After about 19 years of anticipation, Blessed Sacrament Church on East Highland Drive in Jonesboro officially became a house of God.
There has been sadness, saying goodbye to the old church building filled with 84 years of sacramental memories. But along with letting go is an anticipation of a new beginning, hope of the Holy Spirit filling each person who walks through the new doors with graces that will change their lives.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor dedicated Blessed Sacrament Church at the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass, Jan. 13 at their new location.
Pastor Father Alphonse Gollapalli said following the Mass that the day was “filled with joy.”
“This is a process where brick after brick is to be constructed. Our spiritual life is a process where we grow step by step,” Father Alphonse said, adding that the spiritual similarities between the two have “taught me personally and as a parish.”
The opening hymn “All Are Welcome,” set the tone for the Mass. An English and Spanish speaker explained various parts of the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar to all visitors and parishioners, which included incense, oils, dressing the altar and lighting the candles once the altar is anointed. The architectural plans and keys to the church were given to the bishop and in turn given to Father Gollapalli, as applause filled the sanctuary.
“It might breathe a new life into some of them, a new life spiritually,” said Martha Bartels, building committee communications chairwoman. “We’re hoping people that weren’t as active come and see the new church.”
For most of the Mass, the altar lights were off until Bishop Taylor anointed the altar with chrism and four priests -- Father Gollapalli, associate pastor Father Francis Madanu and former pastors Father Jack Vu and Father Bill Elser -- blessed four corners of the church, meant to signify the four Gospels.
Once the altar was dressed, the candles were lit and the lights turned on, illuminating the tabernacle.
“I’m overwhelmed and I absolutely was brought to tears when they put the lights on,” said 12-year parishioner Sharon Aleman, who sat in one of the front pews. She and her husband John had been attending Blessed John Newman University Parish, one of the locations parishioners could attend Mass during construction process began in the fall 2017.
Most parishioners saw the inside of the newly constructed 15,000-square-foot building for the first time walking into Mass. There are 1,400 families who attend Blessed Sacrament.
“I’m a hands-on kind of gal. I’ve got to see it,” Sharon Aleman explained, saying that outside construction photos didn’t do it justice.
For most of the Mass, Maria Gaytan held her young daughter, Maria Jose Lopez. Her husband, Porfirio Lopez said they’ve been members of the church for 18 years.
“It’s great. It’s so emotional,” he said of finally being in the sanctuary.
The pews for 550 people were filled, along with overflow chairs in the entrance. Faithful parishioners lined the sides of the sanctuary and stood at the entrance during the three-hour Mass to witness the next step in their history.
“It’s stunning, outstanding, beautiful,” said Matthew Kraus, 41, who was standing with his 8-year-old son Evan. A member since he was 13, he said he’s been supportive of the move. “I think for me, it’s God’s house wherever he makes it. If he wanted to move, we’ll move. It’s what’s up there that counts to me,” looking toward the tabernacle.
Clad in a matching silver bow tie with his father, Evan Kraus said the stained-glass windows were his favorite part of the new parish. The windows were refurbished and brought to the new church, including pews, the organ, Stations of the Cross, the foundation stone, bells and the cross at the top of the church. His father motioned to the various statues, including Mary and Joseph, and how they were also at the old church, but newly restored thanks to Sister Deborah Coffey. “Oh yeah, they were,” a wide-eyed Evan said.
In 1905, the Benedictines of Holy Angels Convent built a chapel where local Catholics attended Mass before a church could be built in 1933 at 614 S. Church Street. The parish thrived at the location, but only seated 360 people.
The 20-acre East Highland Drive property was purchased in 2000. In 2003, the Knights of Columbus Hall was built and the school in 2011. It wasn’t until 2017 that the parish was able to begin moving, thanks to St. Bernards Medical Center buying the two-and-a-half acre property for $3.5 million in 2015. The sale was approved by the Vatican in November 2015.
On Oct. 1, 2017, the church building was decommissioned during a final Mass led by Bishop Taylor. It was demolished, allowing St. Bernard to begin building a surgical and intensive care tower, part of a $130-million master plan started in 2015.
The church project cost $8.2 million, which included construction, architecture and landscaping, said parishioner Louis Schaaf who along with Father Gollapalli led the 14-member building committee. Between the sale, a capital campaign and other fundraising, costs were covered and nothing was borrowed from the diocese, Schaaf said.
“We started every day adoration. That power of that prayer had more to do with the success of this church than anything we could have done … That was an exciting part and it’s the part that humbles me,” Schaaf said. “We have an adoration chapel now in the new church and we’ll continue our prayers. That led to the success of this project.”
The original drawings of the neo-classical church would have seated 800, but Schaaf it would have been an almost $13 million project.
“It had everything you’d ever want, but that’s the way you always start out a project,” he said.
Adam Seiter, senior project manager with Nabholz Construction and parishioner for the past 13 years, said “you don’t get to build Catholic churches every day.”
“The biggest challenge was that this is more of a home to me than the house I go home to every night,” Seiter said, and “trying not to get overly upset about every little thing that goes wrong on a construction project.”
Lydia Fitzgerald, 35, has attended Blessed Sacrament since she was about 8 years old.
“It looks a lot like the old church. You go to some churches that are so techy, but you go here and it feels like God’s here,” she said.
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