Assumption prepares to rededicate church after two-year renovation

| Michael Kassner | June 21, 2017 | 0 Comments

Wisconsin-based Conrad Schmitt Studios recently completed a two-year comprehensive restoration of Assumption in downtown St. Paul. Workers repaired decay and cracking in the walls and ceiling before repainting all surfaces and refinishing floors, pews and other woodwork. The interior’s statues and murals were also refurbished, including the apse mural of Mary’s assumption into heaven, pictured. The parish will celebrate the completed project with the rededication of the sanctuary June 30. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On Palm Sunday, parishioners walked into Assumption in St. Paul more than a little curious. After nearly two years of avoiding scaffolding and painting equipment — and enduring all the other inconveniences that renovating a church’s sanctuary entails — the wait was over.

“We walked into the church in complete awe. It was beautiful,” said Margaret Sullivan, a parishioner and church trustee. “How the renovation maintained the integrity of the church was important to me … . The liturgy is of today, but the physical church speaks to the traditions of old, saying there is a place for everyone and everyone is welcome.”

A well-known downtown landmark with its iconic double bell tower, Assumption will signal the end of the long renovation project with the rededication of its sanctuary. The ceremony will acknowledge another milestone in its 161-year history and the investment in a vibrant future.

The renovation of Assumption in St. Paul included refreshing the faux marbling of its interior columns, refurbishing pews and the addition of LED lights. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Restored to original beauty

Since the laying of its cornerstone in 1871, the church has undergone four renovations, two of which were extensive: one in 1988 and the renovation just completed. Julie Malecha, Assumption’s parish administrator, said every major renovation at Assumption has been awarded to Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin. It was one of only a few companies capable of handling projects of this size, scope and complexity, she said.

“We felt it was important to return the sanctuary to as near original as possible,” said Father John Malone, Assumption’s pastor.

The central wood altarpiece is ornately finished with paint and gilding. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Workers removed any unused cabling and structures from previous renovations and then checked every surface in the sanctuary for decay and cracking. Conrad Schmitt designers simplified the selection of a color scheme with a rendering of the interior. “Upon seeing the rendering, we liked what we saw and did not change a thing,” Malecha said.

With the go ahead, workers began repairs, followed by painting the ceiling and walls. All statues and murals were refurbished. The
14 Stations of the Cross sculptures were sent to Conrad Schmitt headquarters and renovated by its artists. The pews were removed and refurbished. With the pews out of the way, the floors were redone. Lastly, all lighting was converted to LED. The restoration cost about $2 million, Father Malone said.

In order for Mass to be celebrated during the renovation, the sanctuary was divided into thirds and refurbished one section at a time.

To help ease crowding, parish staff members rearranged an open space in the lower level, creating a temporary chapel capable of holding 200 people.

Despite the work, weddings and funerals continued. Brian Short, a parish trustee, said his daughter was married at Assumption last year in the middle of the renovation. He thought the church was beautiful then. However, “When I walked in on Palm Sunday, it was just overwhelming,” he said. “I still see something new every week.”

The rejuvenated parish interior has inspired Short to more deeply consider the parish’s past, he said.

“Something I did not expect to do was reflect on the community, dedication and resources required back in the 1870s to build such a splendid church.”

He added: “Another thing to consider: As magnificent as the church is, one tends to get used to it. The fact that the renovation took two years allowed us to realize what we have here.”

Assumption’s extensive wood carvings include images of flowers and animals, including fish. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A pastor’s parting gift

Assumption’s renovation will be part of the legacy Father John Malone leaves when he retires as pastor July 1. He will be honored for his retirement — and his 50th jubilee — at a June 30 reception following the 6 p.m. church rededication.

Father Malone first served Assumption as an assistant priest for a couple years in the early 1970s, but in 1988 he was named its pastor, a role he held for two decades. Under his leadership, the parish grew in membership and launched thriving social justice initiatives.

Father Malone also oversaw the first major renovation of the church in 1988. He recalled that during that restoration, he was walking through the sanctuary when he heard and felt a horrendous crash. As he approached the altar, he realized an artist who was working on the mural portraying the assumption of Mary located above the high altar, had fallen from the scaffolding and was lying on the floor.

According to Father Malone, the man remained motionless for about a minute before starting to move his arms and legs. Everything seemed to work. The man stood up, smiled and proceeded to climb back up the scaffolding intent on continuing his work. Father Malone said he, too, walked away smiling, knowing something indeed special had just happened.

Father Malone retired as Assumption’s pastor in 2007, with Father Stephen O’Gara taking his place at Assumption. A year later, Father Malone became the vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he had taught from 1974-2001.

However, when Father O’Gara retired in 2014, Father Malone returned to Assumption. And now, with Father Malone’s retirement, Father O’Gara is returning to the parish as its parochial administrator.

Father Malone said lighting improvements have made the biggest difference in the space. The entire project “gives the feeling to people that the church will be around,” he said. “It’s a stability thing. It was very pretty, very nice before, but when you do something and bring it up to date, it makes it look like you’re here to stay.”

— Maria Wiering contributed to this story

St. Paul’s second oldest parish

Assumption, founded in 1856 by Bishop Joseph Cretin, is the second oldest parish in St. Paul (after the Cathedral of St. Paul). Construction of the original church started in August 1856. Construction of the present church began in 1871. The stone facade and imposing twin spires are reminiscent of Europe’s great cathedrals.

“That kind of impact was not lost on the parish and original builders back in the late 1860s and early 1870s when the current facility was being designed and built,” said Richard Anderson, a parish historian. The mainly German congregation decided to pattern their church after a similar twin-steeple church: Ludwigskirche in Munich, Germany.

The church’s east tower holds four bells that were operated by hand until 1975 when electric controls were added. The Angelus Bell first rang in the original church and cost $360. The statue of Mary in the center of the high altar also comes from the first church.

Assumption was under the administration of Benedictine priests from 1858 to 1912. The current church holds 900 people and serves parishioners from 75 ZIP codes.

— Michael Kassner



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