Thursday, December 24, 2009

St. Mary's Cathedral in New Ulm: Almost Ready for Christmas

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So you think you've had a hard time getting your home ready for the holidays?

Be glad you don't have the kind of last minute projects that St. Mary's Catholic Church in New Ulm has been undertaking as it rushes to finish most of its sanctuary remodeling in time for Christmas Eve services today.

The project has been underway since June to turn the church's sanctuary from a nice, comfortable wood-paneled rec-room look to a dramatic limestone wall that draws all of one's attention to the altar and the tabernacle.

The wall has the look of an ancient temple, or maybe a gateway to the New Jerusalem, with its large blocks and its archway capped by 5,000 pound lintel. The floor of the sanctuary has been stripped of its carpet and paved with limestone matching the wall. The altar has been replaced with a dark red granite altar imported from Italy, with a matching lectern.

While the Christmas Eve and Christmas services will unveil the largely finished sanctuary, the blessing of the new altar will take place at 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday, with Bishop John LeVoir presiding.

The altar is the focal point of any Catholic church. "It is on the altar that bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. In a very real way, an altar is where heaven and earth meet," according to the church's bulletin.

Underneath the altar are the relics of four saints, which had been stored at St. Mary's for many years. The relics include St. Luke the Evangelist, the apostle of Jesus, who lived and died in the first century; St. Bonaventure, (1221-1274), bishop and Doctor of the Church; St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), known for his tireless work for the poor and his devotion to prayer, and St. John Vianney (1786-1859), universal patron of priests.

On Tuesday, workers from Twin Cities Tile and Marble were busy moving the granite altar pieces into place. A large base was set in the floor, covering the aperture where the relics of the four saints are being kept. Four columns on the corners support two large slabs of granite that make up the altar table. All together, the altar weighs about 6,500 to 7,500 pounds.

The workers also placed the matching lectern, which weighs about 2,500 pounds.

Meanwhile, crews from Heymann Construction were grouting the floor stones and putting plasterboard up along the side walls.

Tim Clyne, who is overseeing the engineering for Heymann Construction, the contractor on the job, estimates the wall itself contains about 60,000 pounds of stone. The wall also includes several tons of structural steel in back, and there are tons of supporting steel below holding it all up.

Msgr. Douglas Grams, pastor of St. Mary's said the work on the inside of the church began in June when footings were sunk in the basement, six feet into the ground. Supporting steel pillars and crossbeams were added to support the weight.

Upstairs, the wood panel faade behind the altar was removed while work crews cut two large vertical windows behind the sanctuary, to throw natural light around the side of the stone wall. The paneling was moved forward to cover the construction from view during the week when Sunday Mass was held upstairs. Daily masses were said in the church basement.

The church should be ready for Christmas Eve services today. The only parts remaining to be placed are the seven-foot tall tabernacle, the cabinet that holds consecrated hosts, that will stand in the archway, and a new presider's chair for the altar, and a new lighting system for the church.

When all is finished, it will complete the remodeling project on the church that has been in the works since plans were first presented and approved to diocesan committees in 2000. A $1.3 million capital campaign is financing the work, which included a needed repair of the church roof, the addition of offices on the north side of the church, a new faade over the front entrance and a bell tower that houses the old bell and statue of St. Mary salvaged from the former St. Mary's Church and School next door.

The project this year included paving the parking lot near the church, remodeling the kitchen and basement bathrooms, and a new sound system for the church.

The design work was overseen by Fr. James Notebaart, a liturgical consultant who has overseen many projects throughout Minnesota, said Msgr. Grams. R.L. Engebretson was the architectural firm overseeing the project, and Heymann Construction was the main contractor. New Ulm Journal


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