By John Heuertz
Special to the Catholic Key
KANSAS CITY – In 1997 a diocesan parish church was redesigned into something uniquely beautiful. Last weekend the church’s redesign received the crowning touch that enhances the building’s great elegance and beauty, and brings it into conformity with current guidelines for church design.
A tabernacle was added to the worship space and blessed at a 4:30 p.m. Mass last Saturday afternoon at St. John Francis Regis parish in Kansas City. But how was such a seamless change in a settled, 15-year-old arrangement accomplished with a simple bequest, volunteer labor, and a key piece whose past is somewhat mysterious?
“Prayer,” says Fr. Richard Rocha.
Last July, Fr. Rocha was named the newest pastor of St. Regis, a church with a very interesting interior space laid out on a north-south axis.
When he arrived, the celebrant’s chair was at the north end, the ambo and baptismal font were at the south end, and the altar was in the middle of the room.
Congregants sit amphitheatre-style on either side of the altar, which is the focal point of everything in the space. The tabernacle was in a beautiful little Eucharistic adoration chapel disconnected from the church proper, though still under the same roof.
“This caused a different approach to reposing the Blessed Sacrament,” Fr. Rocha said.
He began to discern a need to have the altar and tabernacle closer together. The chaplain at O’Hara High School, Fr. Rocha also knew of an old tabernacle that the Christian Brothers had brought to O’Hara by the 1970s, though from where is not certain. Fr. Rocha started thinking in terms of using it to enhance the 1997 design at St. Regis.
In the mean time, long-time St. Regis parishioner Kenneth Van Pelt had passed away in November of 2010. Shortly after his death, his widow Theresa Van Pelt had given a bequest to the parish with a request that it be used to honor her husband’s memory in some tangible way.
“I wanted it to go for something substantial,” she said. “Ken went to daily Mass and prayed the Rosary. His first check was always for the Church. He was a cantor and sang in the choir during the week. He was always involved.”
“Theresa mentioned the bequest to me during this whole time of discerning,” Fr. Rocha said. “I said I’d like to do this, and could we use Ken’s bequest?”
“She just started crying. That’s what really got the ball rolling. It’s a wonderful story,” he said.
When the Van Pelt bequest became available to pay for it all, and with the bishop’s approval granted early this year, it became clear beyond any doubt that the next logical step for the parish to move the celebrant’s chair to the side, and put the O’Hara tabernacle on a new platform and altar at the north end of the church, where the celebrant’s chair had been.
Fr. Rocha began working with the parish to make the project a reality. Knights of Columbus helped to take the tabernacle apart and clean and restore it.
“The Knights are in solidarity with the pastor,” one Knight said. “He conveyed his vision and we helped to carry it through by sharing his vision with our fellow parishioners and by working on the tabernacle.”
To build the new altar, Fr. Rocha turned to another parishioner who had already built a couple of things for the church.
“About halfway through a novena to St. Joseph I realized I needed a carpenter,” said Jerry Fournier. “I had made a lot of mistakes and ended up building it three times.”
First he built everything out of construction lumber to practice cutting all the angles and fitting everything together — “There are some strange angles on this thing,” Fournier says — and then built it again out of 4×4 veneer woods.
“It fell apart. They never sell 4x4s as a unit anymore. They’re glued together from smaller pieces and they come apart at the seams.”
“I ended up chopping all that up for firewood. But I wouldn’t give up.”
He discovered that solid oak 2x4s worked to build a tabernacle pedestal whose design closely reflects the ambo’s design. Fournier, a pastel painter, even mixed all the stains himself to be sure they’d match the existing hues in the ambo’s wood.
Everything was finished about a week before the dedication. “The whole thing took about six weeks. I was physically, emotionally and completely wiped out by the time it was done,” says Fournier, who is 82. “My wife said I’d have to take four naps a day for a while to recover.”
“But we got it done. I looked at it when it was done and I was satisfied. It isn’t always like that.”
Other parishioners made altar linens, including the veil behind the tabernacle door, linens for inside the tabernacle, and an altar cloth.
“It was really a wonderful effort by several parishioners,” Fr. Rocha said, “and we did it without using any money from our operating budget or from our capital campaign.”
Now St. John Francis Regis parish has two tabernacles — one in the church proper, and its original one behind the frosted glass doors of the Eucharistic adoration chapel.
“The Eucharistic chapel will make a beautiful altar of repose on Holy Thursday,” Fr. Rocha said.
But where was the new tabernacle before it was at O’Hara High School? If you recognize it, please call the St. Regis parish office at (816) 761-1608.