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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

092917 olg massTrue beauty stirs the heart. Just ask Bill McCutcheon about the first time he beheld the restoration of his beloved St. Benedict Church. Upon entering the quaint yet ethereal 19th-century church in downtown Greensboro, he could hardly believe his eyes.

“I purposely stayed away (during the restoration) and didn’t look at it at all. I wanted to be surprised. It’s enough to reduce you to tears,” said McCutcheon, a longtime parishioner who said he especially loves the sculptures of angels adoring at the tabernacle.

He wasn’t the only one welling up at the sight of the restored sanctuary of the 1898 church.

Lynne McGrath, a parishioner of 18 years, witnessed multiple parishioners with tears of joy in their eyes. “It’s breathtaking and truly elevates what we’re doing,” she said. “The atmosphere now matches who we’re worshiping.”

The $200,000 project included restoring the sanctuary, installing marble tile floors, painting, adding lighting, and new statues, including a refurbished 1921 Pièta found in the church basement. The project started June 5 and was ready for the vigil Mass on Sept. 16.

On Friday, Sept. 22, Bishop Peter Jugis celebrated Mass at St. Benedict, dedicating the new altar and blessing the tabernacle, presiding chair, lectern and statues. In his homily, Bishop Jugis explained that the dedication of an altar means setting it aside for its singular purpose. The ritual he performed included a blessing with holy water, anointing with sacred chrism and incensation. Father James Duc Duong, pastor, then placed the altar cloth.

“An altar is a place where sacrifice is offered. It’s not just a table; it is an altar,” Bishop Jugis said. “A true sacrifice is offered here – the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered once and for all on the cross and made present here at this altar and every altar to the end of time – a true sacrifice, and therefore it can be called truly an altar.”

Besides Father Duong, participating clergy included St. Benedict’s retired former pastors, Monsignor Joseph Showfety and Father Robert Ferris. The Mass was truly a unique and moving experience because an altar is only dedicated once, which sometimes means just once in the life of a parish – or about once every 120 years in this case.

INSPIRATION FOR THE RESTORATION

After that first post-restoration vigil Mass on Sept. 16, like all other evenings, the church lights were left on a timer from sunset to 10 p.m., illuminating the striking beauty of the Gothic church through its large stained-glass windows. Yet unknown to the casual passerby, there was a difference that night. For the first time since the 1960s, the church’s interior once again paralleled its exterior splendor.

Noting that there was nothing wrong with the sanctuary as it looked earlier this year, Father Duong explained what the change means.

“The objective was to bring St. Benedict back to its original look from 1898. In the 1960s, the altar was removed and the sanctuary transformed to a much simpler look. Now we’re going back,” said Father Duong, who has served as pastor since 2004. “We believe the Eucharist is present there, and with this change we’re restoring sacredness and reverence. Often, people go to Mass for one hour, and they don’t feel anything. I wanted to change that.”

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LED BY THE PASTOR AND PARISHIONERS

The restoration was the culmination of hard work and sacrifice from everyone at St. Benedict – and not just because Mass had to be celebrated in the parish hall over the summer.

“Every Christian can be called a spiritual altar offering the sacrifice of our holy life, the sacrifice of our good works and our charity, and the sacrifice of walking with the Lord to Almighty God,” Bishop Jugis said in his homily. “If we are a spiritual sacrifice, what dies in us is our old self. The old self always has to die, so the new light of Christ can shine forth in us.”

Christ’s light has been shining extra brightly through the people of St. Benedict this year, and the bishop told the congregation they can be proud of what they’ve accomplished in Our Lord’s name. The parish takes up a monthly maintenance collection for maintaining the church. Those funds, along with savings accumulated over many years, were used to pay for the restoration. Parishioners donated an additional $98,000 simply because they wanted to help with the historic restoration – there was no capital campaign.

Because the pastor, parishioners and local contractors did the work, the parish saved $100,000 based on the quotes for contracting out the entire project, noted Tom Garcia, restoration project manager and 20-year parishioner.

“To me, it’s special because we did it internally,” Garcia said. “We managed it ourselves, we used local talent and talent within our parish where available. We didn’t just write a check.”

The CEO of Southern Evergreen, a custom home builder, Garcia appears on WFMY News 2’s “Good Morning Show” as its residential home expert. He refers to his pro bono summer church project as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – the Super Bowl of renovations. A true Renaissance man, Garcia also has a degree in engineering and is a regular cantor at the church. He chanted the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia at the dedication Mass, and his wife Kim served as lector, reading from the first Book of Maccabees (4:52-59) about the dedication of an altar.

Thanks to an unknown parishioner who photographed the church in the 1930s, Garcia and the rest of the restoration team achieved a remarkable re-creation in the restoration.

He used his computer to get a better look at the details in the photos. The zoom feature was particularly helpful in recreating the Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate Heart of Mary that adorns the top of the niche where her statue once again sits to the left of the altar. The medal has a special meaning to the parish: For as long as anyone can remember, St. Benedict parishioners have prayed the Perpetual Novena in Honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

Parishioner and graphic artist Bob Nutt painted the corpus of the large crucifix that hangs above the altar as well as the Pièta sculpture on which he achieved the agony in Our Blessed Mother’s eyes as she weeps holding her crucified Son. Carpenter and parishioner Don Tredinnick crafted a new base for the statue.

