By Jay Nies
“With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for You.”
The people joined in with growing intensity on the choir’s a capella choruses of “Sanctuary.”
Members and friends of St. George parish in Linn joined Bishop W. Shawn McKnight June 17 in dedicating the impressively refurbished St. George Church.
The ancient rituals included blessing the holy water; sprinkling it onto the newly built altar, ambo, tabernacle stand and baptismal font; anointing the altar with Oil of Sacred Chrism; burning incense on the altar; anointing the richly embellished walls; lighting the candles; and offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
“What we are celebrating today is not simply the blessing of a physical structure, but our renewal of dedication to God through our belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church, through our charitable works, and through our sacramental life,” Bishop McKnight said in his homily.
He called the physical church building “a necessary means of evangelization.”
“In a very real sense,” he said, “this church building speaks loudly of our faith, especially its beauty and as a place of quiet prayer and devotion.”
The $445,656 renovation brings vivid color and a deeper sense of solemnity to the church, built in 1975 to replace a traditional gothic structure that the parish had outgrown.
“I think we’ve made Father Ed proud,” said Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. George parish and of Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein.
He was referring to the late Father Edwin Schmidt, a beloved priest who was pastor when the current church was built.
“The parish needed a bigger church, and Father Ed used all the best resources he had at his disposal and built a good church,” Fr. Merz said. “Using the resources we now have at our disposal, we’re completing and improving on what he started.”
“Gate of heaven”
The parish formed a renovation committee in 2016 and launched a capital campaign after discovering that the roof need to be replaced and the brickwork tuck-pointed.
The project’s scope grew from there.
“Throughout this process, the entire parish has contributed to its success, either spiritually, monetarily or with physical labor — and in many cases, all three,” stated Parish Council President John Oliveras.
Two of the 9-by-12-foot murals that for 80 years adorned the ceiling of the old church were retrieved from storage, restored by descendants of the original artist, and incorporated into the renovation.
“These murals — depicting the Annunciation to Mary and the Ascension of Jesus — signify the beginning and the end of the Paschal Mystery,” said Mr. Oliveras, referring to the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
“By bringing these back, we display the continuity of faith,” he said.
A simulated baldacchino — reminiscent of the sanctuary tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant while the Israelites were in the desert — now frames the altar from above, “to remind us of the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Eucharist,” Mr. Oliveras said.
The deep-blue, indirectly lit alcove above the center of the church is embellished with gold stars in alignment “to signify that heaven is in perfect harmony,” he said.
New light fixtures “increase efficiency and ensure that light will prevail over darkness.”
New ceiling tiles embellished with gold crosses add to the sacred character of the space.
Geometrically patterned floor tile replaces the carpet, enhancing the acoustics.
There are new statues of St. Ann and St. Joseph, and the existing images of St. Mary and St. George were restored.
Century-old Stations of the Cross — a 1995 gift to the parish from the Sisters of Mercy of Swinford, Co. Mayo, Ireland, from their motherhouse chapel — were repainted and repositioned at eye-level.
The pews were refinished and reupholstered.
New doors were fashioned of walnut, white oak and mahogany, with the main doors bearing the messages: “House of God — Gate of Heaven” (Genesis 28:17), and “Go into all the world and tell the Good News” (Mark 16:15).
One of the doors has been equipped with a handicap-access button for automatic opening.
Rendered on canvas and affixed to the walls are eight colorful angels holding symbols that represent the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and four major figures from the Old Testament (Abraham, Moses, David and Elijah).
Sanctuary fixtures were fashioned of seasoned walnut by parishioner and local cabinet-maker James Voss.
Space was created near the entrance for the new baptismal font, and near the front of the church for handicap-accessible seating.
Place of encounter
Bishop McKnight called the renewed St. George Church “a shrine that raises up our souls, minds, and even our bodies — through the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and texture — to heaven. In this sacred place, God blesses us as we give Him our worship and praise.”
He emphasized that a Church is not primarily a building, but the people.
“The assembly that gathers in this sacred spot is ‘the Church,’” he said. “But since we are human beings who are both physical and spiritual — and not simply spiritual creatures like angels — we need consecrated places, concrete structures that are places of encounter with the Transcendent One.”
The goal is for people to allow Jesus to reveal Himself through them, by becoming temples of the Holy Spirit and “bearing the Word of God wherever we go,” he said.
