Renovated church invigorates parish community

BRIDGEWATER — The recently renovated upper church at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish has revitalized the community by invigorating current parishioners and attracting new ones. The parish community rallied around the renovation and gave $100,000 in two months so that the construction could be completed before Easter.

“It’s not only a beautiful place to worship now, but it’s an uplifting experience to come into something that has been truly recreated, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect because we celebrated Easter, new life, in our new church,” said Father Joe Raeke, the church’s pastor.

“There’s an increase in the number of people coming to the church, and it’s symbolic of the new life in the parish,” he added. “The people now have a great sense of pride in their church.”

Father Raeke said it was apparent after he became pastor of St. Thomas Parish at the end of July 2005 that the church needed to be renovated. The church, built in 1848, had cracks in the walls, falling plaster and several layers of old shag carpeting in the sanctuary.

The parishioners had already updated the basement chapel, doing all the work themselves, and expressed a desire to renovate the upper church, he said.

“The condition of the church was very disheartening,” said Beth Peterson, a St. Thomas parishioner.

“It wasn’t a joyful place to worship,” agreed fellow parishioner Kerry Campbell. “The renovation of the church is a symbol for what people in the community are feeling. What we see is a reflection of the hope we feel.”

Father Raeke appointed a committee to plan the renovation. Initially, the committee planned to merely repaint the dark brown and tan walls, but it became apparent that more work needed to be done. The acoustic ceiling was to be taken down as well as non-functional organ pipes that covered stained glass windows in the choir loft. New walls would need to be placed over the old cracked ones, he said.

And once it was determined that the pews would have to be removed to allow for the placement of scaffolding, the committee decided to replace them as well. The center aisle of the church had been quite narrow and difficult for funerals and weddings.

There was also no entryway, and all doors led directly into the church. The committee decided to build a narthex, which necessitated rebuilding the stairs leading into the building.

“Each thought brought it to a more complete version of what we needed to do,” Father Raeke said.

While the parish did get permission from the Archdiocese of Boston to use some preexisting funds for renovation, the project was estimated to require an additional $100,000. Father Raeke approached the parishioners, asking them to give what they could afford. Some gave twice the recommended amount to pay for the share of those who could not afford to help, he said.

In order to save money, the parish acquired and restored items from closed parishes that were being held at St. William Parish in Dorchester. They included the Stations of the Cross, an altar, a large crucifix, a pedestal and tabernacle, a statue of the Virgin Mary and holy water fonts, he said.

“Those religious articles are going to inspire the people, just in a different location,” he said.

The renovation began on Jan. 10 this year and was completed in three months. In the meantime, Masses were held in the basement chapel — but each week Father Raeke brought interested parishioners upstairs to view the progress.

“I wanted them to feel like this is our church. This is what we’re doing together,” he said.”

Father Raeke gives credit to the dedicated parishioners who not only donated money but their time as well. They painted, planned and helped hire contractors, he said.

“Whatever he needs doing, I’m a carpenter — retired,” said Aime Vacher, who assisted with the basement renovation.

The parishioners give the credit back to their pastor.

“The new priest is what’s done it,” said Vacher’s wife Kathy.

Campbell said the new church is stunning.

“I’m very impressed, and more so by Father Joe’s leadership. He’s a gift,” she said.

The final part was the installation of the new pews. The men came to install them on April 4, the Tuesday before Holy Week.

“I thought they were going to come with assembled pews that they would screw into the floor. The pews all came in parts,” said Father Raeke.

On the morning of the Palm Sunday Vigil, the men were busy installing the kneelers and parishioners began to help them. As Father Raeke and the worshippers processed into the church with their palms, the men were taking their tools back out to their truck, he added.

The church walls are now sky blue and there is a beautiful painting behind the altar of clouds and a dove depicting the Holy Spirit. The new pews are comfortably cushioned and there are new light fixtures. The room is light and airy — not at all like the dark and damaged space once called “disheartening.”

“It truly was a labor of love that was shared by the people of the parish working together for the glory of God,” said Father Raeke. “It really is a success story. What we did here other churches can do.”