By Steve Neill Of The Catholic Virginian
After worshiping for Sunday Mass in the auditorium/gym of All Saints Catholic School for six months, parishioners of St. Paul Parish in Richmond were grateful to finally be back in their newly restored church Sunday, Feb. 26.
The church was filled to capacity with even some standing along the side walls when the procession began down the center aisle.
The choir, directed by Deacon Wayne Snellings, and parishioners sang “All Are Welcome.”
The opening hymn was particularly appropriate since it expressed the spirit of hospitality which St. Paul’s extends to its almost 500 families and visitors. Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo was present to bless and rededicate the interior of the church which is located on busy Chamberlayne Avenue on the southern edge of Richmond’s Ginter Park neighborhood. Clergy who preceded the Bishop in the procession were Father James Griffin, pastor, and Deacon John Tucker, a lifelong member of St. Paul’s.
Father George Zahn, former pastor of St. Paul’s who led the parish for 21 years, was also part of the procession.
Six months was needed to complete the restoration project which was designed to have the sanctuary and nave look like the original plan when the church was built in 1950. It was a “floor to ceiling” project, which included new ceramic flooring in the nave and porcelain tile in the sanctuary, fresh paint, retrofitted lighting, and a new decorative ceiling throughout both areas.
“Great care was taken to honor the original design intent of the interior,” said Ronald Neill Dixon, liturgical artist with Dixon Studio of Staunton, adding that the goal was to make the sanctuary more compatible with the Vatican II rite as well as to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A vintage photo from the original dedication was on display in the vestibule along with other photos from St. Paul Parish’s history.
Although the current church was built and dedicated in 1950, the parish dates back to 1921 when it was established in the Barton Heights neighborhood of Richmond.
The original altar was dismantled and its front panel of marble and mosaic was salvaged and incorporated in the new wood altar.
The original ambo was refinished, with its design details emulated in the new altar, chairs, and table.
The new reredos has a canopy that echoes the original one, and incorporates new mosaics that are replicas of those from the old communion rails.
“Although a reredos is just a screen or backdrop behind the altar, this one pays homage to the old high altar and incorporates the original crucifix,” said Annie Dixon of Dixon Studio.
The traditional baptismal font is installed at the entrance to the church before the beginning of the center aisle. The font has a copper bowl and is surrounded by an octagon of contrasting floor tiles to coordinate with the floor.
“The design was to create a beautiful and symbolic composition of font, altar, and tabernacle on the same axis,” Mr. Dixon said.
Oversight of the project was managed by his wife, Annie Dixon, a licensed contractor.
Total cost of the building project was $800,000, a cost which stayed on budget.
Bishop DiLorenzo, obviously pleased with the “restored” church, blessed and incensed the baptismal font and altar furnishings.
With a reference to the Gospel which had just been proclaimed by Deacon Tucker, the Bishop began his homily with the statement that “Money cannot deliver on the promise that it makes.”
He told the story of Catherine Sweeney, a daughter of Irish immigrants from a poor background who lived in upstate New York. She was known to her family and friends as Kitty.
After moving to New York, she found a job in sales at B. Altman’s, a major department store. While there Kitty met a man from Lancaster, Pa., who was a traveling salesman who regularly stopped in New York on his way to Chicago.
The man was Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey chocolates. The two eventually were married and later Mr. Hershey became wealthy as Hershey chocolates became more popular.
One drawback the couple faced was the strong dislike Mr. Hershey’s mother had for her new daughter-in-law.
But Milton, a successful businessman, had enough money at this point to buy a house for his mother and another house for himself and Kitty. He and his wife were a devoted couple.
“Milton loved Kitty so much that he brought flowers to her every day,” Bishop DiLorenzo said.
But even though Milton Hershey had plenty of money, his largesse could not improve the health of his wife, Kitty, who had a weak immune system. She became ill with pneumonia and died at the well-known Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia because she was too weak to travel back to Lancaster.
“Milton had a ton of money, but money cannot always deliver what it promises,” Bishop DiLorenzo said.
But there is hope for those who believe and trust in God, the Bishop maintains.
“God can deliver what He promises,” he asserted. “That is the role of this particular church (St. Paul’s). “The church is a building, but you are the Church. God will make good on His promises.
“You are expected to live by Christian values and are to be good disciples of the Lord,” the Bishop continued.
How do you do this?
“You are to love God, make him the most important thing in your life and do his loving will every day of your life,” Bishop DiLorenzo answered.
Father Griffin thanked St. Paul parishioners for the sacrifices they had made during the six previous months and their generosity in financially supporting the parish.
He also thanked Bishop DiLorenzo for his leadership of the Diocese and said he was always welcome at St. Paul’s.
Father Griffin welcomed Father Zahn, now retired, saying “this really is a homecoming for you.”
Deacon Snellings, who was in charge of the numerous administrative duties during the restoration project and was charged with transporting items needed for Mass to and from All Saints School, received a standing ovation.
Asked what it was like to attend Sunday Mass for six months at All Saints School where the congregation sat on folding chairs on a gym floor, Doris Bates began by saying “it was nice to have some place to worship.”
“Going to the school for Mass brought the congregation together,” said Mrs. Bates, president of the Ladies Sodality and a St. Paul’s parishioner since 1969.
“Everyone had to sit more closely together,” she added. “It made us feel closer to each other like in a family.”
The Ladies Sodality of St. Paul’s donated two new small stained glass windows which are over the two side doors. One is of the coat of arms of the Diocese of Richmond and the other is that of the late Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who celebrated Mass at the church almost every Sunday after he retired until his death Dec. 11, 2012.
“The beauty of the church makes me feel I am almost in heaven and that my prayers have been answered because I’ve seen the restoration project completed,” Mrs. Bates said.