Article on Moravia Catholic Church 100th anniversary
- Schulenburg Sticker, 7 Feb 2013, pages 1, 13
Moravia Catholic church celebrates 100 years
By Andy Behlen
Schulenburg Sticker Staff
Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in Moravia turned 100 years old on Feb. 4. The Most Rev. David Fellhauer, bishop of the Diocese of Victoria, will celebrate Holy Mass in Moravia on Sunday, Feb. 10, to commemorate the anniversary.
The Mass will start at 10 a.m., followed by a reception and meal at the parish hall.
The church, located about 10 miles south-southwest of Schulenburg on FM 957, underwent a major renovation and restoration effort around 2000, shortly before Ascension’s 90th anniversary. Even though it’s not on the official Painted Churches Tour, Ascension has become a tourist draw since the renovations. Just last month, the Greater Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce started the new County Line Tours which feature the churches in Moravia and St. John.
The Sticker visited with Ascension Church member Janis Hrncir last Friday while she cleaned the church in preparation for the bishop’s visit. Back in 2000, she said, the church faced a predicament.
“It was at the point where we had to either repair it or it was going to fall into disepear,” Hrncir said.
Since there was no air conditioning in the church for most of its life, the painted walls, statues, and stations of the cross were exposed to changes in humidity. For several decades, the only light besides the sun came from burning candles. Likewise, a fine layer of soot covered just about everything.
Artists repainted the statues. They built new stations of the cross patterned from the old ones. Workers peeled back pink faux-marble paneling from the wall behind the altar to reveal almost century-old angels hand-painted on the wall. A discriminating eye can find spots where the blue background paint was touched up, but each of the painted figures are original.
Members of the church employed George Kalisek and Junior Chaloupka of the nearby business George’s Art to rebuild the pulpit and main altarpiece.
The pulpit originally stood several feet off the floor and was attached to the east wall of the chancel. Slavic influences are apparent in its carved panels. The pulpit’s height allowed for the speaker’s voice to carry throughout the church. Kalisek completely rebuilt it and it now sits on the floor a few feet from the east wall.
The church’s masterpiece is it’s [sic] reredos – the richly engraved wooden structure behind the back altar. The original altarpiece was built in 1913 at a cost of $400. Funds for it were donated by parishioners Frances Matusik and Mr. and Mrs. John Opela.
The original altarpiece was destroyed in the late 1960s after the Second Vatican Council, while Rev. Sigmund Wojcirchowski (Father Sig) was pastor at Ascension of Our Lord Church. Before Vatican II, Roman Catholic priests faced toward the back altar and away from the congregation while celebrating the Mass, then spoken in Latin.
Vatican II brought about changes in the liturgy that emphasized the Eucharist and the congregation’s participation in Mass, now celebrated in the language of the people.
Some bishops and priests carried Vatican II’s message to the structure and layout of the physical church itself. They thought the ornate reredos, richly painted statuary, frescos and stained glass windows detracted the congregation from the focal point – the Eucharist. The altar was seen as a barrier between the priest and the congregation.
After Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church opened up the duties of eucharistic minister and lector to the laity. With lay people joining the priest on the other side of the altar rail, the divider passed into obsolescence.
Most Catholic churches took down their altar rails. Some whitewashed frescos, removed statues, and, in the case of Ascension Church, destroyed their cherished reredos. Some Catholics referred to the changes as “wreckovations.” The few churches that kept the original altars, like St. Mary’s Church in Praha and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in High Hill, installed a new center altar closer to the congregation.
Father Sig was a Polish priest and a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Some locals have speculated that his experiences during World War II may have added to his zeal for changes of Vatican II.
Even though Moravia lost its original masterpiece, the side altars escaped the “wreckovations.” According to local lore, parishioners were quite upset when they showed up to Mass one Sunday back in the late 1960s to find Father Sig preaching in front of a barren main altar. Luckily, the two side altars were still intact. Some time after the service, a group of descendants of the early parishioners who paid for the altars threatened to bury him under the church if he touched anything else.
The Rev. Msgr. John Peters, Ascension’s current pastor, explained that Vatican II never specified the kind of architectural changes some churches like Ascension of Our Lord underwent.
“Some people kind of jumped the gun after Vatican II,” he told the Sticker. “Vatican II was supposed to make the Mass more practical for the congregation. They didn’t actually say you had to take these things down. These things are hard to replace. George Kalisek and Junior Chaloupka did a wonderful job recreating the original look of the altar.”
It took Kalisek and Chaloupka nearly four months to complete the altarpiece project, which they finished in 2003, in time for the 90th anniversary. About the only thing they had to work from were old wedding photographs. Kalisek, the owner and creative force behind George’s Art, had the photographs enlarged and began reverse-engineering the reredos.
The base of the structure was never removed from the church, so Kalisek was able to approximate its scale. He designed the massive late-Gothic style reredos in five sections. He and Chaloupka then started the painstaking process of carving and routing each section from knotless sweet pine. After assembling the sections inside the church, Chaloupka painted it and inlayed the trim with gold leaf. The finished piece now stands between the two original side altars, just as it did a hundred years ago.
Interestingly, in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI announced a new commission that would consider guidelines for Catholic architecture and sacred art. As one Vatican reporter put it, the Pope is concerned that “many churches have been replaced by buildings that resemble multi-purpose halls with architects, even the more famous ones, not using the Catholic liturgy as a starting point and thus end up producing avant-garde constructions that look like anything but a church.”
Perhaps before finishing its work, the commission should look at the 100 year old cross-shaped church in Moravia for inspiration.