The communion rail is the original, and the palms that sit in front of the altar are a nod to the ones in the 1930s photograph. Flanking the Italian-made tabernacle are sculptures of two cherubs, an idea of Father Duong’s.

Garcia and his team developed the overall look and design of the altar pieces in Greensboro with High Point’s Church Interiors. A millwork firm in Nebraska transformed them into shop drawings for the build-out. Once completed, all the parts were put on a moving truck and transported to St. Benedict Church. The parish’s carpentry crew did the final installation of all the pieces, and local artist Gwen Ware touched up the wood that is painted to look like marble and gold.

Ware and her husband Dave also hand-painted stenciling in three-foot increments around the church’s stained-glass windows. They carefully matched the paint with the colors in the windows using multiple layers and shades of blue and burgundy. “That’s why it really pops,” Garcia said.

The extensive stenciling even encircles two stained-glass rose windows in the uppermost part of each transept. These windows were brought from Munich to the United States for the Catholic Exhibit at the 1892 World’s Fair in Chicago, and later given to the church.

The sanctuary also includes 100-year-old recovered chairs and a wooden lectern and cantor stand with intricate carvings of liturgical symbols such as the crown of thorns. The lectern was originally crafted in the shape of a hexagon with one side that opened. For a more modern walk-up design, the back was removed and fashioned into the cantor stand.

Bob Hunt, a parishioner who owns Illuminating Technologies, created a new lighting design, which includes energy-efficient LED lights. These lights are now in the pendant lamps and those on the refurbished ceiling, which was lightly sanded and returned to its original color and sheen.

To the right of the sanctuary stands a statue of St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism and patron of the parish. In his research, Garcia found out the mold for the statue depicted in the 1930s photo still exists, so the current statue is nearly the same as the original.

“The new sanctuary brings such joy,” said parishioner Leslie Ann Brown. “The statue of St. Benedict blows me away. It’s just so meaningful.”

A STORIED PAST

On the other side of the sanctuary is a statue of St. Katharine Drexel, a Pennsylvania heiress turned nun who gave away her millions to philanthropic causes including promoting Catholic education and championing the rights of Native Americans and African Americans.

In the late 1890s, Drexel donated $1,500 to St. Benedict Parish as seed money to build a church. However, she included an important stipulation: pew space must be reserved for black Catholics. With this declaration, more than 60 years before the famous sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter just down the road, a glimmer of an integrated Greensboro in a then-segregated South could be found at the city’s first Catholic parish.

A few of the original pews line the back of the church near the Pièta.

“We keep them because they are precious to us, and we use them for overflow seating at Sunday Mass,” Garcia noted.

However, the origins of Catholicism in the city date back even further than St. Katharine Drexel’s donation. The first Mass was celebrated in Greensboro sometime around 1870. In those days, Catholic services were offered in the homes of practicing families who had moved to Greensboro. Seven of the families banded together to raise money for a church. In 1877, Bishop James Gibbons of Richmond, Va. – later Cardinal Gibbons – laid the cornerstone of St. Agnes Church, which was under the care of traveling Benedictine monks from Belmont Abbey until a resident Benedictine pastor was assigned in 1888.

In 1899, the parish sold the church building to the city, and it was turned into the city’s first high school. The year prior, the parish had purchased land on the southwest corner of North Elm and Smith streets and started construction of the church that stands today, naming it St. Benedict after the order of the monks who faithfully served the spiritual needs of the city’s first Catholics.

Soon major Catholic ministries started to form. A parish school opened in 1926, merging 30 years later with St. Pius X School.

Father Vincent Taylor, the fifth pastor of St. Benedict who later became the abbot of Belmont Abbey, was instrumental in bringing to the city one of the directors of the Sisters of Charity, which eventually led to the opening of St. Leo’s Hospital in 1906. It served the Greensboro community for nearly 50 years and was the first hospital in North Carolina to have telephones and steam heat in every room.

CATHOLICISM IN GREENSBORO TODAY

As the oldest Catholic church in Greensboro, St. Benedict gave rise to the city’s vibrant Catholic community of today, which includes four additional parishes and two parochial schools: St. Mary’s Church, Our Lady of Grace Church and School, St. Pius X Church and School (a mission of St. Benedict’s until 1960) and St. Paul the Apostle Church. The city is also home to the Franciscan Center and Catholic Gift Shop as well as Room at the Inn, a licensed Catholic maternity home started by St. Benedict parishioners and former pastor Father Conrad Kimbrough.

St. Benedict Parish is comprised of about 270 registered families. Reflecting the growing diversity of the Greensboro area, parishioners come from all over the world, including Nigeria, Togo, Croatia, and the pastor’s native Vietnam. St. Benedict also offers daily Mass during the weekday lunch hour to serve Catholics who work downtown.

“We are small but tight!” Father Duong proudly exclaimed at the reception after the dedication Mass.

The major renovation work is complete, but maintenance such as the repointing of bricks and electrical work continues.

“St. Benedict is a special parish, going all the way back to a nun who made it so all Catholics no matter their color could come to Mass. We have a beautiful history, and we wanted to have the altar and the rest of the church match that history,” Garcia said.

“We want to make sure St. Benedict is here for another 120 years.”
— Annie Ferguson, Correspondent. Photos in galleries provided by Cophia Knick, Barbara Markun and Cristina McCutcheon

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