Sts. Peter and Paul lifts the curtain on six-month construction project that ushers in the 1890s
By Bill Brewer
Four years of praying, planning, working, and paying for much-needed improvements to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul yielded dramatic results Dec. 23 when Bishop Richard F. Stika and Father David Carter unveiled the basilica’s restored worship space.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, Bishop Stika celebrated Mass at the basilica in Chattanooga, during which he presided at the Rite of Dedication of an Altar. It was one of the first Masses inside the restored basilica vestibule, nave, and sanctuary and offered parishioners the chance to see firsthand the results of their sacrifices.
It also was the first time a significant part of the original church has been exposed since renovations in 1936, the 1970s, and 1980s, when carpet was laid down throughout the nave and sanctuary and original architecture was covered up.
Bishop Stika and Father Carter, the basilica rector, expressed appreciation to parishioners for their contributions to the project in time, talent, and tithing.
“I just want to say thank you to all who have participated in this process that began in 2014 and has culminated in what we see here today, through all your participation in the Home Campaign, also through long hours of volunteering,” Father Carter said following the altar dedication Mass.
Father Carter also thanked Bishop Stika for celebrating the Mass and leading the diocesan-wide fundraising program that led to the basilica restoration.
“I also want to express my gratitude to this basilica parish for all you do for the Church universal and the Church spread out through all of East Tennessee,” Bishop Stika then said.
A nearly standing-room-only congregation gathered for the Mass that featured music from English and Spanish choirs, adult and children’s scholas, as well as a Knights of Columbus honor guard.
While the restoration was extensive, it did not change the basilica’s historic structure highlighted by the traditional pulpit, the beautiful Stations of the Cross lining the nave walls, the life-size crucifix above the tabernacle, the choir loft, the pews, or the vaulted cathedral ceilings.
Bishop Stika began Mass by leaving no doubt what the focal point of the service would be.
“Every time I come to the basilica I love using that pulpit. But I’m not going to use it today because I wanted to emphasize something else: the altar of sacrifice,” Bishop Stika said. “Right now it is wood and stone from the Cumberland Mountains. And this is the chrism sitting on top. This is a product of nature. But through the prayers of the Church, through the invocation of the saints, and through my ministry as a successor of the apostles I’m today exercising the fullness of my ministry. I wear the chasuble of a priest; I wear the mitre of a bishop; and underneath I wear the dalmatic of a deacon.”
Bishop Stika pointed to a chrismaria holding the sacred chrism that he would use to anoint the altar.
He explained that he anoints the new altar with the same sacred chrism used to dedicate a new church, as he did with the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on March 3. He pointed out the incense used to consecrate the altar rises to heaven much like our prayers do, and the altar is vested and candles are placed around it, making the statement that Christ is present.
“Christ is present in a very unique way in that altar. That is why we bow to it and honor it. … Christ is here in a unique and special way anytime we gather around this altar, this table that is now dedicated and consecrated for sacred use where once again we hear the words, ‘this is my Body, this is my Blood given for you’; the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus,” the bishop said. “And from that sacrifice we are blessed so that we might receive the Eucharist, the Bread, which no longer is bread. The most precious Body of Jesus Christ himself, the Soul and Divinity. The same with the precious Cup containing the Blood of Jesus – the Soul and Divinity, so that the nourishment we receive from Christ might feed us.”
Bishop Stika made special mention of the relics placed in the new altar, relics of basilica namesakes St. Peter and St. Paul, and he told the congregation we must learn from all the saints that we honor.
Father Carter noted that the new altar is made of blue stone from the Cumberland Mountains and solid wood in keeping with traditional Church practice of an altar base made of wood and the altar table made of stone.
“As we gather together in this church … we invoke, we invite, we celebrate the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. In His presence proclaiming the Gospel of the Word and in a unique and special way we take wood and stone from Tennessee and it becomes Christ in a particular way in the altar of sacrifice of Jesus,” Bishop Stika said during the Mass. “Let us give thanks to God. Let us give thanks for all of those who have come before us who have allowed us to come together this day. Let us pray that all of the generations who follow us will give thanks for this restoration, for the beauty of this church where He has been honored by the Holy Father himself. Just as the incense will rise to the heavens as will our prayers, so does our gratitude to Him.”
As Mass concluded, Bishop Stika shared an anecdote about the altar dedication. He said part of the original altar stone containing relics of Sts. Peter and Paul, which had been kept in a display cabinet in the vestibule since 1936, was to fit within the new altar. Just before the altar dedication Mass, it was discovered the temperature inside the basilica caused the stone to swell to a point where it wouldn’t fit in the new altar. Deacons Hicks Armor, Gaspar DeGaetano, and Tom McConnell thought to file down the sides of the stone piece and place it in a church freezer to try making it contract and fit. Their quick thinking proved successful.
