Beyond being the biggest Catholic church in Kansas, this will be the biggest Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) church in the world. With a seating capacity of over 1,500, it will serve the growing community of St. Mary's for generations to come.
There is an old tradition at a wedding where the father of the bride lifts his daughter’s veil and reveals her to her groom. Many legends and lore sit behind this practice, but from where such a custom comes, who can absolutely and conclusively say? Nevertheless, there it is. “And there came one of the seven angels, who had the vials full of the seven last plagues, and spoke with me, saying: Come, and I will shew thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Apoc. 21:9). The veil is lifted, and the beauty of the bride is revealed to her husband. “And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Apoc. 21:2). Such a lifting of the veil occurred on June 15 at St. Mary’s Academy and College, revealing the new Immaculata, the future Society church in St. Marys, KS.
A Fire Scars the Kansas Prairie
Since a fire, sparked by faulty wiring, destroyed the Immaculata chapel on Nov. 8, 1978, the largest community in the SSPX in the United States has lacked a fully realized church structure. The crown of the campus, the small but stately Immaculata chapel that had been raised with the money of 300 alumni of the old St. Mary’s College; the chapel that had taken into her bosom countless faithful and sent many forth to become priests; the chapel that persuaded Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that St. Marys, KS should become the flagship of the Society in the United States—that crown burned down almost before the ink had dried on the closing papers. In keeping with the latter analogy, the pride of the U. S. District, the flagship, had suffered the loss of her flag. Now, the hope and the promise of a new flag—a grander and more glorious flag—was unveiled at Ignatius Auditorium on the St. Mary’s College campus.
During the unveiling, Mr. Nicholas Novelly, the head accountant at St. Mary’s College, noted that behind great losses is always the hand of Divine Providence. The insurance money, while originally intended to rebuild the chapel, was used to nourish the infant campus of St. Mary's. For over 40 years, the school and the campus grew, as did the surrounding community.
Since the fire, Mass and the various liturgical ceremonies have been celebrated in temporary chapels: first, a room in Jogues Hall served as the temporary church for the fledgling campus, and then was moved to the former Jesuit cafeteria which could seat around 500. But as the parish grew from a mere handful of families to over 4,000, filling the Assumption Chapel from wall to wall, larger ceremonies, such as Christmas Midnight Mass, the liturgies of Holy Week, confirmations, and First Communions were held in the auditorium and the altar erected on a stage.
As soon as the fire had been doused, many hoped the chapel would be rebuilt. However, time after time, different rectors had to delay the project as fundraising for the Immaculata took away much needed funds from the day-to-day operations of campus. Mr. Novelly reported that, from former fundraising and donations, just over $15.7 million has been raised, but to complete this project, $14 million more is required. Even so, Mr. Novelly stressed that the donations to the Immaculata cannot come by cutting donations from the operations of the school and the parish.
The Immaculata Will Watch Over Saint Marys
The plans for the new Immaculata will move the building from its original location on the hill beside Bellarmine hall. Due to the lack of space for parking, a new site was chosen on a higher hill, near the cemetery, which could better serve the parish without conflicting with the school. “Our goal too, with this expansion, with a larger church,” Fr. Patrick Rutledge said, “is to give you a chance to come to Mass, to pray at Mass, to not have to stand at the back of a church behind seven rows of people, to be able stay after Mass and make a thanksgiving, to not feel like you have to relinquish your parking spot as soon as you possibly can, as so many of you have to do each Sunday because of our growth.”
The majesty of the church will be evident to all, with two bell towers reaching 111 feet in the air, a 12-sided copula (representing the 12 stars that crown Mary) on which will rise a statue of Our Lady to become the highest point of campus, as well as the town. “Our lady looking over her town,” Fr. Rutledge said, “the Immaculata looking over her town, protecting her town as she has already done.”
A Measured - but Grand - House of God
The Immaculata will become not only the largest Catholic church structure in Kansas but also the largest such building within 350 miles of St. Marys. “We’re not just building a chapel,” Fr. Rutledge said. “We are really building something significant. Especially as our Church, our Catholic Church, is struggling so much, what a breath of fresh air this will be!” It will contain eight confessionals, a reliquary chapel, a baptistry, two side-chapels with seating for 50 people, a cry room with seating for 100, and a choir loft that also can seat 100. The parking lot itself will be able to hold 465 vehicles. “Since there are about 15 people per vehicle,” Fr. Rutledge joked, “it should be enough.”
