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Online Edition: March 2009, Vol. XV, No. 1

Can We Restore Our "Bare, Ruined Choirs"?

Country Parish seeks Recovery of Beauty

by The Rev. David Fulton

Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Constance, Nebraska, is a classic, white wood-framed church. Built by German pioneers in the 1890s, Saint Joseph’s still stands today, in the midst of an overwhelmingly Catholic area composed mostly of farmers. The people of Saint Joseph’s parish take great pride in their church, keeping their church clean and the grounds, which contain a parish cemetery behind the church, very well kempt.

Visitors to St. Joseph’s are amazed at the work that the parishioners put into their church, often asking why their own parishes are not as well-maintained. What is most impressive about St. Joseph’s is the fact that the parish is only 48 families strong, has not been in debt in any way in over twenty years, and has an overwhelming spirit of parishioner volunteerism. Unfortunately, in the early ‘70s, Saint Joseph’s Church was gutted, removing much of what made it such a beautiful church.

Most, if not all of us, have heard of or have personally experienced the gutting of traditional churches. Some pastors have, for whatever reason, removed statues, reredos, communion rails, baldichinos, high altars, and side altars from their churches. Some pastors have even removed the Blessed Sacrament from the church sanctuaries, placing them to the side of the sanctuary or in some room altogether separate from the main body of the church. A common reason given for doing this is to “avoid confusion” between the Eucharistic Presence of Christ on the altar and in the tabernacle.

Often, these alterations or guttings of churches have caused much pain among parishioners and have caused divisions. Many members of such parishes were led to believe either that Vatican II mandated such changes or that the church was being modernized. In either event, there were parishioners who were left in a state of confusion in the midst of misinformation and saw their parishes plundered. Many Catholics believe that restoring their parishes is a lost cause, but such is not the case. Restoration of gutted churches is very possible.

At Saint Joseph’s the rationale the people were given for the gutting was that the parish was going to close, so the pastor wanted to auction what he could before the parish closure. As you can see from the before-and-after pictures of St. Joseph’s, he removed the communion rail, baldichino, celebrant’s chair, high altar, side altars, and all but two of the statues.

As in most “gut-rehabs” of churches, the tabernacle was set to the side. Also, a bench was placed behind the altar for the priest and servers, the sanctuary was extended into the main body of the church, and the choir was placed in front of the congregation.

Furthermore, the church was carpeted, the servers’ sacristy was converted into a restroom and storage area, and the choir loft was reserved for money counting and the storage of seasonal decorations.

Although this gutting happened, and nothing can replace the original furnishings and art, at least some of what was lost can be replaced. Twenty-five years after the gutting, Saint Joseph’s Church is still open and viable and what was taken from it should be restored.

As the pastor of Saint Joseph Church, I would like to return the tabernacle to its original central position and to replace at least some of the lost furnishings.

The reasons for this restoration are two-fold. The principal reason for the restoration is to restore the church’s theological expression in its structure.

As you can see in the picture of the current church, the back of the sanctuary is full of plants as a result of an attempt to fill the void left by the removal of the high altar and reredos. The tabernacle is currently located in the wall on the left side of the sanctuary. What we would like to do is to restore the high altar and to put the tabernacle in its original central location in the sanctuary on the high altar.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the tabernacle should be located in a particularly worthy place in the church and should be constructed in a manner that emphasizes “the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament” (1397). According to the structure of Saint Joseph’s, I think that the tabernacle would accomplish this emphasis on the Blessed Sacrament best in the most central location in the sanctuary, which is the focal point of the church.

A second reason for the restoration is as a morale-boost for the parishioners, who have heard intermittently over the past twenty-five years that their parish was going to close. In those same years, the parish has seen vestments and other parish appointments taken to other parishes, to which it was a mission parish. These properties of the parish typically were never returned. Restoring Saint Joseph’s would give parishioners great hope (and renewed energy) for the future.

After the relocation of the tabernacle, the next change would be to remove the bench behind the altar, replacing it with a real celebrant’s chair located on the opposite side of the altar with respect to the ambo. The special priest-celebrant’s chair has symbolic meaning. In any Mass that a priest celebrates, he represents not only Jesus Christ, but also his bishop. Therefore, as a priest celebrates Mass, he symbolically sits in the chair of his bishop, whom he represents.

Finally, we hope to restore the communion rail. Although it has been the usual practice in the United States to receive Holy Communion while standing, there is an important theological significance to the communion rail, for it symbolizes an extension of the altar as the holy table, which reminds us of the sacrificial nature of the Mass.

In the Mass, the priest offers the perfect and perpetual Sacrifice of the Lord and then feeds the faithful with the Sacrifice at Holy Communion. Kneeling at the communion rail reminds the faithful of receiving the Lord on the altar, or holy table. This symbolism of the communion rail has often been misunderstood, causing some priests to begin the illicit innovation of inviting the faithful into the sanctuary during the Liturgy of the Eucharist or Communion Rite so that they can draw near to the altar or have a sense of receiving “on the altar”. Another reason for restoring the communion rail is the general permission for celebrating Mass according to the 1962 Missal. In this “extraordinary form” of the Mass, the people always kneel to receive Holy Communion, so it would be prudent to prepare for celebrating this form.

Some of you may belong to churches that have been gutted or radically altered. If so, you know firsthand the challenges a small parish like Saint Joseph’s faces — and how much we need financial help to fulfill our plan to restore our church. We truly need a financial boost, and we would be very grateful for any contributions to this effort to restore the beauty and sacredness of our church! (Donations may be made to St. Joseph Catholic Church, and sent to Father David Fulton, PO Box 170, Fordyce, Nebraska 68736-0170).

Perhaps our restoration project at Saint Joseph’s parish, and our reports of progress could give hope to other parishes like ours in the prospect of having a similar restoration in your parish church.

***

Father David Fulton is pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Constance, Nebraska, St. Boniface Catholic Church, Menominee, Nebraska, and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Fordyce, Nebraska. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska in 2002, and was installed as pastor of his three parishes in June 2008.

***

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