Bishop dedicates new altar at Mary Help of Christians, Chester

Parishioners of Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church, Chester, participated in a rare experience in their parish on Sunday, Nov. 24. The dedication of a new altar.

The dedication comes after the parish completely restored the interior (and some of the exterior) of their church, a project which took seven months.

Parishioners were all smiles (with the exception of a few tears of joy) on Sunday as their new altar was dedicated by Bishop Edward K. Braxton.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” said Janelle Robinson, the grade school principal, and one of the volunteer artists and craftsmen who helped restore the church. “I am so honored to be a part of this.”

According to the pastor, Father Eugene H. Wojcik, V.F., an army of parish volunteers, under the leadership of project manager Tom Sauer and construction manager Bill Gross completed much of the project.

“We are blessed that we have so many early retirees, especially retirees from the (Menard State) prison who were able to do much of the work.

People were engaged, excited and happy about participating in the restoration. Some gave treasure, some their time, some their talent. This is one of those communities that really binds itself together. It was a million dollar project that was completed at a fraction of the cost,” Father Wojcik said.

Father Wojcik estimated that there was an average of 15 people a day working for seven months (except Sundays) to complete the restoration.

“The church building underwent a complete and total transformation,” he said. “The church was completely rewired, repainted and re-floored.”

The extensive work also included the demolition and reconfiguration of the sanctuary; removal of existing carpeting, and removal of the existing HVAC system. Parish volunteers also installed a new bathroom.

In addition, work was completed supporting the vestibule, nave and sanctuary floors. Local Amish tradesmen made the new church doors.

The new altar is made of the same marble as the baptismal font from the same marble company in Sicily. The old altar, which was largely made of plywood, was reverentially burned.

During the past five years the pastor and church leadership worked extensively with a variety of consultants. Among these was James Hadley, who received his doctoral degree in Liturgical Arts and Architecture in France and Ireland. Hadley presently resides in London, recently moving there from Rome. While in Rome, Hadley worked in the Vatican Museums and taught in some of Rome’s universities. He worked with the parish, local businesses and European resources to complete the project.

“He was an old friend of mine from the seminary,” Father Wojcik said.
One thing Dr. Hadley did was to do a photo analysis of an old black and white photo of the church which helped them determine the original colors of the church interior.

During the renovation, parishioners from Mary Help of Christians attended Mass at St. Mary Divine Maternity in Ellis Grove. Students from the grade school were kept apprised of the renovation too, with frequent visits to the construction site.

“After much of the floor and part of the sanctuary were torn up a third grader turned to me and said, “Father, there is no turning back now,” said Father Wojcik.

After the altar dedication Father Wojcik was moved to tears when he described the community effort involved in the renovation. “It isn’t the church building, it’s the people who worked so hard that impacts me the most. It is wondrous to see them so united.”

“It was very moving to see the school kids being involved,” Robinson said. “Perhaps it opened their eyes and gave them a sense of ownership of their parish.”

In his homily, Bishop Braxton congratulated all those who did so much to make their dream fulfilled.

“This altar is a sign of Christ in your midst,” the bishop said. “This altar dedication is not a mere ritual but a re-commitment of our faith. It is a reminder that there is no church without the Eucharist and there is no Eucharist without priests. Unless some of the young men gathered here today decide to study for the priesthood there will be no Eucharist.”

The bishop continued, “It is so important to see your altar as a true call to you to live out your baptismal commitment.”

The bishop advised those at Mass to make their kitchen table an altar during Advent. “Make your work desk an altar, make your car an altar of Christ. The days of Advent are altar-of-Christ days. This altar is a perfect reminder that you prepare yourself well for the Christmas Holy Days.”