteered to strip and varnish all the church’s pews. And Dewaine Heinen, a 20-year-member of the parish and the manager of a local lumberyard, supplied the wood and paint for the church’s renovations, including all the sheetrock and doors.
Other parishioners helped to tear down the church’s frescoed plaster walls and reinforce the church’s foundation. It was the efforts of the entire congregation, said organizers, that truly drove the $160,000 renovation effort to its completion.
Parish council president John Wienck called the final results “breathtaking” and said he could not believe the way the community came together.
“Whenever we called upon the parishioners, they were there to help. . . . We can do amazing things when we work together.”
Ratigan said that with all the volunteer help she had, she was able to concentrate on things like layout, color palette, lighting and statuary — which is a good thing, since she had to search the country over to find a suitable statue of St. Monica.
The parish already had a statue of St. Elizabeth but wanted to honor both of its patrons. Such a statue, possibly the only one in the United States, was located in Philadelphia. A copy of that statue now stands in a place of honor in the renovated church.
Also, through Ratigan-Schlotter, a third-generation family company which handcrafts church furniture and completes church restorations, the church received a new altar and ambo which were blessed and used for the first time at the Sept. 25 Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Naumann.
Concelebrants were: Fathers Shaughnessy and Bruning; Father John Pilcher, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Wamego, St. Joseph Parish in Flush, Holy Family Parish in Alma and Sacred Heart Parish in Paxico; and Father George Klasinski, retired. Msgr. Gary Applegate served as the master of ceremonies.
At the end of Mass, Father Shaughnessy thanked the archbishop for his support of the project, his brother priests for concelebrating the Mass and the parishioners for their hard work and determination, as well as their generosity.