STEINAUER, Neb. — Something had to be done. The plaster walls of St. Anthony of Padua Church were falling apart, and no good was going to come of that.
“We decided to make the decision to look into the possibility of doing more than just the plaster,” said Jerry Meyer, a member of the parish council.
As the discussions continued, the congregation decided to restore the Romanesque church, not just remodel it.
The task would be immense. St. Anthony Parish, with its approximately 125 families, would have to raise about $400,000.
Ask the Rev. Scott Courtney of St. Anthony if there was a traditional capital campaign to raise the money, and he will say there wasn't. Ask Meyer, and he'll tell you how things unfolded.
“I guess our capital campaign was turning Father Courtney loose and telling him what the scope of the project was. People then were inspired on what to give. That was it,” said Meyer, who with nearly a dozen other parishioners formed the parish's Gate to Heaven Restoration Committee.
Everyone in the parish was a potential donor. Courtney began making one-on-one visits to discuss contributions.
“They were inspired to give,” Meyer said.
The only major fundraising event, a January dinner and auction called “Winter Wonderland,” brought in $32,000.
The giving was fast and furious.
“Eighty percent of this project was paid for and in the bank by May 1,” Meyer said. “It never happens that way.”
Most of what was raised came in during the first 60 days of restoration work, from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1.
Donation sizes ran the gamut, from a lead gift of $100,000 to very modest offerings.
“The smallest gift was $2 from a little boy, little Ayden, who came out of Mass one day and said, 'Father, I want to give you the restoration,'” Courtney said.
Another gift came from a little girl who received $100 for Christmas and donated all of it.
Perhaps the most selfless contribution was from a woman who asked Courtney to come and talk with her. She had heard of the restoration effort and wanted to contribute. Upon learning of a plan to apply gold leaf to the altar and other areas, she donated toward it in memory of her husband.
“The amazing part of that story is, the woman is blind,” said Char Kriz, a Lincoln designer who helped produce the restoration plan.
And so it went. Though many gifts were in cash or by check, others were tithes from parishioners or proceeds from tenant farmers of land owned by St. Anthony.
“We have a very giving community,” Meyer said.
When it became clear that the fundraising effort would exceed what was needed to fix the plaster and do other basic restoration, the stage was set for more extensive work.
“We saw that the giving was coming in, and that was the motivation for continuing,” Meyer said.
The design plan for the restoration, produced by Kriz and her husband, contractor Jean Kriz, drew from the couple's experience working on seven Midlands churches in the past four years.
Visits by restoration committee members to those churches, in Weston, Brainard, Bee and elsewhere, led the group to engage the couple in the St. Anthony project.
“We quickly realized they certainly had a gift, to be able to take these old structures and be able to bring them back to the way they should look, the traditional look of a Catholic church,” Meyer said.
“Our inspiration in this whole deal was if you walk into this church now, or if you walk into this church 50 years from now, it's going to look the same,” Meyer said. “It's ageless, it's timeless in its look.”
The restoration plan took planning and vision. Photos of the church as it looked in earlier decades were available, as was the opportunity to ask older parishioners how things had once appeared.
When the new color scheme was developed, replacing the previous beige-on-beige color scheme, it included a dozen hues.
It quickly became clear that the stained-glass windows should be showcased. Kriz said use of a color called Majestic Gold around the windows accentuated certain hues.
“It made the colors of the stained glass pop. We brought out turquoise and purples, many shades of blues,” Kriz said.
Among the major tasks were replacement of, or in some cases, restoration of elements that had been removed long ago.
“In the '60s, in a lot of the old churches, there was the assumption that things had to be made to look newer,” Meyer said. “Unfortunately, some of the old statuary, some of the old side altars, the high altar, some of the tabernacle, ambo (lectern), communion rail — all that stuff was either destroyed, removed or just taken out.”
When possible, items that had been removed from display were cleaned and returned to their original spots in the sanctuary. Structures that had been destroyed were in most cases rebuilt.
One of those was the communion rail. As Jean Kriz was building a new one, a worker in the back sacristy found the marble that had covered the long-gone wooden rail.
“When we pulled this down, I discovered that there are fingerprints all along the edge, of people that had attended Mass in the church for 86 years,” Char Kriz said. “When we restored it, we did not buff those out. We left those.”
The fingerprints from long ago are a legacy for current parishioners.
“They can actually touch the places where their grandfathers, great-grandfathers knelt for communion,” she said. “What a wonderful teaching tool for the children.”
Restoration of the church was completed in time for a re-dedication Mass on June 1.
By the end of the project, with the addition of items such as a new sound system and concrete resurfacing in front of the church, the cost was $605,000. Of that amount, all but 10 percent has been collected and paid. A repeat of the Winter Wonderland fundraiser in January 2014 and additional fundraising efforts are expected to retire that debt quickly.
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