Kids Design and Build Backyard Chapel
Standing outside a cottage in a St. Paul, Minn., backyard with three small altar servers on the feast of the Visitation, Father Lenny Andrie prepared to process in for the inaugural Mass in a chapel that the servers and other children had built themselves.
As the procession entered, about 20 kids and adults rose from diminutive handcrafted wooden benches, singing Immaculate Mary in the pale-yellow chapel that Father Andrie, parochial vicar at St. Joseph in West St. Paul, had just blessed.
Inside, white sheets covered the walls and ceiling, and 14 squares of wood, some bearing faint images of the Stations of the Cross, were promises of a more permanent chapel interior. But everything was in place for Mass: a wooden altar covered by a white cloth, crucifix, candles, pictures and cruets.
During the Mass, children in Sunday clothes read, sang and brought up the gifts in the chapel that they had conceived, built, decorated and named “Visitation Catholic Church,” with the goal of pleasing God.
The story of the chapel is one of children’s faith, love of the Eucharist and eagerness to learn new skills. It’s also about a family learning to trust more in God’s provision.
Four summers ago, Andrew Lehnen and his next-door neighbor, Mary Marsolais, looked at the dilapidated shed —formerly a pigeon coop — that Andrew’s parents planned to remove from their backyard, and the two young friends thought, “Why not turn it into a chapel?
Using the driveway as a table, Andrew, then 8, and Mary, then 9, drew up the first plans on a sheet of paper. They wanted a real chapel, not a clubhouse or fort, because Andrew was inspired after making his first Communion, and the children, with their siblings, had grown up “playing Mass.”
“It just sounded amazing,” Mary said.
It was so amazing that no one believed the children could make it happen. But their parents consented, neighborhood families helped, and, after four years, they were ready at the end of May to welcome Father Andrie.
Andrew’s parents, Randy and Jennifer Lehnen, helped with the work and materials, but in the early stages, they kept their backup plan in mind: to turn the old shed into a greenhouse — or a better shed.
Andrew “has always had this engineering brain, and [is] full of ideas, so I’m not surprised that he came up with the idea; but he was 8 years old, and we were like, ‘Okay, when is this actually going to happen?’” Jennifer said.
But the kids were serious. Andrew and Mary, along with their siblings and friends, gutted the 10-by-16-foot shed —which was “the funnest part,” according to Andrew. In a scene reminiscent of an old barn raising, neighborhood kids and their parents moved the wooden frame to a spot behind the family’s garage.
“The hardest part of the project was probably just keeping positive thoughts that, ‘It’s still going to happen, and it’s not something that’s going to melt away,’” Mary said. “Just totally believing it’s going to happen.”
In the years that followed, the kids helped install the walls, siding, roof and floor. It was more work than they anticipated, Andrew said.
During this time, Randy was frequently job-hunting and could give the children more help in finding materials, teaching them and providing other support. It was a time when the family grew in their dependence on God and his provision — not only for building materials for the chapel, but for their basic needs, Jennifer said.
Nearly every material for the chapel, except the siding, was donated or found. Family and friends donated windows, rugs, a keyboard and skylights.
Local parishes offered U.S. and Vatican flags and a kneeler. Wooden pallets found on a curb became the foundation for sanctuary flooring. An electric chandelier from a nearby house that had been sold was converted for use with candles, and plywood was gathered after a winter sports event.
A garage sale brought in funds the kids hope to use for future additions, such as statues. Also on their wish list: heating and electricity, materials for the interior, and a bell tower. In the meantime, the kids talk about the chapel as their own place to pray, a place for which they still have a lot of plans.