by Joe Bollig
BEATTIE — Members of St. Malachy Church here had a “treasure” right above their heads for 50 years, but only the older parishioners had seen it.
That treasure was a beautiful barrel vault interior ceiling with gothic arches, original to the red-brick church, which had been dedicated on Oct. 24, 1924.
The view of the ceiling had been lost when the parish was renovated in 1971 to 1972.
The original main and side altars were removed. The choir loft was closed off. Steel tie rods were installed wall-to-wall to address structural issues, and a drop ceiling of acoustical panels was installed.
Deb Dwerlkotte, a parishioner for 37 years, had never seen the arches but heard about them.
“There would be comments off and on over the years,” said Dwerlkotte. “[People would say,] ‘Gosh, it would be so nice to see the arches again and take the church back to the way it was.’”
Periodic inspections revealed that the plaster above the drop ceiling was beginning to loosen, and something needed to be done before chunks of plaster fell on worshipers in the pews.
The decision was made to renovate the church under former pastor Father Jim Shaughnessy. The planning and the work would occur over the tenure of two more pastors — Father Nathan Haverland and Father Quentin Schmitz. Father Schmitz became pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Marysville and St. Malachy Parish in 2020.
A leadership committee of five laypeople and the pastor was formed. The first phase of work, which concentrated on the sanctuary, ran from January to June 2022. The second phase ran from October 2022 to April 2023.
The renovated church was blessed on April 23, 2023, by Bishop Emeritus Thomas J. Olmsted, of the Diocese of Phoenix, who grew up on his family’s farm a short distance from nearby Oketo.
The original altars were gone, but the renovators found the next best thing. The parish bought two traditional side altars and a main altar that had been salvaged from St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, which closed in 2019. These, as well as the ambo and existing free-standing altar, were refurbished.
The parish, with 70 families, really pulled together for the renovation, said committee member Jarrod Smith. Approximately half the work was done by firms hired by the parish, and the other half was done by parishioners.
“It would not have been possible without our wonderful congregation,” said Smith. “Any time we asked for help, they came through in big ways.”
Smith also praised Father Schmitz’s leadership and willingness to pitch in.
“[Father Schmitz] jumped right in and got his hands dirty,” said Smith. “As long as his schedule allowed for it, he was there. And if he couldn’t make it [for an evening work session], he’d work during the day by himself.”
“I like how the people really got behind the renovation and got involved,” said Father Schmitz. “It was a nice community effort. It brought about a deeper unity and helped us grow together.”
An architect and engineer were hired to design structural work so the two forward-most tie rods could be removed for an unimpeded view of the sanctuary. The remaining were left, but painted white, and thus are hardly noticeable against the white ceiling and walls.
The loose plaster above the sanctuary was removed and replaced with drywall. The ceiling was painted blue with gold stars.
Although the wood floor of the sanctuary could be refurbished, the rest of the floor under the pews and aisles could not. The floor under the pews was replaced with an epoxy flooring. A new wood floor was made for the main center aisle with three inlays featuring symbols of the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist.
All the walls and ceilings were painted, with some stenciling.
Wood wainscoting was installed all around the inner wall and the confessional was stained to match the wainscoting.
The walls that closed off the choir loft were removed and additional work will be needed before it can be used.
New lighting and a sound system were installed, along with a new furnace, air conditioning and ventilation. New doors were installed in the vestibule.
Additional work on the outside of the church will be done in the future, including the front steps and a ramp, said Smith.
Parishioners are pleased at the improvements, said Smith, but a feast for the eyes is not the only payoff.
“We were able to bring students [from St. Gregory School] for a daily Mass a while back and the sound of the children singing was pretty powerful,” said Smith. “It’s amazing how the acoustics in a small church can be better than a larger church.”