Bishop Stika then led an ovation for Father Carter and the parish for their successful project.
Work on the basilica began in July, during which time the worship space was basically stripped down to the bare floors and walls. Carpet that served for decades as the floor surface was pulled up, revealing original heart pine floors dating to the church’s opening in 1890.
During the six-month project, all Masses were celebrated in Varallo Parish Hall in the basilica basement.
As the centerpiece of the project, the new altar returns the table of sacrifice to virtually its original state once it was consecrated and dedicated by Bishop Stika. The basilica tabernacle also was moved back to a central point in the sanctuary rather than on a side altar, and the baptismal font was moved nearer the front of the nave near the sanctuary similar to the placement of the cathedral baptismal font.
An altar railing was re-installed between the nave and sanctuary, and the two side altars were restored using the altar marble tops that had been in place since 1936, when water and termite damage forced a renovation.
The basilica project is the result of the Home Campaign, in which all diocesan parishes participated. Renovation and expansion projects have occurred throughout the diocese as part of the fundraising project.
“The Home Campaign has greatly impacted parishes all across the diocese. Through the generosity of so many across East Tennessee, individual parishes have been able to undertake significant projects such as this beautiful restoration at the basilica,” said John Deinhart, director of the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Strategic Planning.
“It’s wonderful to see the results of the hard work and sacrifice of so many as we look upon this incredible project. Whether it’s a major project like this or something more simple like a new roof or paying off a parish mortgage, supporters of the Home Campaign have strengthened parishes all across the diocese. What an incredible thing it is to witness what can be accomplished when we come together to share the many blessings God has given us,” Mr. Deinhart added.
Father Carter explained that a 2014 survey of basilica parishioners discovered that restoration of the basilica was their top goal for funds raised through the Home Campaign.
So a plan was put in place, a budget of $500,000 was set, and restoration experts were brought in to establish a scope of work. One of those experts was architect James McCrery, who designed the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Parishioners David Bryant, Deacon Armor, Mary Hertel, and Rick Thompson were among the members serving on the Basilica Renovation Committee.
When first queried in 2014 about what their Home Campaign project should be, parishioners responded that they wanted to see the worship space restored, the church nursery renovated, and upgrades in safety, security, and technology systems. Those goals were achieved.
Once work was underway, Father Carter said contractors discovered that the basilica’s original electrical wiring was not grounded and recommended a comprehensive upgrade, which added to the scope and cost of the project. Unexpected architectural restoration in the vestibule, which uncovered original alcoves and vaulted ceilings long ago hidden, expanded the vestibule’s square-footage and also added to the project scope and cost.
Despite the additional costs, Father Carter said the project still was completed on time and under budget.
The rector pointed out that restoration of the basilica interior to its original wood construction was unintentional.
“It must have been the movement of the Holy Spirit because the wooden restoration fits the church and restores the original conception. We were just going for a basic restoration,” he said. “We have been successful in doing this project and staying within our budget. We did not incur any debt. We were able to utilize members of the parish and organize parish workdays to do a lot of the groundwork. In particular, besides the many English-speaking members who helped, our Hispanic community came out in full force.
“There is great community ownership of this basilica restoration project,” he added.
In addition to leading the project, Father Carter has been educating parishioners on the religious significance of the work done, and he preached on the importance of the altar dedication during Advent. That education extends to the greater Chattanooga community.
Sts. Peter and Paul’s pastor saw an opportunity to illustrate the basilica restoration in relation to issues the Catholic Church is facing regarding abusive priests.
“I made a concerted effort to catechize, to teach and form the people of our parish. Throughout the month of December I preached on the Rite of a Dedication of an Altar and I was able to make an analogy of what is going on in the Church with scandals and the restoring of things that were lost to their rightful place,” Father Carter said. “Even with the nail marks of abuse, our work has come out beautifully from His love and redemption of the world.”
It turns out that evangelization is another benefit of the project. The Chattanooga Bach Choir, collaborating with Voci Virili Men’s Consort and Voice of Reason Women’s Ensemble, presented Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on Jan. 26 in the newly renovated space. The concert was an opportunity to expose the Chattanooga community to the basilica’s beauty, according to Father Carter.
He said similarities in the basilica restoration and construction of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus are intentional. He wanted to establish a direct link between the new mother church and the second oldest church in the Diocese of Knoxville.
Basilica parishioners believe the altar dedication Mass “was absolutely beautiful,” the priest noted.
“I hope they entered a deeper appreciation and understanding as a result of that catechesis and formation,” he said. “Whereas before the church was beautiful, now there is a wow factor, an immediate sense of wonder and awe.”