Bishop Matthew H. Clark traveled to Phelps Oct. 7 to celebrate a special Mass and attend a reception in honor of the 75th anniversary of St. Francis Church. Parishioners who joined the day’s festivities were not only marking the church building’s birthday, but also celebrating the rebirth of their parish home.
The anniversary Mass marked the culmination of a months-long revitalization process, which saw volunteers and professionals alike working tirelessly to update and beautify the church’s worship space, said Sister Joan Sobala, pastoral administrator of St. Francis and St. Felix Parish in Clifton Springs.
One of the most obvious updates was the removal of St. Francis’ Communion rail, parts of which were reused in the church’s new altar, candle holders and a base for the processional cross. Several pews were removed from the front and back of the church to create a gathering space and make the church more welcoming and easily navigable for people with disabilities.
The church ceiling — which had been water-stained for decades — was repainted, and new awnings were installed over several entrances. Parishioners restained the pews, created a reconciliation chapel and turned the old confessional into several niches for statues and the ambry, Sister Sobala said.
Although St. Francis was founded in 1869, the current church building was not built until 1931. The church’s designers drew inspiration from St. Monica Church in Rochester, Sister Sobala said.
“The building itself is exquisitely built and not what one would expect,” she said. “It was built at a time when the country was in a depression, but we already had the money in hand … so it drew artisans who were looking for work.”
Although the original structure was beautiful, it at first lacked many of the amenities commonly found in churches today, such as bathrooms, and was not easily accessible for people with disabilities. Parish leaders had taken care of many of those problems in the last seven decades, but there were still several areas that needed improvement, Sister Sobala said.
“Over the years people did a lot of the work as needed, but there were some of the liturgical updates that were part of the whole Vatican II vision that had never been addressed,” she said.
When Sister Sobala received a $20,000 grant from an anonymous parishioner who wanted to see some work done on the church, she decided the time was right to address those issues. She obtained a $35,000 grant from Phelps’ Mary Hicks Preston Historical Improvement and Betterment Foundation and began a parish-wide capital campaign, which raised $25,000.
Sister Sobala knew some parishioners might be reluctant to change anything about the church, so shortly after Easter she began holding meetings about the proposed changes. The parish also invited Father Thomas Mull, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, to come and explain the liturgical reasons for some of the proposed changes.
“Some people were concerned and feared that we would destroy the historical quality or integrity (of the church),” Sister Sobala said. Nonetheless, “there was enough support (to continue), and not only that, but people were beginning to realize that you have to have an attractive space to draw people.”
Many people supported the work when they understood why it was being done or when they learned that such familiar elements as the Communion rail would be reused rather than discarded.
“The attempt is always to either preserve or reuse in a different way the revered parts of people’s past experiences,” Sister Sobala said, citing the Communion rail as an example. “People were fed at the Communion rail, and now they are being fed again at the altar of sacrifice. It’s a fitting use.”
Parish officials tried to be very sensitive to parishioner’s feelings and understand their reluctance to change, noted Kathy Jacobs, who was chairperson of the St. Felix/St. Francis Cluster Council while most of the work was taking place.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia about people’s individual churches, and it’s just something that you have to respect,” she said.
The parish hired professionals for some of the more arduous tasks — such as repainting the ceiling and building the new altar — but was able to cut costs by having parishioners do much of the work, Sister Sobala said. Many of these parishioners, including Carl Beechler, spent long hours volunteering.
Over the course of several months, Beechler transformed a fairly large closet into a reconciliation chapel. He volunteered for the project, he said, because he had recently retired and had long enjoyed woodworking as a hobby. One night last summer parish volunteers took on the labor-intensive job of removing several of the pews, Sister Sobala noted.
“It was a beastly hot summer night. That night we prayed, ‘Oh Lord, give good rest to the stinky servants of God,'” she recalled.
All of these changes together have combined to create a much more welcoming, hospitable environment in the church, Jacobs said, and that is precisely what Sister Sobala had hoped would happen.
“Catholicism has a rich history in this area, but some people have drifted away for a variety of reasons. We continue wanting to send out signals that say, ‘Come home, you’re loved, welcome back,'” she said.
For the most part, parishioners have been very pleased with the results, Jacobs added. The parish has already utilized the new gathering space for a coffee hour after Mass, and people appreciate the opportunity to stay in church and build community, she said.
Fellow parishioner Mary Ellen Darling said the changes were long overdue and have only enhanced her church’s beauty. Darling said she’s awed by the character of the new altar and the beauty of the woodwork and the freshly painted ceiling.
“To look up at the ceiling is to feel like I am in a very special place sharing it with God’s presence,” Darling said. “Being able to use so much of the old incorporated in the new is very special, indeed.”