Prayers Answered

The Herald | Prayers Answered

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Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Marlena Sloss

Early afternoon sunlight shone through the stained glass windows of the new St. Mary Catholic Church building in Ireland as Pat Gress led his mother, the late Rita Gress, through the building she helped plan for and prayed about for decades.

As the pair entered the nave that late May day, Rita looked to the high altar — a combination of the high altar and two side altars from the now closed St. Patrick Catholic Church in Corning — and teared up.

Duane Gress takes his mother, Rita, on a tour led by his brother, Pat, not pictured, of the new St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland on May 17. Rita was part of the original long-term planning committee for the new church and Pat was the construction manager. She had leukemia and was able to visit the new church weeks before she died.

“It’s just fantastic,” she said of the whole church. “I just can’t believe it.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Pat said. “You were instrumental in getting this thing going.”

Pat managed construction on behalf of the church.

The congregation at St. Mary began discussing the possibility of building a new church about 40 years ago. The old building — located at 2829 N. 500 W — opened in 1905, and at that time, about 45 families attended the church. Today, the church is home to about 1,000 families, many of whom have been members for generations. The Gress family, for example, has been part of the congregation for about a century, and Rita was part of the early discussions about expanding.

When the first long-range planning committee formed in the 1970s, Rita joined and advocated for the construction of a new church building. Ultimately, the committee chose to expand the 1905 building and to begin saving for the construction of a new church down the line.

Then, in the early 2000s, discussion about building a new church picked up again. Rita eagerly took a role on that iteration of the long-range planning committee, as did her son-in-law, Steve Buechler. Steve attended Holy Family Catholic Church in Jasper before he married Rita’s daughter, Margaret, and began attending St. Mary.

The 15-person committee spent hours talking to parishioners about what style they wanted the church to have — traditional, country Catholic was the consensus — and researching architects and designs. Part of their research included a structural study of the 1905 building, which revealed some issues that would have made the cost of remodeling that building about the same as building a new one. That, coupled with the knowledge that a remodel would mean losing that traditional, country look, led the committee to pursue building a new church.

“We took a very serious approach,” Steve said. “We knew we were planning for the next 100 years of our parish.”

The new church began to become a reality in 2017 when the parish launched the Building Our Future capital campaign to raise the $6 million needed for the project. As of March, the campaign had raised about $5.6 million.

Construction crews work on the pillars on the top of the new St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland on Jan. 16. The new church was designed to look as similar as possible to the old church, seen in the background.

According to guidelines from the Catholic Diocese of Evansville, the campaign needed $4.8 million — 80% of the total cost — to break ground. That threshold was met by 2018, and construction crews broke ground that year. At last, the decades of research and planning were turning into something tangible.

St. Mary parishioners dedicated so many years to planning for their new church that when Evansville’s bishop, Joseph Siegel, dedicated the new building on June 28, he joked in his homily that the parishioners had been dreaming of their new church “almost as long” as the biblical Jews of Jesus’ time spent building the temple from which Jesus expelled merchants in the second chapter of The Gospel of John. According to the story — which was the Gospel reading for the dedication Mass — that biblical temple took 46 years to build.

The years of hard work and planning paid off, however. The final designs for the new church yielded a traditional country church that looks much like the old building, but will fit 700 per mass, with room for additional folding chairs if need be, rather than the 380 the 1905 building housed. It also includes several features the parishioners wanted, including an additional parking lot, a space inside the church building for offices, a cry/bridal room, a covered entrance and a narthex, a large open area before the nave where parishioners can gather before and after church services.

“The builders did an amazing job of bringing our vision into reality,” Steve said.

The wish list also included refurbishing the original nine stained-glass windows from the 1904 church for use in the new building, and the commissioning of 11 new windows. For that, the parish called on Mominee Studios of Evansville. The original windows were made according to the American Opalescent style following the technique developed by John La Farge, an artist at the forefront of the American Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“When [St. Mary Church] was built in 1904, all the churches were using [that style],” said Jules Mominee, owner of Mominee Studios.

To restore the nine old windows, Jules and members of his team spent most of a day carefully removing the century-old, intricately decorated windows — some of which consisted of three glass panels — and loading them into a truck for transport to the studio in Evansville. There, the team refurbished the windows to make them vibrant again.

Mominee Studios employee Nick Morgan assembles the St. Scholastica stained glass window in Evansville on Oct. 17. Mominee Studios worked on 26 windows for the new church, including designing and building 9 new windows. From the beginning of the design process to the installation of the final window, Mominee Studios spent two years on the project.