Concelebrating priests at the Mass included Fathers Merz, Christopher Cordes, Frederick Elskamp, Robert Fields, Alexander Gabriel, Kevin Gormley, George Kramer and David Means.
Assisting were Deacons Ray Purvis and John Schwartze. Father Louis Nelen served as master of ceremonies.
A choir directed by Diane Hennessy led the singing.
Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus served as the honor guard.
Brenda Wasser and Kevin Autenrieb, third-generation church artists from Edwardsville, Illinois, created the decorative scheme, starting with the two murals their grandfather had made for the old St. George Church.
“This is somewhat unusual for us,” Mr. Autenrieb noted. “We typically work in buildings built prior to 1950.”
Together with parishioners, Mr. Autenrieb and Ms. Wasser developed a color scheme that unites and complements the 120-year-old murals and the 40-year-old stained-glass windows.
“The biggest thing for us was the opportunity to do restoration work on the murals and reuse them in the same parish they were made for,” said Mr. Autenrieb. “It really means a lot when you can bring something historical back into the church while making it beautiful.”
He said Fr. Merz and the people of St. George have been open to ideas and great to work with.
He believes the church now has “a much more worshipful feel.”
“Our job was to make a space easier to worship in and feel closer to God, and enhance the altar space so people’s focus moves toward the front of the church.
“I believe that’s what we’ve done.”
Behold the wood
Mr. Voss built the sanctuary fixtures and two cabinets in the vestibule.
John Klebba Sr., a lifelong parishioner, harvested the wood on his property while building his home many years ago.
The rough-cut, kiln-dried wood had been in storage for about 25 years.
Mr. Voss selected the best cuts, planed, milled and laminated the pieces to get the right thickness, and etched religious symbols into parts of it using a computer-guided router.
He said he had previously done work for churches, “but nothing quite this extensive, this massive or this detailed.”
He started with preliminary designs from Mr. Autenrieb and Ms. Wasser.
Fr. Merz offered guidance on the design and size of each item, and Mr. Voss finalized and executed the designs.
He said the project was very satisfying.
“Once it’s all done, it makes you feel proud to see the finished product and know that it’s going to be in the church for a long time,” he said.
Altar of thanksgiving
Relics of three German saints — St. Boniface, St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Gertrude the Great — were selected for the altar stone.
At the Dedication Mass, Deacon Schwartze presented the relics to Bishop McKnight, who placed them in niches in the stone.
Parishioner Ron Hoffman — whose father did much of the brickwork on the church when it was built — then sealed the relics and placed the stone below the altar.
Bishop McKnight then anointed the altar with sacred Chrism, setting it aside for sacred use.
Concelebrating priests then anointed the walls of the church, and altar servers lit the 12 candles in wall-mounted brackets.
Mr. Oliveras said the renovation reflects dynamic discourse among the planners and parishioners.
“You talk about it and everyone involved brings their vision to the table,” he said. “It’s awesome what you can come up with when you discuss and listen.”
He said all the new artwork invites people to meditate on the life of Christ and those of the saints who followed Him.
“It helps promote spirituality,” he said. “All of these symbols help facilitate your prayer and your thought and meditation.”
More to come
The renovation continues.
Polished granite will soon be placed atop the altar of repose (tabernacle stand), the baptismal font and ambo.
Ms. Wasser hopes to begin working in July on three murals for the back of the church, to be painted in the style of the ones her grandfather made.
The largest of the three will depict Christ in glory, surrounded by saints. Another will show St. Michael the Archangel overcoming Satan, and another will show a Guardian Angel protecting two of God’s people.
Also, Fr. Merz hopes to add solar panels to the roof of the parish buildings, eliminating over time most of the cost for electricity while being kinder to the environment.
Fr. Merz emphasized that the most important work of the parish is not renewal of the physical plant “but of our spiritual lives.”
“St. George must continue to grow spiritually,” he said. “There are many of our parishioners who have fallen away and need to be invited back. The Lord has renewed us physically. We must let Him renew us spiritually!”
Bishop McKnight offered a prayer of gratitude at the reception after Mass.
“Heavenly Father, we give You thanks for such a beautiful celebration in the history of this parish — for the gift of the Church to us, for the gift of our ancestors in the faith, and for the gift of our youth, the next generation.
“Bless this parish, make it prosperous in fulfilling the mission of the Church in Linn.”
Contributing to this article was Neal Johnston, editor of the Unterrified Democrat newspaper.