Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
When the morning sunlight shone on the altar at Roanoke’s St. Gerard Catholic Church during a special Mass, Saturday, Nov. 11, parishioners and guests noticed. It was a meaningful moment for this small, recently renovated church, known for more than 70 years as a warm and welcoming home for minorities and immigrants new to the Roanoke Valley.
The “Welcome Home” Mass and reception celebrated the completion of St. Gerard’s renovation, which began in June 2017 and ended in late October. The Mass was celebrated in English, Spanish and Kirundi, and it opened with three church members from Africa performing a traditional dance. A banner in the commons area announced, “Welcome Home,” in the three languages.
“The first thing you notice is the light,” said Tom Carr, a religious education teacher and member of the parish’s pastoral council. He noted the lighter paint and tile, as well as the sunlight through additional windows.
“Jesus is always portrayed bathed in light,” he said. “That’s how I feel now: the church is bathed in light.”
The renovation included a return to the church’s original design with the altar at the front of the sanctuary instead of at the side, returning the tabernacle to the sanctuary, replacing chairs with pews and kneelers, uncovering stained-glass windows, moving the baptismal font into the commons area and the reconciliation room to the back of the church, and adding more seating to accommodate the increasing size of the congregation. The additional seating is especially needed during the two Masses celebrated in Spanish each weekend, which usually draw overflow crowds.
The idea was to restore St. Gerard’s to its original beauty and to expand the sanctuary space, according to former pastor, Fr. Mark White. Although talk of improving the small, cash-poor church had begun during the tenure of the previous pastor, Father Bob Spencer, Father White and the late Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo came up with a plan, beginning in 2015.
Father White explained that the bishop wanted St. Gerard to feel “more like a church,” but he needed to be convinced that it had a strong future. The financial response of parishioners and friends of the parish was nothing short of miraculous.
“The executive committee and the community made a decision: St. Gerard’s has a future,” Father White said.
Father Ken Shuping, the current pastor, estimated the total cost at under $400,000; the accounts are still being finalized. Funds were raised by the congregation and other donors through the Living Our Mission capital campaign, with $250,000 contributed by the Diocese of Richmond.
“Bishop DiLorenzo was very generous to Saint Gerard’s,” he said.
Father Shuping arrived in July, just after the renovation began. He had spent a year at St Gerard as a seminarian in 2002, and recalled how during that time parishioners had been invited to sign their names on a cinderblock wall that was getting a new covering. When Father Shuping returned as pastor last summer, that covering came down, exposing the signed cinderblocks.
“And my name was up on that wall,” he said with a laugh. “I’d forgotten all about that.”
He said the renovation was well planned, with the help of local architects Nathaniel MacBain and Derek Cundiff, parishioners at St. Andrew Parish. Father Shuping and others hope future improvements will address other issues, such as the exterior of the building and more social and parking space. But for now, he said, “It looks really nice.”
The resulting changes are functional, aesthetic and, especially, spiritual. Deacon Paul Mahefky, director of real estate for the Diocese of Richmond and the diocese’s project coordinator for the renovation, said that St. Gerard, like many parishes in the ’70s through the ’90s, underwent renovations to comply with the spirit of Vatican II and modernize churches. These changes included removing the tabernacle from the sanctuary, removing the communion rail, moving the altar into the nave and installing chairs instead of pews and kneelers.
Deacon Mahefky noted that over the past five years there have been 25 renovations in the diocese that have returned the tabernacles to the sanctuary; some also reinstalled communion rails.
“St. Gerard’s is a great example of how to bring a church back to its original Catholic appearance,” he said.
Many St. Gerard parishioners have said that, for all the changes, one thing that has not changed is the friendliness and open-heartedness that has made their church famous in the area. They see it exemplifying the words of St. Gerard himself: “I see in my neighbor the Person of Jesus Christ.”
Parishioner Miriam Ornelas said, “This is my home church, and it has always been so welcoming.”
She has attended St. Gerard since 1988, after her family arrived from Mexico.
“Now it feels even more holy,” she said.
Cleo Sims, a member of the finance and liturgical committees who has attended St. Gerard for more than 70 years, remembers when it was mostly an African-American parish. The inclusive spirit defined it then as well.
“It’s always been such a happy and inviting place,” Sims recalled, adding that she would love to see even more Catholics come and “meet all the sweet people.”
She said that there are large groups of Hispanic and African parishioners now, but that everyone is united in their Catholic faith, no matter what language they speak.
“And now, it’s so beautiful that people step inside and are in awe,” Sims said. “It really takes your breath away.”