The bishop and priest raised their eyes and hands toward heaven, gathering the prayers of the people and imploring the Father to receive them.
“Truly this is an exalted place,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight prayed, “where the sacrifice of Christ is ever offered in mystery, where perfect praise is rendered to You, and redemption flows forth for us.”
They stood before the ornate new altar the bishop had just blessed with holy water and consecrated with the Oil of Sacred Chrism.
“Here,” Bishop McKnight continued praying, “the faithful drink of Your Spirit from the streams that flow from Christ, the spiritual rock, through Whom they, too, become a holy oblation, a living altar.”
All around them, familiar and timeless aspects of St. Stanislaus Church in Wardsville had been refurbished and augmented with things that are new and equally timeless.
African mahogany that had scarcely begun to grow when the church was built in the 1920s had been fashioned into an impressive altar, pulpit and repository for the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Vibrant hues and stenciling summoned forth the intensity of the near-century-old stained-glass windows.
“What we wanted to do was complement and highlight what was there,” stated artist Barbara Niekamp, who designed the new sanctuary fixtures and devised the color scheme.
Newly painted murals of the Divine Mercy and of the Blessed Mother with her Child now adorn the space between the rough-cut stone walls and heavy-timber vaults of the ceiling, along with prayers and Scripture:
“Mary, Queen of Peace, Pray for us.”
“Create a pure heart for me, O God. Renew a steadfast spirit in me.”
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His love is everlasting. His mercy endures forever.”
The tabernacle now stands out prominently, as do the decades-extant crucifix and images of the Blessed Mother and the Beloved Disciple.
The 14 Stations of the Cross, formerly finished in monochrome beige, now radiate with color.
“Your eye wasn’t really drawn to them before,” Mrs. Niekamp noted. “By putting the color there, it really makes people look at them and contemplate what’s happening in each of those moments of Christ’s suffering and death.”
“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,” Bishop McKnight stated when came to Wardsville to bless and rededicate the renewed structure.
The work was completed almost exactly 150 years after the death of Jesuit Father Ferdinand Helias, the Flemish missionary who first celebrated the sacraments in what is now the Wardsville parish.
“You have built an altar worthy of the One Whom it represents,” Bishop McKnight stated in his homily, “worthy of the liturgical action that takes place on it and around it, and worthy of the legacy of this sacred edifice, which stands as a beacon, thrusting its graceful steeple heavenward at the crossroads of highways connecting communities across the area.”
He reminded the people of their shared history as a parish, going back to Jesuit missionaries and to the celebration of Mass in a humble former Baptist church in the 1880s.
The current church was completed in 1925 and restored in 1928 after a massive fire.
Bishop McKnight emphasized that “a church is not primarily a building but the people of a parish.”
Nonetheless, “this church building, with its sacred images and beautiful Romanesque architecture, remind us of the New Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God,” he said.
Nourished and strengthened in word and sacrament, the people are sent forth to make God’s presence known every day through acts of sacrifice, mercy, charity, praise, thanksgiving and steadfast discipleship.
“My dear people,” said Bishop McKnight, “God wants to accomplish many good things in this very community today, in this very parish. He wants to bless Wardsville and the people in the surrounding territory through your parish as a vibrant, joyful community of faith.”
Like the dewfall
Joining the bishop at the altar was Father Ignazio Medina, pastor of St. Stanislaus parish and canonical pastor of St. Margaret of Antioch parish in Osage Bend, assisted by Deacon Alan Sims.
The cantor and congregation chanted the Litany of Saints while the bishop consecrated the altar to Christ, using Sacred Chrism and an abundance of smoldering incense.
Parishioners Glen and Betty Jo Rackers and Patricia Carrendar then came forward to help Deacon Sims and Fr. Medina place the altar cloth on the altar.
“May Your Holy Spirit come down upon this altar, we pray O Lord, our God, to sanctify the gifts of Your people, and graciously to cleanse the hearts of all who receive it,” the bishop prayed.
What pleases Mrs. Niekamp, the artist, most about the completed restoration of St. Stanislaus Church is how much better people can now see what was already there in plain sight.
“Peaceful and focused on God,” she said. “Something that enhances but doesn’t detract.”
She said the new, brighter but more efficient lighting calls attention to the intricacy of the woodwork.
“I hear people say there’s a lot more detailing up around the ceiling that they didn’t notice was up there before,” she said.
The restrained use of gold leaf calls attention to certain highlights of the church without detracting from the overall simplicity.
“We didn’t use a lot, but adding a little bit of gold here and there reflects the light and helps give this place of worship the kind of prominence it should have,” said Mrs. Niekamp.
She added some color and gold accents to the Christ in Majesty mural above the altar and to the geometric crosses at the base of each wooden beam.
She believes the six rectangular wall panels above the side arches near the ceiling at the front of the church “were blank spaces just waiting to be decorated.”
She seized the opportunity to highlight in words and images such virtues as penance and gratitude.
“We are grateful to God, Who is merciful,” she said. “We understand that we need to be ‘fixed,’ and that God is the source of the grace that fixes us. We depend on Him for that.
“So if your mind wanders while you’re at Mass or just praying here, you can look up and it will keep bringing you back to that,” she said.
“A great witness”
Early plans called for buying an existing altar and reredos from a church that was no longer using it.
“But we couldn’t find anything that really matched the architecture,” said Mrs. Niekamp.
So she designed something that would.
John Verslues, a woodworker for Sircal Contracting and a member of St. Francis Xavier parish in Taos, was charged with conforming kiln-dried mahogany to Mrs. Niekamp’s agreed-upon designs.
He was at first intimidated with building something for such a holy purpose as the Mass.
“But the parish gave me leeway and the time it took to do it correctly,” he said.
He went to great lengths to make sure the seams and trim matched on all sides before Rainbow Painting and Decorating, which also repainted the church, applied the finish to the altar.
Mrs. Niekamp then helped adorn it with gold leaf.
“Barb’s design looks like it was made for this church, like it’s always been here,” said Mr. Verslues.
He said he finds it humbling to see the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered atop his finest handiwork.
He said he was impressed with the quality of the woodwork of the previous altar and sanctuary furnishings, which are currently in the safekeeping of local builder Kenneth Otke.
A piece of the wood from that altar contains a handwritten note from the priest who was serving at the parish in 1928.
“It’s an amazing testament to the history of this place,” said Mr. Verslues.
Fr. Medina and Bishop McKnight were quick to thank everyone who had a hand in the work of renewing the church.
“What a beautiful restoration project this has been,” said Bishop McKnight.
Fr. Medina called it “a great witness of life and faith.”
Amazed at the strength and commitment of the St. Stanislaus parish community, Mr. Verslues asks God to continue drawing people to worship Him around this altar for many generations to come.
“When we do things like this, I think it brings people closer to God,” he said.