Bishop Stika consecrates altar, blesses tabernacle, baptismal font during special Mass at Signal Mountain church
By Bill Brewer
Even a church sanctuary sometimes needs remodeling.
So when it was apparent that worship space at St. Augustine Church in Signal Mountain had fallen short of liturgical norms, parishioners took notice. And when Bishop Richard F. Stika delivered a not-so-subtle hint, the parishioners began to work together to find a solution.
Led by Father Joseph Kuzhupil, MSFS, pastor of St. Augustine, the parishioners carried out a project to update the sanctuary, which culminated May 7 in a dedication of the new altar, tabernacle, and baptismal font by Bishop Stika, who also blessed the new sanctuary.
Bishop Stika celebrated the dedication Mass, with Father Kuzhupil concelebrating. Also concelebrating were Father Peter Iorio, Father Paul Valleroy, Father David Carter, Father Joseph Thomas, and Father Frank Brett. Deacon Gary Brinkworth served as master of ceremonies, and Brian Gabor served as deacon of the Word.
Bishop Stika was visibly impressed by the updated sanctuary as he processed into Mass with the priests, deacons, and altar servers.
“Something looks different since my last time here. What a beautiful renovation of St. Augustine,” Bishop Stika said before giving the following blessing. “My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a day of rejoicing. We have come together to dedicate this altar by offering the sacrifice of Christ. May we respond to these holy rites and receive God’s Word with faith, share in the Lord’s Table with joy, and raise our hearts in hope.”
After the blessing, Bishop Stika sprinkled holy water on the altar and the parishioners before praying, “May God, the Father of mercies, to whom we dedicate this altar on earth, forgive us our sins and enable us to offer an unending sacrifice of praise on His altar in heaven.”
During his homily, Bishop Stika praised Father Kuzhupil and the St. Augustine parishioners for their dedication to updating the worship space.
“I think this is a very spectacular moment in the life of this parish at St. Augustine. Not only do we dedicate a new altar, tabernacle, and baptismal font, but we have two very special people with us. We have Peter and Paul,” Bishop Stika said, drawing laughs from the congregation. “We welcome back two former pastors of St. Augustine.”
Bishop Stika was referring to Father Iorio, who is pastor at St. Mary Church in Johnson City, and Father Valleroy, who is in residence at St. Jude Church in Chattanooga. St. Augustine is Father Iorio’s home parish and is where he served as a priest for two years.
Remarking about the new altar, Bishop Stika said the wood and marble used to create the altar are part of God’s creation.
“Just like the wood of the cross so many centuries ago that bore the body of Jesus was from a tree. When we consecrate a new altar, the chrism that I blessed at the Chrism Mass on the Tuesday of Holy Week is the chrism I will use to anoint the hands of a new priest. It is chrism used in baptisms, or as I’ve been confirming young adults these past few weeks. Chrism, unlike the oil of the sick and unlike the oil of catechumens, chrism is not blessed; it’s consecrated,” the bishop said.
“Consecration means to set apart. As I prepare to chrismate the altar with prayers as we honor this piece of wood, no longer is it just a piece of wood. It is consecrated; it is holy; it is Christ. It is the table of sacrifice, but it is Christ. It is like the cross on which Jesus is crucified. That is why we bow to the altar. That’s why we put cloth on it, and candles, and flowers, and incense it; because it is set apart,” he added.
He told parishioners he often recalls when he was ordained a bishop in 2009 that Cardinal Justin Rigali poured sacred chrism on his head, setting him apart.
“Do you ever feel like you’re set apart? If you are a Christian, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are. Not because you should be placed on a pedestal, or you should be hanging in a museum. But to be set apart means you have responded yes to Jesus. He has invited you like he invited the apostles. You see, Jesus never intended the apostles, or any of those first followers, or anyone who has followed through the centuries, to be more special than anybody.
“We gather together in this church of St. Augustine, where we set apart this wood that becomes Jesus; we bless the baptismal font that will welcome new members of our Church, setting them apart to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
In recognizing the new tabernacle at St. Augustine, Bishop Stika referred to the welcome change in Catholic churches to return tabernacles to a place of prominence in the sanctuary after some Church leaders in the 1960s and 1970s advocated for separating the tabernacle from the sanctuary.
“I have strongly hinted that once again the tabernacle should return to a place where it had been for centuries. And I hope that the Jesus contained in that tabernacle is also contained in your hearts; that you might know that by your ‘yes’ to the Lord, you are set apart, not to be given honor to yourself, but rather to be set apart for service to the community. In those moments when the Lord invites you to build his kingdom, that you might be nourished with the Eucharist, that you might be fortified and strengthened in Jesus so in those moments when people say ‘you’re a Christian?’ you can say yes. And if they say ‘what does that mean?’ you can say you are a follower and a believer in Jesus and that he has made a difference in your life,” the bishop said.
