Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - This Sunday, Feb. 16, members of St. Mary Parish in Aurora will gather for a special 10:30 a.m. Mass of Rededication to celebrate a major renovation. Bishop James D. Conley will be the main celebrant, and a catered dinner will follow.
The renovation has been a two-and-a-half-year “labor of love” in many ways for the parish of roughly 240 families, though their initial vision was quite modest.
“We started out wanting a dishwasher for the kitchen,” admitted parishioner and committee member Linda McQuifton.
“It continued to snowball from there,” said Kathy Cudly, another longtime parishioner.
The dishwasher was a nice idea, but it was soon determined that the kitchen was just too small. Talk of an expansion began, and a questionnaire was sent out to determine what parishioners thought was important.
A number of people pointed out there were no real classrooms for the CCD kids. Parishioners also suggested expanding the restrooms and adding more storage space.
So, the parish renovation committee determined to expand the church hall, doubling the size of the kitchen and bathrooms, adding nine classrooms and building in more storage space.
“That was going to be the extent of it, but we wanted to update the church,” Mrs. McQuifton said.
The initial vision for the church included better lighting, improved sound and an updated fire suppression system. The committee consulted with their architect, Kevin Clark of Clark Architectural Cooperative. He provided a few designs to consider.
What the parish really wanted, however, was a gathering space. The way the church was built, there was only a small vestibule, and the church hall was situated on the opposite side of the church. Unfortunately, city ordinances prevented the parish from adding on to the vestibule.
Then somebody pointed out that it would almost make more sense if the church was flipped around, with the altar where the entrance had stood. Then, when people left Mass, they could go straight out into the hall. Plus, with the help of large glass double-doors, a closed-circuit camera and projection screens, it would be more convenient for overflow seating for big Masses like first Communion and Confirmation Masses.
Clark was skeptical, because turning the church’s orientation 180 degrees would likely be a very expensive undertaking. Fortunately, the contractor’s estimate was less than expected.
“We went back [to the parish] and said we want to do more, and the money kept coming in,” Mrs. McQuifton said. “We’ve been supported through this whole thing.”
Generosity has been the true cornerstone of this entire renovation. People have been incredibly faithful in their giving. Mrs. Cudly recalled what happened when the renovation committee discovered that the parish air conditioning units were on their last legs.
“We were very fortunate that we had anonymous parishioners who were really willing to step up to the plate and provide extra money for that,” Mrs. Cudly said.
Parishioners also contributed their time.
“If we planned clean-up days or work days, if I called a parishioner, no one has ever said no,” said Mrs. McQuifton, who temporarily served as project coordinator as their pastor, Father Dennis Hunt, dealt with health issues and the death of his mother.
While the church was “basically gutted” in order to accommodate the 180-degree reorientation, there were some pleasant surprises.
A large stained-glass window of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is now the focal point above the altar. Some parishioners had never before noticed the window and the two adjacent to it, as they had been above the entrance. And now that they can see the windows lit by the sun, there is talk about adding some artificial lighting so that the window can inspire no matter what time of day, and what kind of weather.
The renovation committee also took the opportunity to have Clark design a new altar, altar of repose and podium. They approached parishioner Larry Ramaekers to see if he’d be willing to build it.
Mr. Ramaekers, who recently retired as superintendent of schools, used to teach woodworking. He and his sons pitched in to build all three items, donating their labor to the church. The marble-topped altar was muscled into place after Mass last Sunday, ready for Bishop Conley to be the first to celebrate Mass on it this weekend.
The floors were redone, with tile laid up the center aisle and all through the sanctuary. Other items, including the baptismal font and pews, were refurbished to match the new interior. Statues were moved when necessary.
Father Hunt noted that the way the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is positioned is more inviting than ever.
“It has the gesture of Jesus with his arms raised high, but it is also a gesture that is easy to see as welcoming,” he said. “His eyes look upward, reminding us to lift up our eyes to God.”
That’s a good summary of the whole purpose of this renovation, according to Father Hunt.
“This was a chance for the parishioners to think about their worship space and about prayer and about offering the church building as a place to pray and also the hall as a place for fellowship,” he said.