By Steve Neill Of The Catholic Virginian
Parishioners of St. James in Hopewell are happy about the completion of the restoration of their church which once again has a center aisle and the altar now back in its original site.
The 1983 renovation had three sections of seating oriented to the altar which was placed along what is now the side wall.
They got to see the results on Easter Sunday when they returned after having Mass in the parish hall the previous two months.
“The timing was perfect,” Father Christopher Hess said. “We were celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord, so Good Friday was the last liturgy in the hall, and Easter Sunday was the first Mass back in the church.”
In addition, the two arched vertical niches on the side walls adjacent to the altar have been returned to house a statue of the Blessed Mother on one side and a statue of St. Joseph on the other side.
The niches had been hidden when a new cinderblock wall was placed over them. Then the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph were moved to stand on the floor of the new altar.
“It’s so wonderful to have Mary and Joseph back where they belong,” said Peggy Neddo, a St. James parishioner since 1971.
With the new altar in 1983, what then became known as the old altar was retained, but played no significant role.
“The side altar wasn’t touched because they didn’t know what to do with it,” Dick Commander, a parishioner since 1970, said. “But it was no longer the focal point of the church.”
Hopewell, an independent city approximately 30 miles southeast of Richmond, has a population of 22,591, according to the U.S. Census. Its boundaries, next to Prince George County, include both the James and Appomattox Rivers.
Hopewell’s City Point, established in 1613 by Sir Thomas Dale, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the U.S.
Father Christopher Hess, ordained a priest in 2012, is St. James pastor. He also is pastor of two other parishes in the cluster which includes Sacred Heart in Prince George and St. John’s in Dinwiddie.
Father Jugene Espeleta, an international priest, is parochial vicar of the three cluster parishes.
The restoration of the interior of St. James Church no longer has the “theater in the round” concept which came with the 1983 church renovation. Seating was in three sections with each seating area at an angle.
“It was not very well received by some parishioners, mainly because it was different and not traditional,” said parishioner Tim Allen.
“But a lot of people liked it,” he added. “I’d guess you’d say there was a mixed reaction.
“We lost a few parishioners, but most stayed. I was neutral. It was fine with me.”
But after a little while, Mr. Allen’s neutral stance changed.
“Later on I discovered I was more of a traditionalist than I thought I was,” he continued. “I really like the look now.”
“We hadn’t had a wedding in years because brides wanted to walk down a center aisle,” Mr. Allen noted. “Now we have our first wedding scheduled in July.”
“And I’m sure there will be many more,” Father Hess added.
The restoration includes artistic repairs to the corpus on the original crucifix which had been donated by the grandfather of Mike Buyalos, a current St. James parishioner.
The work was done by Ron Dixon of Dixon Studio in Staunton.
“I didn’t think it could be properly restored after hanging there for all those years,” Mr. Allen said. “When I saw the restored crucifix in our church, it was amazing.”
There are about 80 members of the Knights of Columbus Father John Massey Council who helped refinish the crucifix.
Mr. Allen and his wife, Patti, are co-directors of the RCIA. They moved to Hopewell in 1979.
Although St. James parishioners had wanted to restore the circular rose window above the altar, it was necessary to replace it with a new window.
“We wanted it to be repaired, but it was in such bad shape,” said Rodney Weston, adding that it had multiple cracks caused when a baseball struck it.
“When we went to take it out this past March it was loose. The center pane was hanging by a lead ring. There wasn’t much to save.”
The new rose window was made by Lynchburg Stained Glass Company.
In addition, carpeting was removed from the sanctuary floors and the concrete floors were painted. The ceilings were cleaned and painted and the beams were cleaned.
“We’re working on a new sound system,” Father Hess said. “The acoustics are much better than they were before.”
The church means a lot to many of the older parishioners who have worshipped in the current church which was built in 1951. The parish itself celebrated its 100th anniversary last fall.
“It’s been wonderful talking to some of the older parishioners,” Father Chris said. “The church was so much a part of their life.”
He referred to Dante Fratarcangelo who he described as “an elderly gentleman.”
“One of his final requests before he died was to come and see the church and remember what it looked like when he was married 64 years ago,” Father Hess said.
Mr. Fratarcangelo visited the church on a Thursday and he died less than a week later.
St. James Parish has a long history. The current church was built on land donated by Dupont, once Hopewell’s largest employer. The company had given similar plots to other Christian denominations with the hope that it would attract newcomers to Hopewell who would work for Dupont. The company is no longer there.
Today current employers include a paper mill, several chemical plants, and the nearby Fort Lee army base.
The Hopewell parish still maintains land in Claremont in Surry County owned by the diocese. It is the site of a former Catholic mission church with a cemetery. The cemetery is maintained by St. James.
Funding for Phase 1 of the St. James restoration received strong support from parishioners through their gifts to the Diocese’s Living Our Mission campaign.
Plans for phase 2 of the restoration are not yet finalized. But one project will be replacement of the stained glass windows on the church side walls.