In addition to consecrating it, Bishop Stika deposited a relic of Pope St. Pius X in the wood of the altar.
Tom Tidwell, a 28-year member of St. Augustine who will be ordained a permanent deacon this month, praised the efforts of Father Kuzhupil and fellow members to upgrade St. Augustine.
“We were a little bit out of the norm here, and the bishop alluded to that in his homily. That was all part of this. Our parish really came together. It’s been a team effort; it’s been a parish effort,” Mr. Tidwell said.
Cooperation went beyond St. Augustine. The nearby Alexian Brothers lent an altar and tabernacle for St. Augustine to use during construction. Consultants, including diocesan clergy, advised the church on proper norms in newly constructed worship space.
While response within the church has been celebratory, reaction from the community has been a pleasant surprise, according to Mr. Tidwell.
“Now that the work is complete, we’ve seen a lot of people come together, and we’ve seen people come back to Mass who have not been here in a while,” he said.
Parishioner Judy St. Charles, who led the St. Augustine sanctuary renovation team, said the project has been in the works for more than five years and has continued through several priests. She noted that Father Kuzhupil put the team into high gear to get the renovation completed. Consultants, including Father Randy Stice, diocesan director of Worship and Liturgy and pastor at St. Mary Church in Athens, were advised.
Ms. St. Charles said everyone is pleased with the completed sanctuary that includes an elevated altar, improved lighting and sound, and refurbished kneelers. She agrees the project has made the parish closer.
“People have just come together beautifully for this,” she said, adding that parishioner donations raised money for stained-glass windows, the corpus for the crucifix above the altar and other necessities for the sanctuary.
She said a St. Augustine member was traveling through Northeast states and came across a Catholic church that was being closed. The church had beautiful wood Stations of the Cross, which were given to St. Augustine by that diocese. St. Augustine placed the donated Stations on the interior wall of the nave and installed a small light on each Station to illuminate it. They replaced the original Stations, which were not prominently displayed.
During initial planning for the project, church members decided the sanctuary and part of the nave would return to a more traditional form.
St. Augustine was built when post-Vatican II Church architecture began to take a more modernist design.
“In the 1970s, when the church was built, there had been a departure from traditional Church iconography,” said Ms. St. Charles, who has a degree in design, pointing out that the original tabernacle was built off of the altar into the wall of the church and was somewhat exposed to the heat and cold. She also noted that the original altar was partially made of glass, a man-made material that defied Church norms.
“They were responding to the times. The new liturgical directives will withstand time. It isn’t so much that the church was against the norms of iconography or liturgy. It was just reflective of the time. We just made it to where it will stand the test of time.
“We took the opportunity to improve and embellish what we had, not change it. It’s a new way to express God’s glory,” Ms. St. Charles said.
Like his congregation, Father Kuzhupil is well pleased with the end result of the renovation, but especially the way members cooperated on the work, which is part of a multi-phase project to update the parish. Work was already completed to upgrade the rectory and add an education wing to the church.
“God is great. It is His wonderful work, and we are ever grateful to be His instruments. I am also grateful to the many parishioners who wholeheartedly supported and worked hard behind this project, especially the sanctuary renovation team, liturgy committee, individual donors who donated specified items, and those who generously contributed to the Growth & Renewal and Home campaigns,” Father Kuzhupil said.
“Teamwork and effort will receive the assurance of God’s blessings, which is very evidently seen in the renovated worship space. I am also grateful to Bishop Stika for his encouragement, support and taking time to come here and bless us. Praise, honor, and thanksgiving to God Almighty,” he continued.
After assessing the new sanctuary during Mass, Father Iorio gave his blessing. He grew up in Signal Mountain, having moved there with his family when he was 11 years old. At the time, the church had only been open a few years. He said two brothers still live in the town overlooking Chattanooga, and his mother lives nearby.
“I love it. I think it’s beautiful. They did an awesome job. I was delighted to hear that Judy St. Charles had a lot to do with it because when I was here the rectory needed to be totally redone, and she was in charge of that project. So she is still offering her gifts in an amazing way. We now have a house for priests and a house for God,” Father Iorio said.
Bishop Stika put his final stamp of approval on the project after the dedication Mass ended. “It’s beautiful. It was a nice church before, but it was getting a little tired-looking. With the new lighting, the color scheme, the crucifix, and the tabernacle, it’s just beautiful.” ■