More than an hour before Mass on a hot, humid Sunday morning, Darlene and Brian Beard were in the first pew at Holy Comforter Church, Charlottesville. They were joined later by about 200 parishioners who filled the 138-year-old building in the city’s historic district July 1 and welcomed Bishop Barry C. Knestout who blessed the sanctuary.
“It’s beautiful to see the church back to where it was,” Darlene Beard said. “I think it allows us to glorify God.”
A renovation about 40 years ago had placed the altar off to one side with the presider’s chair in the middle of the space. The tabernacle was in a side chapel, though it was moved to the sanctuary about five years ago. At Mass, the focus of the congregation seemed to be on the celebrant.
Now, the altar is centered, resting on a stone floor, directly in line with a rear altar that has a tabernacle and a new crucifix — all under a painting of the Risen Christ that the faithful have gazed at for decades.
“The goal of the renovation was to ensure that our parishioners can clearly see and grasp the great mystery of Christ being truly present,” said Fr. Joseph Mary Lukyamuzi, Holy Comforter’s pastor.
“The liturgical focus is back to where it should be,” said Erik Bootsma, a Richmond architect who has worked with about 30 churches in the diocese on various projects. “The centrality of the altar, the tabernacle, crucifix and the painting, all of that is in line together. All these things are how Christ is really present in the Church.”
The changes match what was there before the last renovation, but also feature some new touches. For example, the stonework was honed, not polished, to give it an aged look. The flooring at the rear altar has a diamond pattern similar to that of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond.
“The floor pattern there was meant to tie this church to that mother church in every way we can,” Bootsma said. “When folks walk into this church they’re going to say, ‘This is how this has always been,’ and they’ll be surprised to learn that it was renovated in 2018, and that’s what I want — to have people have that experience.”
The $150,000 project began the day after Ash Wednesday. During Lent, a drape covered the construction; altar servers and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist had to work their way around scaffolding and power cords.
“It created a very close atmosphere when Mass was celebrated,” Brian Beard said.
“But it was like Christmas,” Darlene Beard said. “You knew the gift was back there; you just had wait.”
The wrapping came off in time for Easter Sunday, and everything except for a few details was done by Pentecost; from start to finish it took about three months. The money came from a building fund; as of June 12, more than $76,000 has been raised to replenish that fund.
Many people gave their time and talents, too. Ed Mickiewicz, a parishioner for over 25 years, tore out the carpeting and the wood platform in the sanctuary, sanded and refinished the main entrance doors, and hung the new sanctuary lamp.
Another parishioner, his friend, and an anonymous donor worked together to create the new crucifix. The building committee chair, Matt Blumenfeld, also posted photos and regular progress reports on the parish website.
“It has meant so much to this parish to bring the Eucharist back into the center of our celebration and our worship,” said Barb Cassidy, chair of the pastoral council. “To have the bishop here to dedicate this blessed space for us will go down in our history books. We’re such a small parish but such a warm and loving family here, and we’re so blessed to have him here to be with us today.”
The Gospel fit the occasion. The stories of the daughter of Jairus and the woman afflicted with hemorrhages dealt with restoration, Bishop Knestout said in his homily — the restoration of a daughter to a father, a woman to a community.
“Jesus is immersed and in the center of each of these stories…restoring us as individuals and as a community, calling us away from fractured circumstances,” he said. “As we dedicate this space, we recognize the deeper cause of our celebration. In this building, we encounter the Body of Christ.”
After Mass, the bishop also blessed the renovated basement, a Living Our Mission project, where Holy Comforter runs a food pantry and soup kitchen — ministries that are a big part of the work of an urban parish, according to Father Lukyamuzi.
In a message to the community about the renovations, he noted that to be a true “downtown” church it must be one “that serves the physical needs of the community while at the same time being a place where one can find sanctuary from the clamor of the world…a true jewel.”
The people of Holy Comforter believe their new sanctuary is meeting that goal, as will other changes they hope to make in time for the parish’s 140th anniversary in 2020 — the same year as the bicentennial of the diocese.