Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
Last weekend we observed the fourth anniversary of our church renovation, when Bishop Loverde came and dedicated the new altar on November 22, 2010. With so many new parishioners all the time, we realize that many don’t know the stories, the growing pains that the parish put up with, the real change that happened. Actually, there are too many stories to put down on paper. Somebody said the other day that we should make a brochure for visitors that explains all the art, the organ, the new design of the church. Well, not just for the visitors!
Recently I was adding some photos to a thumb drive for a class at Holy Cross and I came across my preliminary drawings for the new church. And a rare photograph of what the church used to look like. I have put it on page 10, where this article continues. I also came across my designs for the altar, ambo and font. Not too many people know about these pieces. They were skillfully produced by Pat Kearney of Kearney and Associates (also owner of Old House Vineyards) this side of Culpeper. The columns are solid cherry with oak inlays and support marble tops of limestone quarried from beneath the old city of Jerusalem. Think of it, a baptismal font made from the same stone that formed the bedrock for a hewn tomb where Jesus himself was buried. “In baptism we have died with Christ, that we might also share his resurrection.” The altar stands on 12 columns for the Apostles. The ambo stands on 4 columns for the Evangelists. The font? Three, for the Blessed Trinity. Each stone (also including the stone beneath the tabernacle) weighs hundreds of pounds. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, you will recognize the stone immediately: the old churches are all made of it. I put my designs here – they were made a bit differently in fabrication, but the idea is there. The altar worked better for the space with 3×4 columns rather than 2×6.
When we went to place the new openings in the back wall so that the sound from the nearly 4,000 pipes in the newly-constructed chambers behind would be clearly heard, we discovered that there was no steel in the wall! Those large beams that hold up the ceiling? They were supported only by masonry walls filled with construction rubble. The architect was astounded. It is certain that the roof would have come down in the earthquake that happened less than one year after our dedication. There was a gentleman in the church praying when the earthquake hit; I was outside with a man who was installing the new letters of the name on the front of the church and could barely stand in the parking lot. I ran in the church to see if he was okay. He was, but shaken. When I went in I saw the large crucifix shaking back and forth like a metronome.
That man, incidentally, was one of our biggest critics. When we started demolition, it scared a lot of people. I remember him saying that what we had was good enough and at least we knew what we had. How were we to know what the church would become? He would repeatedly ask me, “What have you done to my church?” It was a mess, truly. We had walled off the sanctuary part of the church set up folding chairs sideways in the church with a little platform with a temporary altar in front of the cry room windows. It was the hottest summer on record; we survived with these bizarre little robot looking air conditioning units that puffed out a little cool air now and then. People were so patient. Now when people say it’s hot in church, I think, “Well, you should have been…” Anyway, he lived a couple of years following the dedication, and would be found every afternoon in the church praying —earthquake or not, I guess—and later told me that he came there every day because he didn’t know a more beautiful place to go.
There wasn’t a single curve in the church before the renovation. It had that kind of unbending 70s geometry. We had a vision of what the Mass might look like in architecture with a back wall (raredos) which was made out of art and music. Art becomes organ and pipes become architectural elements. And the central focus of that environment of the Mass is unashamedly the cross of Jesus and him crucified. The cross is cured Virginia white oak from Powhatan; right at the crossing of the timbers is a tiny plug of dogwood, the Virginia state tree which, according to popular legend was the tree on which Jesus was crucified. After his crucifixion, it is said, the tree changed so as never to be strong enough to carry such suffering.
We asked Orange, Virginia sculptor Thomas Marsh for a representation of the moment that Jesus says, “I thirst.” We look at Mary who draws all our attention to her Son in love. Jesus looks out and says his Word, and John suddenly looks out to see to whom Jesus speaks: us. It is the moment he is sent to carry this message both as apostle and evangelist. In this way we are brought into this traditional grouping of figures in a living way. At the base of the cross is the curve of the earth, an ancient traditional element. And where that cross impacts with the earth, like that earthquake, rippling circles go out from the center: first the steps of the sanctuary, then the pews. We become part of that echoing impact, formed in concentric circles that ever widen and flow out into the world after Mass is over, after the sacrifice is given.
The space of heaven (the order of archangels represented by Gabriel with the horn and ichael with the sword) is united to earth by Jesus and the saints, oil on panel paintings, with sculptures of Peter (with the net) and Paul (with the scroll) who concelebrate every Mass offered at Saint Mary. The saints, from top, left to right, are Miriam (Moses’ sister who sang and played the tambourine at the liberation of Israel through the Red Sea), David playing his harp, the prophet Isaiah pointing toward Jesus, the prophet John the Baptist pointing back to Jesus, Saint Anne for all grandparents, and Saint Cecilia with her pipe organ, the patron saint of music. We dedicated the church on her feastday. On the lower level, left to right, are St. Joseph, then the four patrons of parishes who were formed from Saint Mary—Jude, Patrick, William of York and Matthew, and Saint Leonie Aviat, founder of our Oblate Sisters of Saint Francis de Sales, whose relic was placed in the altar at the dedication.
Maybe we’ll write a book yet, but I thought this might be a fun way to observe our anniversary.
God bless you.