A New Church for St. Clare of Assisi Parish: A Pastor's Perspective
April 23, 2008
St. Clare of Assisi Parish is located in O’Fallon, Illinois, a suburban community just east of St. Louis, Missouri. Formerly a very small farming town of 5,000 in the 1960s, with the development of Scott Air Force Base nearby and the growth of St. Louis across the river, the O’Fallon area is now a typical sprawling suburb of several communities melded together with strip malls and many subdivisions. While O’Fallon itself has a population of about 25,000 now, the parish draws from the other surrounding suburbs and the Air Force base. Many new families moving into the area are young professionals building their first big home. The average parishioner age is about 38. The older members have had the challenge of welcoming such growth, although they seem to appreciate the new vibrancy which the younger people bring to the parish and the shopping conveniences that also come with population growth. I was assigned pastor of St. Clare in 1996, in the beginning stages of this growth surge.
With such parish growth, our small neo-gothic church from 1890 that seated 350 people had us using folding chairs on many Sundays. Structurally, the church needed many repairs and was not capable of being added on to for more seating. Liturgically, the space was also difficult to use with its long aisles and no room for other liturgical rites. In 1999, we set up a “research committee” to begin comparing the value of either buying two blocks of homes near the church for expansion or buying farmland nearby. I visited a variety of long-term parishioners to seek out their opinion about these options, hoping that one of the older farmers might consider selling us some land at a reasonable price.
On a diocesan level at this time we entered into a yearlong study of demographics and how the building of a new, larger church would affect the local parishes and the possibility of merging parishes. A decision was made not to merge and keep the three surrounding churches to meet the needs of the predicted growth for our area. At that time, the diocese made a commitment to keep three priests and three parishes open until the next study in 2010.
Around the same time, a small number of the parishioners started getting concerned about losing their old church and feared what a new “modern” church might look like. Some said things like, “In the past, whenever there were too many people in one church, the diocese just founded a new parish to take care of the growth. Why can’t that happen now?” Explaining the shortage of priests issue and that adding more parishes was no longer a solution did not satisfy the concerns of all. There was even a public protest in the local newspaper by one parishioner who could not accept the need for a new church. He tried to rally others to join him but with not much success, he moved to another parish. The other resistance I got was from a small number of school parents who wanted us to build a new school instead of a church. They, too, chose to “move on” to another parish as they could not buy into the idea that a parish’s worship space has priority and that from a parish’s liturgy flows the other ministries, such as an elementary school. We definitely needed a larger worship space and the present school, while old, meets our basic needs.
Just as we were praying for a solution of where to buy land and having town hall meetings for people’s input, one farmer, Mr. Louis Rasp, blessed us with a donation of twenty acres of land from his farm that was less than a mile down the road from our present site. This gift was received with great joy and immediately helped us move forward with forming a building committee in January 2001.
More meetings were necessary with the diocesan committees who challenged us to build bigger than we had thought, given the predicted growth of the metro area. Since we were asked to build more than we could afford, we asked the diocesan finance committee to rethink their policy of having 65% of the cost in cash and pledges. They accepted a compromise to have just 60% in hand and gave us a loan that allows us to pay interest-only payments for the first five years. This was agreed upon since we felt certain that with all the new growth, we would be able to make larger mortgage payments in the near future.
When we first began discussions for the need to build a new church, I invited the parishioners to join me in discovering the rich charism of our patroness, Clare of Assisi, who herself was centered in a love of the Eucharist. We wanted a building that would speak of tradition, prayerfulness, hospitality, and of Assisi itself. The building committee was unanimous in deciding to build something of quality, nobility, and with designs that would help make a connection to our older church of 1890.
When I was in the seminary and first studied the teaching, “The Eucharist is the source and summit” of our lives, I had no idea of the depth of its meaning that would take root in me some sixteen years after ordination. The building of a church, and the long process that went into it, has truly centered our parish community and me more profoundly in the Eucharist.
Early on in the process I started attending the “Form-Reform Conferences” to learn about the process of building a church. I learned many things, including the value of a liturgical consultant to begin the educational process with the parishioners. Our national search for a liturgical consultant led us to the quality work of Ken Griesemer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He helped us in the process of a national search for an architect, as well. After the committee traveled to see the work of our top three choices, we selected BCDM of Omaha, Nebraska, who themselves appreciated these same values of nobility and quality. We set out to learn together how we could create a “Franciscan feeling” to our design, with a focus on simplicity, warm “Assisi colors,” and with a profound respect for God’s Creation.
The Franciscan spirituality of Clare led us to make important decisions, such as: the color of stone we chose – even the way the stone was layered is based on the original St. Clare Basilica in Assisi; installing a Geo-thermal heating and cooling system; lots of light streaming into the worship space; stained glass window designs based on Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun”; transferring a twelve-foot window of Clare from our old church; and a large Reservation Chapel to encourage Eucharistic devotional prayer.
One other exciting feature we added was to have our large wooden doors made by a carpenter in Guatemala where we support a mission of 24 parishes. The wood is a central American mahogany and the doors stand at 13 feet in the center and 11 feet for the side doors. I designed them with the pattern of a cross in the center, similar to the doors on St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. The handles I designed from ones I saw in France, with the twisted wrought iron made by a blacksmith here in St. Louis. I added the fleur-de-lis to remember our connection to the French Catholics who settled in our area and built the first church here in 1699.
I felt confident that if the space itself was one of beauty and prayerfulness, it would stand as a “home base,” a structure for the “source and summit” upon which our 90-plus parish ministries would be based. Using as many sustainability features as possible within our budget, the building and our community stand as a model of celebrating and honoring God’s beautiful creation, while giving witness to the life of Jesus Christ.
Presently we are studying the possibility of installing a wind-energy turbine for electricity. Since our church is built on a hill, with much open land around us, we have strong winds there that should help generate much energy for others and ourselves.
Rev. James Deiters is pastor of St. Clare of Assisi Parish, O’Fallon, Illinois, USA.
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