Cleo Wenzel
St. Anne, Somerset

Editor’s note: Fr. Joseph Madanu asked parishioner Cleo Wenzel to pen this article for the parish.

Revitalizing the church of St. Anne, Somerset, was a process. Back in 2017, a group of parishioners brought up their dream of restoring this 1917 Italian Romanesque building to match the vision of E. L. Masqueray, the renowned architect.

After learning about the restoration, specialists Conrad Schmitt Studios (the company that the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater, Minnesota, recommended following their recent renovation), St. Anne Parish chose them to create a computer-generated rendition of how the church could be repainted and an approximate price tag. The time, however, wasn’t right to start a capital campaign. A number of parishioners started praying that the renovation could one day happen.

In 2018, air conditioning was donated and installed in the church; Conrad Schmitt Studios had earlier noted that without climate control, any new paint would be preserved for only half as long as it would otherwise.

The idea of renovating the church was once again presented to the pastoral council in 2021. Joe Studnicka, a member of the council, also gave evidence of some crumbling of the outside bricks. He volunteered to serve as an unpaid project manager if the parish decided to make repairs and improvements. Under the direction of parish priest Fr. Joseph Madanu and parish life coordinator Dcn. Larry Amell, a feasibility study was completed, with 400 families participating in the “Celebrating Our Past and Embracing our Future” capital campaign that raised enough money to move forward.

Among the first improvements in 2022 were extensive repairs to the brick work outside. Another firm worked in the attic to spray two inches of a foam vapor barrier insulation to prevent future moisture problems, which had caused large stains on the ceiling, and to increase energy efficiency.

In January 2023, St. Anne Knights of Columbus began transforming the recently vacated food pantry space back into a chapel that adjoined the old convent. On May 1, the church closed for seven months of renovations, with weekday Masses held in the newly renovated chapel and Sunday Masses in the school gym.

Complicating the renovation process was the closure of a bridge over the nearby Apple River and an extensive five months of road construction in front of the church, with detours often changing overnight. St. Anne Parish and the road crew needed to work together to select a date for two semi-trucks of scaffolding to be delivered to the church. (Additional scaffolding had earlier been moved directly to the church from Stillwater’s recently renovated Church of St. Mary.) Pews were soon removed from the church for refinishing and Prime Scaffolding worked for 10 days putting up the scaffolding.

Conrad Schmitt Studios then began the painstaking process of measuring, cleaning, drawing, painting and stenciling in the sanctuary to reflect the theme of the Holy Trinity. It took two weeks for one employee to measure the whole church to locate the centers of everything and mark them with little nails for the painters and stencil artists. He was surprised when the plaster work on the ceiling inside the upper stained- glass windows was inconsistent in size by plus-or-minus six inches, which necessitated some creative painting to disguise the differences.

Another surprising discovery happened when the canvas mural on the ceiling above the altar was removed and the old paint stripped off. The crew found an original painted cross with a lamb inside and angels surrounding it. Conservation varnish was then carefully applied over the top of the antiquated pictures before the new mural work was begun. The canvas mural that was taken down was later divided into two parts and attached to wood backgrounds by a parishioner. They now adorn the gathering space.

Conrad Schmitt’s project manager soon taped several pieces of craft paper to the ceiling above the altar to pencil in pictures of God the Father with several angels among the clouds. His work was later sent to Milwaukee, where a muralist painted the mural in three sections. After these were attached to the ceiling with wallpaper glue, many days were spent painting additional clouds and rays of light. One artist commented that it was difficult to paint the rays of light so they wouldn’t look flat.

Countless stencils were used during the renovation. The plastic 11- by 17-inch stencils used on the ceiling and behind the statues of Mary and Joseph were taped into place, paint was applied, and the stencil was carefully moved to the next section, with the procedure repeated again and again. After the paint was dry, the artists hand-painted any adjustments that were needed. One stencil artist gazed at his work and decided to add gold pinstripes, which greatly enhanced the beauty.

Not only was work done in the main area of church but also in the basement. Part of the kitchen floor was removed and concrete poured to install two new posts to help support the weight of the baldachin (canopy), which stands on columns painted to look like marble. Because of the height of the baldachin columns, a shorter crucifix was purchased that fit the space better. The larger crucifix is now hanging in the vestibule area along with the original statue of St. Anne.

From the nave to the sanctuary is the original birdseye maple floor created from old-growth lumber. A worker stated it was very difficult to sand due to the hardness of the wood, old glue and damage from layers of stain. The original plan called for tile in the sanctuary but when carpet was removed, the wood floors were found worthy of sanding and refinishing. While working on the steps up to the sanctuary, volunteers discovered the original hardware used for the former gate on the communion rail; part of the wood was then chiseled out, with a brass plate added to keep it intact. New kneelers were attached to the refinished pews, and a new sound system, LED lighting and electrical upgrades were made.

Wooden frames were built around the existing Stations of the Cross along the side walls, and a parishioner created wood crosses to hang under each one. After the stenciling was finished, a new statue of Mary and another statue of Joseph holding Jesus were also added to the side altars, to reflect the theme of the Holy Family. These had been created specifically for St. Anne’s from statue molds used in the early 1900s and then painted by a specialist.

Studnicka was pleased that parishioners worked together to assist with removal of the old and installation of the new, plus cleaning and decorating: “It was truly a collaborative effort. Anyone who was asked to help did help. All went exceptionally well, we were under budget, and almost everything was completed two weeks ahead of schedule except for delivery of the furniture.”

The built-in furniture behind the altar arrived one week prior to the rededication and was promptly installed by several parishioners. However, the altar was delayed. Two parishioners spent 10 hours of “white-knuckle driving” through a snowstorm on icy roads to Iowa to load up the altar and bring it back by 8 p.m. the evening before the Mass of Rededication. Conrad Schmitt artists returned in January to paint gold details onto the altar, ambo and built-in furniture.

One observer commented, “All the artists showed incredible attention to detail. They seemed to be in awe of the beautiful painting they had accomplished.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who reflects the glory of God… Genuine sacred art draws us to adoration, to prayer, and to love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.” (CCC 2502)

At the Mass of Rededication on Nov. 26, Fr. Joseph noted that road construction, setting up and tearing down the altar and chairs each week for Mass in the gym, holding confessions in the old convent, and having funerals in neighboring churches were all challenges, but the sacrifices of faithful Catholics will help future generations benefit from the structural and aesthetic improvements.

Now, love for the sacraments and the word of God will again be offered here. He spoke for everyone in proclaiming, “Hurray! We are back in the church now! We are home!”

The restoration and beautification of St. Anne, Somerset, was years in the making. (Submitted photo)