WAUSAU, Wis.—Changing demographics is just one of the factors that often force bishops to make difficult decisions regarding church buildings. Faced with the competing interests of preserving priceless church heritage and putting a diocese's funds to best use, many must resort to selling off or razing beautiful churches.
Now some bishops have taken it upon themselves to get creative in finding a better way. St. Mary's Church here, recently saved from having to enter the real estate market, is an example of the trend.
Last Palm Sunday, Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wisc., established the 107-year-old, neo-Gothic church as a chapel for the pastoral care of those who desire the celebration of the Tridentine Latin Mass. The chapel is staffed by the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, a society of apostolic life based in Cashton, Wis.
One of the worthy tasks the institute has undertaken as a part of its apostolate is the salvaging of traditionally constructed churches that have fallen into disuse or neglect during the past 30 years.
“It is somewhat of a nationwide phenomenon that churches are closing down, one after the next,” Father Svea observes. “These beautiful buildings don't just belong to Catholics here and now; they are the result of generations of sacrifice. They are a living part of the Church's patrimony.”
Thus, with the help of interested bishops, the institute is working hard to restore and preserve traditional churches at risk of the wrecking ball.
Providential Priestly Presence
Due to the number of priests available to serve that part of the La Crosse diocese, St. Mary's and the neighboring St. James parish were merged in July of 1998 to form the Parish of the Resurrection of Our Lord.
Although neither church building could accommodate the new parish's 1,325 families, the merger won't close down the use of either building. Once the new church is built, St. James will be used as a chapel for downtown worship and will be maintained by all the Wausau Catholic parishes. St. Mary's will be used indefinitely for the Latin Mass apostolate.
Many Wausau residents have expressed great relief that St. Mary's Church, built in 1892, will continue as a Catholic place of worship. Even non-Catholics in Wausau, said Father Svea, are relieved that St. Mary's will be cared for and remain a beautiful historical landmark at the heart of downtown Wausau.
The institute's presence in this city of 40,000 has been especially welcomed by the artistic and musical communities. “We're witnessing a renewed interest in traditional musical and artistic forms,” Father Svea says. “Now Wausau has a home for that.”
St. Mary's is home to a Gregorian chant choir and the institute has set out on an ambitious restoration project which, Father Svea explains, “will embellish the already beautiful interior of the church and turn it into something magnificent.” The interior will be repainted and church artists have been hired to execute both murals and stencil work throughout the building.
The institute is also undertaking other capital expenses that the former parish could not afford. This year, for instance, the church will be getting a new heating and air conditioning system, and a badly needed new roof.
Even so, when Bishop Burke announced that he would be entrusting the church to the Latin Mass apostolate, a few critics felt as if St. Mary's was “going backward.”
Responding to this charge, Nancy Heideman, a former parishioner and lifelong friend of St. Mary's, reasons that “in light of today's newspaper headlines, I feel that a return to traditional values, beliefs and ways of worship just might be what this world and we Catholics need the most.”
Heideman said she is grateful for her bishop's decision to keep the wrecking ball at bay. “Now we will have two beautiful old historical shrines in Wausau,” she says.
Father Svea invites his critics to “come and see.” When they do, they find not only a beautiful and reverent sacred liturgy, he says, “but a community of people who are service-minded, young families that are blossoming — Catholics with a great love for their faith.”
Most of his critics, explains Father Svea, “are grateful once they see that we are caring for the church and they understand that they are always welcome here.”
Another church currently being preserved and restored by the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest, is St. Mary's Shrine in Rockford, Ill., which Bishop Thomas G. Doran has called “one of the most venerable Catholic churches in the City of Rockford.”
Three years ago St. Mary's Shrine, the second oldest church in the city, was slated to be closed and most likely demolished, until Bishop Doran gave the shrine over to the pastoral care of priests of the institute. Impressed with the growth and stability of the Latin Mass community in Rockford, Bishop Doran was happy to have found a way to keep St. Mary's open and cared for. Today St. Mary's is once again home to the Roman rite, including two daily Masses.
Built over a century ago, and having survived three decades of utter neglect, this red-brick neo-Gothic structure has been restored to its original splendor through a careful artistic restoration. A fire in 1962 damaged the beautiful stained glass windows — they have not been cleaned since the fire left its soot marks on their faceted round “gem glass” — as well as much of the ceiling and roof.
“There may be some who might think that the physical repair or restoration of an old parish church should not be the focus of so much effort, considering the state of the Church and the world today,” says Father Brian Bovee, 46, rector of Rockford's St. Mary's Shrine. “But our faith and our love of the faith,” he said, “are made concrete by the way we appreciate and take care of the sacred places wherein this faith is celebrated.”
Although many parishioners of St. Mary's were disappointed in the church losing its status as a parish due to lack of members and chronic financial problems, says Father Bovee, “others saw this as a providential solution to an otherwise impossible situation.”
The institute projects an intensified parochial life for the Catholics who benefit from the liturgical life at St. Mary's Shrine. Continuance of the food pantry program, outreach to the inner-city poor and to Hispanics, more public devotions and an increased availability of the Mass and sacraments are all to be undertaken as part of the apostolate of the institute at St. Mary's Shrine; there is also to be a renewed emphasis on sound catechetical training.
Both Fathers Svea and Bovee, among their brother priests of the institute, voiced their opinion that the Catholic Church's physical heritage is worth saving, preserving and maintaining.
“The beauty of these works of sacred art,” says Father Bovee, “are integrally connected to the beauty of the Catholic faith, which makes our work well worth the time.”
The institute, according to Father Bovee, is involved in a similar church restoration project in the historic city of Versailles, just outside Paris. In Africa, the institute is not only restoring church property but building anew as well. In Gabon they are present in two different locations and have already built three mission churches, restored a mission rectory and a convent.
Michael Rose writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.