David Heit, the lead architect from CIVIUM Architects, told the audience that this project was special to him and to his team. “It is not just another design problem, not just another large building, but definitely something unique for us,” he said. “And now we find ourselves (perhaps not in a literal way, but still in a way) offering a brief prayer each day before we set to work, understanding that what we do needs to be divinely inspired.”
And, lest the desire for greater majesty carries away the appropriate measure of material things, David Eddy, the manager of pre-construction for the U.S. District and Preconstruction Director at Fransen Pittman, has set forth a measured budget. Mr. Eddy has been involved in some of the previous conversations on the Immaculata, and now his job is to make sure that the church is both beautiful but on budget, “to make sure we are designing a building that is buildable,” he said, “and a building that matches the needs of the District and of St. Marys.”
A Sign of Tradition's Growth in America
Fr. Jurgen Wegner, the District Superior, turned the thoughts of the audience from the stone and the windows to the broader vision of what the new Immaculata means not only to St. Marys but also to District and the wider world. First he spoke of the past, the reason for purchasing St. Marys “with the idea of restoration of the Catholic Faith. And a restoration that has to come from the center of the United States,” Fr. Wegner said.
“It was a big sacrifice for many of the pioneers to make the decision to leave a well-established situation elsewhere in the United States and to come to Kansas where you have hot summers, chiggers, and all kinds of awful things,” the District Superior continued. “But it was their faith that brought them here, and really this idea of the pioneer to build. These early years for the faithful and the priests were difficult years.”
“It is the energy, the sacrifices, and the tears of all those who started off here, who made this place the place where other traditionals want to go, who made this place—in a certain way, it in the beginning was just an awful place—now becomes a refuge and a desirable place for every Catholic. We want to say thank you to these pioneers—many of them have left us already, such as Fr. Bolduc, who died two years ago.”
Then he spoke to the future, the future of Tradition. “This day is not just the day where we think about a nice church building out of brick and stone, it is a day where we think about the restoration of the Church. And if in the beginning St. Marys was the place pretty much nobody knew, nowadays the flagship of the District, the biggest parish of tradition in the world—and so is tradition. World-wide tradition started out very small. As soon as it grew, it was attacked. But now the times changed.”
The time has come, with the building of the new Immaculata, “to give back tradition to the church,” Fr. Wegner said. “St. Mary’s—a place where, in the past, over 1,000 priests have been ordained should be a source of priestly and religious vocations. And if you succeed with this church-building project, the building of a church in stone, but also the building of a church in people, in the souls, I’m sure the District will succeed.”
Prayers Will See the Project Completed
Fr. Rutledge closed the unveiling with a plea for prayers. He asked the parishioners to pray as they consider the amount that each can donate to the cause of rebuilding a church worthy of Mary, and to pray throughout the entire build. He asked the parishioners to place their pledges at the feet of Our Lady on August 15—providentially it was 40 ago, on August 15, 1979, when the new cornerstone was laid for the first attempt to rebuild the Immaculata—and “there on the feast of Our Lady,” he said, “to make a commitment to her, for what you will sacrifice and what you will give to her for this project.”
“The biggest thing that we have to do for this project is pray: to pray that the design team builds something that Our Lady wants; we need to pray that all of us working on the project keep the higher principles in mind as we do the work; pray that, humanly speaking, we build something that is reasonable for our budget… We need your prayers.”
The groundbreaking is scheduled for May 31, 2020, 40 years after a strong wind knocked down some of the walls that had remained standing after the fire. “In one year, we will break ground on the Immaculata,” Fr. Rutledge said. “Not only is May 31 the Queenship of Mary, but next year May 31 also falls on Pentecost Sunday.”
Following Fr. Rutledge’s announcements, Fr. Wegner presented a gift from the District to the new Immaculata. “It is something very special,” he said, “something we want to give back to this parish, as a sign of gratitude for our ancestors and as a sign of encouragement to you.” That gift was the relics from the altar of the original Immaculata.