Fr. William Paul Felix
I opened up the local Sunday newspaper to discover an interesting article in the religion section. The title of the article read – Heavenly harmony: happy sounds are coming from a long-vacant church near…through efforts by a large group to turn the majestic structure into a recording studio. The picture accompanying the article was that of a barren sanctuary resembling an ancient Roman basilica of the fourth century. It was, in fact, a picture of a 102 year-old parish church built by polish immigrants in 1891. The church sat 1,200 people – a virtual polish cathedral. It is reported to have been the largest rural church built in the country. It closed in 1970 merging members with a nearby Catholic congregation. The entire interior of the church was auctioned, including all of the magnificent imported stain glass windows.
Renovations plans call for all of the intricate artwork to be replicated as accurately as possible, on the pillars, walls, and ceiling of the church. But wait! Don’t get your wallet out yet – not until you understand just exactly what the project is about. You see, this church has drawn the attention of a renowned music studio designer from Chicago and, as the article says, “has galvanized an effort to renovate the 102 year old building” into a recording studio. That’s right – a recording studio! Plans call for the maple-floored sanctuary to be renovated into a large recording studio, with four smaller recording areas under the massive balcony, retaining the majestic 45-foot high ceiling in the nave.
The project was discovered when late one night a rock band was practicing inside the former Catholic church. Neighbors came to check out what was going on. The band told the neighbors they had approval to be there and were practicing. They didn’t believe it. As irony would have it, the local community embraced the project. The article reported that scores of people have volunteered time, money, and materials in an effort to renovate the church – or should I say sound studio. A local heating and cooling contractor donated more than $50,000 worth of furnaces, ductwork and installation.
If you sense something missing from this story you are correct. How did the local Catholic congregation fair in all of this? Did they receive a substantial contribution for their mission and ministry? It was quite the opposite. The Catholic parish actually agreed to a 50-year lease for $1.00 a year! I guess they have the satisfaction knowing that unlike the saints and martyrs of the early church who turned the pagan Pantheon into a Christian basilica, they have the honor of turning a “basilica” into a pagan shrine.
Pardon my intended exaggeration but there is truth in what I say. It simply goes to show how much more easily it is to find benefactors and supporters for such things as a recording studio or a sports stadium, than it is for that which is meant to give exclusive honor and glory to God. I have some experience in this. For twenty years I have been working as a co-founder of a religious community to find a place for a small group of monastics to live, pray, and develop their apostolate of sacred art, in addition to using the place for the spiritual formation of lay and priest members. Only recently did we find a pastor and a congregation generous enough to bequeath us with a small rural parish facility closed in the 1990’s. We still cannot live on the property because of the necessary repairs that have to be done. Progress is being made, slowly but surely. I know how difficult it is to find benefactors willing to support that which is solely for the glory and honor of God.
There is further irony to this story. Before my community was given the property we are now developing, we looked at another closed parish not far from the very church being made into a recording studio. This property was far more plain and simple, and happened to be under the same pastoral care as the other. Were we offered the property on a 50-year lease and for $1.00 per year? No, our offer was $200,000 plus all repairs – what a deal! It only goes to show that God does have a sense of humor. (I guess I should have asked to use the property for a sound studio?)
To faithful Catholic benefactors, here is the moral of my story. There are all kinds of non-profit projects and causes that find sympathy in the hearts of people today. (I recently received the report of a community foundation in which a flag in front of a historic building has its own trust fund!) What is hard to find are benefactors who have a preferential love for that which is done solely for the glory and honor of God. Thank you and we need you!
Fr. William Paul Felix is co-founder of the Institute of St. Joseph, a public association of the faithful in the Diocese of LaCrosse, WI. He can be contacted through the Institute of St. Joseph at www.isjoseph.com.