Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
The title of Our Lady of the Rosary was originally Our Lady of Victory that was given after her critical help for the victory in the Battle of Lepanto. Putting the proverbial two-and-two together, there is another victory for a parish and for church architecture going on as Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C. On July 5, with Charleston Bishop Robert Guglielmone, it broke ground for a new Romanesque edifice.
Like Lepanto, what a tremendous challenge for a small parish of 500 families in what is considered a poor section of town to take on in building a new church. But the victory is assured from the fortitude of the pastor, Father Dwight Longenecker, the passionate enthusiasm of the parishioners, and surely the help of our Blessed Mother for a church dedicated to her.
During a most pleasant chat, Father Longenecker described to me what’s going on and the small victories that will be leading up to the big triumph in the near future.
Why a Romanesque Church?
“Romanesque is a recognizably Catholic style of Church architecture,” Father Longenecker began. “Gothic is shared a bit by other denominations, so we wanted it to be a visibly identifiable Catholic Church especially in the Southeast where traditional Catholic churches are far and few between.”
These Romanesque and Gothic style churches are plentiful in the Northeast and even elsewhere. But he reminded that “a lot of the churches in the Southeast were thrown up provisionally 50 to 60 years ago, and they are modern.” People thought they would be good enough for the present, before the Catholic population started to grow.
“Our existing church was a warehouse,” Father Longenecker said, describing it. The time was ripe to replace it.
“We wanted to build a Church that looked Catholic,” he affirmed. Once completed, Our Lady of the Rosary will symbolize the growth of the Catholic Church in the Bible Belt.
The People’s Wishes Speak
Father Longenecker talked to me about a point sometimes missed when a new church is being designed: what do the people wish. But not in the case of his parish.
He made it very clear that “This is actually the church that the people wanted.”
He shared his observations of what he saw happen in some other places. “I get the impression talking to Catholics that very often the modern churches we see are churches that were imposed on the people by modernist-minded priests, modernist-minded architects, modernist-minded liturgists, and modernist-minded bishops.” They seemed to think, “This is what the people will like. It’s an anecdotal impression I get.”
But something different happened as soon as he sat down with his committee. Everybody already had an idea of the church they wanted and presented it. He listened.
“I asked: Is this the kind of Church you want to build? They answered, ‘Yes, Father.’
“So you don’t want to have a modern circus-tent style Church?”
‘No, we want a traditional Church with stained glass windows,’ they answered.
His point? “There was a whole lot of talk about what the people wanted,” he said, again pointing out a lot of the modern churches were from modernist ideologues and liturgists and imposed on the people.
He shared how when he goes into these modern-designed buildings, he asks people about their church. Among answers he gets are, “I can hear very well, Or, I like the padded pews,” he said. “No one says, this is a beautiful building, a holy building.”
The First Magnificent Feature
Our Lady of the Rosary will surely be a beautiful and holy edifice.
Magnificent salvage will live again in this new church. One main feature already purchased and stored, ready for installation once the main part of the church rises, is a perfect set of magnificent matching antique stained glass windows. Not a handful, but a set of 42, plus a rose window.
“When we started to plan the Church the people said we want stained glass windows. I was in favor of something more monastic, austere.” But looking at the architectural design already picked, he told the committee the stained glass windows they desired “had to be the right style art and size for Romanesque church.” Something in smaller panels like those in Chartres Cathedral, not expansive ones like those in the Gothic age.
Father Longenecker began searching and at a church salvage company called King Richard’s, he found the perfect match — 42 Romanesque stained glass windows salvaged from St. Mary the Morning Star Church in Pittsfield, Mass. The windows are all a set from the famed Wilbur Burnham Studios in Boston.
He also noticed a beautiful rose window featuring the mysteries of the Rosary.
“Our Church is named Our Lady of the Rosary — that was a sign from heaven,” he said with joy.
Quite a Find
These windows done in the early medieval Romanesque style — just what the church wanted — represent a level of craftsmanship very rarely ever seen anymore except in antique stained glass from the best studios, as Burnham’s was. Burnham, who had studied medieval windows and medieval tradition and knew his stuff, and his son were the premiere stained glass craftsmen in the United States beginning from the very early part of the 20th century.
“And to think, we have a set of 42 beautiful Burnham windows for our new church plus a fantastic rose window portraying the mysteries of the Holy Rosary!” underlined Father Longenecker.
If these windows with many scenes from both the Old and New Testaments could be duplicated today, they would cost millions. But the church got them for less than a quarter of a million. Irreplaceable liturgical art from closed churches lives again, and at a bargain. There is even that practical side.
Among other salvaged items for Our Lady of the Rosary are antique Stations of the Cross now being restored and refinished. And there is the possibility of getting a pair of six-foot solid wood-carved statues of Sts. Peter and Paul from the 1870s that once graced a church.
As Father Longenecker suggested, these beautiful items link not only the past artistic times but the heritage of Catholics.
He noticed that in the Midwest lots of pastors are restoring the churches that were devastated when beautiful reredos, marble rails and altar rails were torn out. “With the great approval of the people, priests restoring and putting back the reredos, the altars, the statues,” he said. When the word went out that we’re “going to put everything back again,” the people said they “knew that would happen eventually.” And they showed priest what they were able to salvage and store for this time.
Beauty in Poor Part of Town
Located in an economically disadvantaged and challenging part of town with low income housing and social problems, the parish is small with a little over 500 families but its heart is big. Even with building the new church.
“Why should poor people get ugly churches?” Father Longenecker asked. Those who might question can understand “we’re investing in that community,” as he noted. The parish reaches out to the poor in the area in different projects, so they are showing they “should be able to do both — minister to the poor and build a beautiful church.”
The present church will become a new early learning center for Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic School and a community center.
Father Longenecker explained that for Catholics the New Evangelization has to be linked in with the minor holy trinity of beauty, truth, and goodness.
“This is one of the contributions Catholics have to make the New Evangelization,” he said. “New churches like this actually encapsulate all three. It’s not only a utilitarian building for worship, but right there on the road people driving by will see this is something that our town has never seen before, and it will be the Catholics.”
The church and grounds are visible from the nearby I-85 junction, so another hope is the church will even be an outreach to travelers on the interstate. And another hope is that it will spur the area’s revival. The church should be finished by late next summer.
With our Blessed Mother guiding the project, the victory is assured for Our Lady of the Rosary Church.