St. Mary of the Angels parish held a volunteer night to paint the louvers on the bell tower of its iconic church in Wien.
The work entailed standing on a hydraulic lift, more than 65 feet up.
“I wondered how many people would be willing to work that high off the ground,” parishioner Bob Merek recently recalled. “But more people showed up to help than we had room for.”
That’s the kind of generosity and enthusiasm that allowed a parish with 136 registered families to shore up and substantially beautify its 140-year-old church without borrowing any money.
“They all jump in and do whatever needs to be done,” said Mr. Merek, who oversaw the five-year restoration of St. Mary of the Angels Church and the adjacent rectory.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight offered Mass and rededicated the church Aug. 17.
“Thank you all,” he told the people, “for the sacrifices you have made for this restoration and preservation of this sacred edifice.”
He referred to the beautiful churches that dot the countryside as “little reminders, little forms of evangelization to those who pass by.”
That evangelization continues whenever a stranger, drawn by the graceful beauty of God’s house, encounters a welcoming spirit among His people.
“So many volunteers”
As was the case when the church was being built from 1876 to 1892, the people pitched-in to raise the money and do the work of restoring it.
It began with raising money to repair and stabilize the foundation.
The roof and gutters were then repaired, and several chimneys that were no longer in use were removed.
Parishioners took down the cloudy old Plexiglas from outside the stained glass, painted the window frames and replaced the Plexiglas with clear acrylic.
They removed the worn-out storm windows from the rectory, painted the window frames and doors and installed new storm windows.
They painted the bell tower louvers and saw that the outside walls of the church and rectory were resealed.
Once the edifice was deemed watertight, they removed the altar, pews and sanctuary furnishings and set them up in the parish hall.
They thought the big move would take days to complete.
“We started on a Saturday morning and had so many volunteers that everything was moved out and stored in the rectory and hall before noon,” recalled lifelong parishioner Joe Bertsch.
Sunday Mass was offered in the hall for several months while the plaster in the church was being repaired and repainted; the electrical, heating and cooling and sound systems were being upgraded; the woodwork was being cleaned, stained and revarnished; and new carpet was being installed.
Mr. Merek said the tall doors from the vestibule to the church required 20 hours of sanding, even after countless coats of paint were removed.
The church restoration was almost finished by the time a 91-year-old parishioner who lived nearby passed away.
Father Michael Murphy, pastor of the Wien and Salisbury parishes, sent out a call for volunteers, and more than enough showed up after Sunday Mass to move everything back into place.
As a result, her funeral was the first Mass back in church.
“An abode of God”
Strains of “Faith of Our Fathers” and the prayers of the bishop and the people gently resonated throughout the graceful arches and vaults of the ceiling during the Rededication Mass.
“In a very real sense, this church building speaks loudly of our faith, especially its beauty and as a place of quiet prayer and devotion,” the bishop said.
Calling to mind that Sunday’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1-4), he reiterated that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” and must “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, Who has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God.”
“See how the beautiful images throughout this church building remind us of these things, of who we are in the context of the Kingdom of God!” said Bishop McKnight. “This church building is therefore ‘an abode of God’ and ‘a gateway to heaven.’”
He briefly recounted how Franciscan priests had established a monastery on the site in 1876, at the invitation of Bishop John J. Hogan, founding bishop of the former Diocese of St. Joseph.
They and their parishioners constructed the impressive, Gothic vaulted church and monastery of materials harvested and fabricated on the site or nearby.
The Franciscans filled the church with art, mostly statues placed in five intricate wooden reredoses, including the one over the high altar.
The Franciscan community relocated to Chillicothe in 1914, to be succeeded by diocesan priests.
Bishop McKnight called to mind a statement made by the late Father Philip Moriarty, a former pastor of St. Mary of the Angels parish: “Here, you drink of Catholicism at its very best. The people are some of the finest I’ve ever met. They have great reverence for the faith.”
“God wants to accomplish many good things in this very community today, in this very parish,” the bishop noted. “He wants to bless Wien and the people in the surrounding territory through your parish as a vibrant, joyful community of faith.”
He urged the people of the parish to renew their commitment to ministering to all who live within their geographical territory — especially through the upholding of Church teaching, the performing of authentic works of charity, and the celebrating of the sacraments.
“The things that are most meaningful in life require a great sacrifice,” he said. “Therefore, in our celebration of Mass at this altar, we shall make a sacrifice of praise to God, with hearts full of gratitude lifted up to Him.”
“For decades to come”
Fr. Murphy concelebrated the Mass with the bishop. Deacon Burdette Wilson proclaimed the Gospel and assisted at the altar.
Fr. Murphy thanked everyone who had a hand in the restoration and the celebration, including those who prepared the meal.
“Please know how much every act of generosity made during this process is appreciated,” he said.
He thanked the bishop for taking part in the celebration and for “blessing all the dedication and hard work that is symbolized through this restoration project.”
He offered a prayer “that God’s work will continue through us in this place, for decades and decades to come.”
“A powerful force”
Many families in this community in northeastern Chariton County have been associated with the parish for generations.
“Faith, family and friends!” stated lifelong parishioner Wes Wehner. “The Lord God put us all here. It’s in His plan.”
He recalled a saying from a former pastor, the late Father Thomas Waickman: “Where there’s unity, there’s a community. But you’ve got to have a community in order to have unity.”
Mr. Bertsch, chairman of the committee that raised the money for the restoration work, said he was continually amazed at people’s willingness to step up and help.
“This might be a small rural parish, but we can accomplish much because everyone young and old comes together and works for the good of the community along with the glory and praise of God,” he said.
“By ourselves, we are nothing and can accomplish nothing, but when we come together in the name of God, we are a powerful force!” he said.
“Dedicated to the Lord”
Brenda Anderson O’Halloran pointed out that Father Francis Moenning and Brother Adrian Wewer, who were both Franciscans, designed the church in Wien and the recently restored St. Columban Church in Chillicothe.
They “knew how to design and build churches that made people feel closer to God,” she stated.
Mr. Merek said St. Mary of the Angels is the most peaceful place he’s ever been.
It is also home to “a community that’s dedicated to the Lord and they’re trying to do His works, the best they know how,” he said.
Mr. Bertsch’s Christian friends who are not Catholic, have commented on the beauty and serenity of the church and its pastoral location.
He noted that St. Mary of the Angels could not have been built without God’s help, “just as this parish couldn’t have stood the test of time without God.”
He said the stained glass looks its best in the morning, when the sun bathes it in light.
“At a certain time in the summer, if you go in church as the sun is getting low, it shines through a piece of red stained glass right onto the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he said.
Mr. Bertsch emphasized that now that the restoration is finished, the work is just beginning.
“We must go throughout our daily lives, spreading God’s message throughout the countryside,” he said.