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A church is reborn in Peoria

A church is reborn in Peoria

By Toni Cashnelli

The view from the choir loft at the renovated Sacred Heart Church.

Photo by Rick Lair

The goal of the renovation of Sacred Heart was a simple one:

“Fr. Larry wanted to make it look like a church again,” says Rick Lair, whose company, King Richard’s Religious Artifacts, played a major role in the massive makeover of the 100-year-old Peoria landmark. What he means is, they wanted it to look like the churches we remember from childhood, the ones that enveloped us in such grandeur that we felt we were halfway to heaven.

On Oct. 29, the day the results of his work will be revealed to the public, Rick is running around like a proud papa, snapping pictures of the high altar, the intricate inlay of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the center aisle, the 29 paintings of saints of the Americas that line the upper walls.

It’s no wonder he’s excited: From the marble floor to the symbolically red ceiling, the church is spectacular. But there’s something more, something stirring about knowing that these trappings, from the statues to the granite altar to the light fixtures, came from churches that no longer exist as houses of worship. In a sense, Sacred Heart has become a repository for the faith and hopes of legions of people beyond Peoria.

“Some of these items came from a closed church in Scranton, Holy Cross,” Rick says. “The lights are from Our Lady of Victory in Philadelphia. All the statues are from a closed parish in Racine.” The skillful use of recycling extends to the pews, which were stripped and restored, to the stations of the cross, repainted to look marbleized.

‘Have you seen the church?’

As the man behind the master plan for the $3.2 million renovation, Pastor Larry Zurek is feeling the stress of this auspicious occasion. In a parish that sits a few short blocks from subsidized housing, there was buzz about mounting such a costly undertaking. The pressure to please both parishioners and the diocese, as it would be anywhere, was enormous. Stained glass windows promised on deadline have yet to be installed. So today, an hour before the dedication Mass with the bishop of Peoria, Larry is looking a little harried. Fellow friars Bert Heise, Tim Lamb and Luis Aponte-Merced are tying up loose ends and running interference with the press. (Marian Douglas has been in the hospital.) The turnout for this event is expected to be enormous.

And indeed, a full 45 minutes before the Mass, a crowd has gathered in the blinding sunlight across the street, chatting about the ceremonial unveiling. From here, they can see the left-side addition, an expanded entrance to the rectory. “Have you seen inside the church?” one woman asks another. “Let me tell you, it’s breathtaking.”

Obviously, looks matter. But that isn’t the only draw for a church that is, for many, an out-of-the-way drive. “It’s so comfortable, such a warm community,” says Carol Unes, a 15-year parishioner. Tim Cummings is here with wife Maria and 18-month-old daughter Madison. “I like the ‘downtown feel’ of the church,” he says. “You get to know new people all the time.”

A squadron of Knights of Columbus members lines up diagonally outside the entrance, adjusting red capes and plumed headgear, to greet Bishop Daniel Jenky, a man whose handlebar moustache and ample set of whiskers give him the perpetually jovial air of St. Nicholas. The procession begins quietly, solemnly, then disintegrates into laughter when a toddler hollers, “Hi, Father,” to Larry Zurek as he passes through the door.

Parishioners file inside, craning their necks for a look at the paintings of Saints of the Americas. As predicted, there is standing-room only. “It’s fantastic,” says Mary Ann Leighton, a senior citizen who first saw this church at the age of 5. “It needed to be done.”

Bishop Jenky seems as moved as everyone else by the beauty of the surroundings. “Look around for a minute and read the wondrous story of faith written in these bricks and glass,” he says in his homily. “The consecration of this church should serve as a kind of ‘re-remembering’ of our own Baptism and Confirmation and our own first Holy Communion.” He also pays tribute to the Franciscan character of the parish. Like Francis, he says, “May we, too, always love what is beautiful and reverence creation.”

When communion has been distributed, a relaxed and obviously relieved pastor steps forward to give thanks. To thunderous applause, Larry calls forward four artists (from Murals by Jericho) who labored over the paintings of the saints. Steve and David Hodel, the British artists who produced three magnificent windows above the choir loft, are recognized, along with Rick Lair. Larry thanks parishioners for their generosity and credits “the friars who came before,” especially Marne Breckensiek, for their careful stewardship.

“My hope and prayer is that all who come here will have a sense of the presence of the Lord and want to fall on their knees and pray,” says Larry before reminding parishioners of the celebratory luncheon that awaits them across the street at the Civic Center. Most people who have endured a two-hour church service would bolt for the door, but these folks sit tight, soaking up the last strains of a string quartet in an acoustical atmosphere that any music minister would envy. They are in no hurry to leave.