The artists also built the 11 new windows at the studio, following techniques almost identical to those used by La Farge in the late 1800s. If a single artist worked on one window from start to finish, Jules said, the process would take two months, but his team of six artists can complete a single window in two weeks, and they always work on groups of windows at the same time to make a project move along quickly.

Like the stained-glass windows, the high altar, too, took a long time to prepare for its place in the new church. Jim Buechlein, owner of Buechlein’s Kwik Strip & Custom Furniture & Design in Jasper, oversaw the removal of the three altars from St. Patrick in Corning three years ago and refurbished them into the ornate, gothic-style altar that is now the focal point in St. Mary’s nave.

It was no small task, but Jim — who attends Precious Blood Catholic Church in Jasper and has built custom pieces for several local churches, including Precious Blood and St. Ferdinand — was confident he could create a beautiful piece for the new church.

The process included sanding down and refinishing the altars before combining the three separate altars into a single high altar. The latter meant rebuilding some of the pieces before painting the entire structure white with milk paint, which is an architectural paint made from the milk protein casein mixed with lime, clay and earth pigments. It’s a type of paint common to historic pieces.

All finished, Jim estimates the altar is worth about $1 million. He and his team installed the altar in late May.

“It was like a sigh of relief,” he said. “It felt good to see it sitting in the church.”

Jim Buechlein, left, of Buechlein's Kwik Strip & Custom Furniture & Design, hands a piece of the altar to Sam Wagner of Wagner Brothers Construction while they assemble the altar at the new St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland on May 15. The altar was re-designed from three separate altars from a St. Patrick Parish Church in Corning that closed down.

Tom Wagner and a team of workers helped Jim install the altar. A lifelong member of St. Mary, Tom was excited to see the new church coming together and to be part of it.

“It was time,” Tom said of building a new church. “It’s going to be a lot better.”

After about two years of construction, the new church building opened to parishioners on Sunday, June 28, with the Rite of Dedication led by Bishop Siegel. The pews filled with mask-clad parishioners who spread throughout the pews to socially distance and eagerly waited to anoint the halls of their new house of worship. Several local priests also attended to celebrate the event with St. Mary’s Father Joseph “Effie” Erbacher and the parish.

The dedication kicked off with the handing over of the building when representatives of the architect and general contractor presented plans for the building to Bishop Siegel. Then, Fr. Erbacher opened the doors to the nave, beginning the processional to the altar.

“Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving, his courts with songs of praise,” Bishop Siegel said as Fr. Erbacher opened the doors.

In addition to the celebration of the eucharist, the dedication Mass also included several steps to consecrate the building and prepare it to house decades of worship. As soon as the bishop reached the altar, he performed the blessing and sprinkling of water where he blessed water before sprinkling it over the parishioners and the walls of the church. During the anointing of the altar and the walls of the church with sacred Chrism — a consecrated oil used in certain sacraments — the bishop spread Chrism over the Altar of Sacrifice before he and Fr. Erbacher anointed the walls of the church with the oil as well.

Pat participated in the anointing of the altar as one of two parishioners who wiped down the altar after it was anointed.

“I’m extremely happy to have been part of it. I almost teared up a few times,” he said. “Seeing people in there and knowing it is the first of hundreds of years of worshippers is an amazing feeling.”

The bishop also blessed the altar with incense while deacons carried braziers with incense through the aisles to bless the parishioners and walls as well, and the candles surrounding the altar and throughout the church were lit ceremonially.

Bishop Joseph Siegel spreads holy water on The Altar of Sacrifice during the new St. Mary Catholic Church dedication in Ireland on June 28.

Toward the end of the dedication, Fr. Erbacher addressed his congregation.

“It has been three years of faith, dedication and love, and I thank you all very much,” he said.

Missing from the pews during the dedication was Rita. Despite the decades of prayer and intentional action she dedicated to making the new church a reality, she was not meant to attend Mass in the new building. She passed away a few weeks prior to the dedication. Her funeral Mass — held June 29 — was the first Mass Fr. Erbacher led in the new church.

Cindy Gress, Rita Gress' daughter-in-law, touches Rita's casket after speaking during her funeral Mass at the new St. Mary Catholic Church in Ireland on June 29.

The Gress family chose to wait to hold her funeral Mass until after the dedication because of how much the church meant to her and how active she’d been in bringing the new building to fruition. In the last days of her life, the idea of having her funeral in the new building brought her peace, said her daughter, Carla Allbright of Mitchell.

Although Pat and the rest of his family had hoped Rita would live to see the new church building open, Rita didn’t expect to herself, and she seemed at peace with that knowledge. As her tour of the nearly completed church came to an end that day in May, she looked around the nave with tears of joy in her eyes and a smile on her face.

“When it’s all finished,” she said, “I’ll see it from heaven.”