Cardinal blesses extensive renovations at Jamaica Plain church

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JAMAICA PLAIN -- Father Andrea Povero, parochial vicar of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Jamaica Plain, didn't know what to do with his pews.

Since January 2022, St. Thomas Aquinas had been closed for an extensive renovation following the designs of Spanish icon painter and Neocatechumenal Way founder Kiko ArgÜello, intended to beautify the 153-year-old church building and aid in evangelization.

"There is a language we all understand, which is beauty," Father Povero told The Pilot in a July 1 phone interview. "Beauty is love. When you love a person, automatically, without effort, you do things well... Beauty and love go together. If there is love, automatically there's beauty."

The project was ambitious. The altar and tabernacle were to be done in gleaming white marble. The carpet was to be torn out and replaced with one sapphire blue in color. The centerpiece of the whole project was to be a 1,300 square foot altarpiece depicting the mysteries of the life of Christ, painted by Neocatechumenal Way artists in ArgÜello's style. The altarpiece was to be embellished with thousands squares of genuine gold leaf. But what to do with the aging pews?

Father Povero planned to sell them to buy new ones, but this proved to be impossible. He prayed for the intercession of St. John Bosco to show him the right path. After celebrating Mass one day at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Jamaica Plain, he spoke to a parishioner who said he knew "one of the top carpenters in Boston" who would get the job done. The carpenter went to the parish basement, where all the pews were stored, and said: "I love this project."

The carpenter came to the parish once a week and supplied tools. A "carpenter shop" was set up in the sanctuary, and each morning the carpenter would teach Father Povero and a volunteer how to refurbish the historic pews.

"We were like carpenters for a year and a half," Father Povero said.

The carpentry work, which ordinarily would have cost $200,000, managed to be done for free. Other people and businesses stepped forward to help the parish. When St. Thomas Aquinas set up a GoFundMe for the renovation, the parish raised over $100,000 in a month. The company that installed the carpet gave the parish a deep discount. The parish garden was refurbished for free. The marble, which cost $350,000, was all donated by the CEO of the company that supplied it.

"Everything has been done out of gratitude," Father Povero said.

The Neocatechumenal Way artists who created the altarpiece also did so for free. Father Povero estimates that their work is worth $500,000.

"We know Christians do not make a decision according to money," he said. "If this is the will of God, then God will provide the money."

On June 28, the restored St. Thomas Aquinas Parish was rededicated in a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who also blessed the new altar. For the occasion, the church was standing room only.

"The beauty of icons is a glimpse of the beauty of God," the cardinal said in his homily. "These images remind us that God is near us. Always loving us, anxious to forgive us, anxious to welcome us and to embrace us."

He echoed Pope Francis's words on the "via pulchritudinis," Latin for "the way of beauty."

"It's one of the ways that we discover God," the cardinal said, "who is the source of all beauty. In the first centuries of the church, when so many people were illiterate, the churches themselves were to be bibles in stone and glass, for people to see images that portrayed the beauty of God and the presence of his saints."

After his homily, the cardinal blessed the new altar and altarpiece. He swung incense around the tabernacle until the whole sanctuary was in a thick fog. In the haze, the assembly sang "Because of My Brothers and Friends," a Neocatechumenal Way hymn. Volunteers brought trays of red and white flowers to the altar, which was draped in a pristine white cloth.

Giuseppe Gennarini, the chief catechist of the Neocatechumenal Way in the U.S., was present at the rededication. In his remarks, he said that churches should be a piece of heaven on earth.

"Today, many things are always functional, ugly," he said. "Many churches are iconoclastic, without images. The image, the icon, the face of Christ, is the evidence of his incarnation."

David Lopez Ribes, the leader of the 12-artist team who created the altarpiece, was also present for the rededication.

"We create this with the canon of the tradition of the church," he told The Pilot, "but the language we use, we have the modern art in these icons."

Lopez is a contemporary artist whose work has been exhibited in New York and Paris. Twenty-five years ago, he decided to offer his artistic skills to God, and has worked with ArgÜello ever since. Lopez received the Pontifical Academies Prize from Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, making him the only artist to have won the award. He and his team worked inside St. Thomas Aquinas for two years to make the altarpiece.

He traveled between Boston and his home in New Jersey extensively to work on the altarpiece. In that time, he got to know parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas.

"I am very impressed," he said, "because many parishioners of 50 years in this parish, they are very excited with this."

He described all of his work as being "for the glory of God."

"To be in the church has saved my life, my marriage," he said. "I am very grateful to the church for this."

Recently, Father Povero told The Pilot, a young man saw the restored church and burst into tears from its beauty. A woman who saw the unfinished altarpiece was struck silent by it. She told Father Povero that the painting spoke to her loudly enough.

"I know God is looking at me, forgiving me," she said.

"It's very powerful," Father Povero told The Pilot. "Sacred art, beauty."

He said that the church's beauty represents the glory of God, not the glory of men. It is not the church of himself and pastor Father Carlos Flor, he explained, but the church of Christ.

"The parishioners were filled with joy the other night because they have seen the glory of God appear," he said. "They knew that it was not us doing this."