After three years of renovations to accommodate a growing Catholic community, St. Barbara Church in De Queen is ready to hold Mass in the new parish building. The culmination of these renovations was the new altar dedication by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor Sept. 2.
Previous pastors in the church, including Msgr. Scott Friend, Father Juan Manjarrez, Father Ruben Quinteros and Father Joseph de Orbegozo, were in attendance, as well as Carmelite sisters.
Pastor Father Ramsés Mendieta said renovations started in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic. The former church building was constructed in 1975 and could only accommodate 180 people. During the 1990s, the Latino community began to grow in Sevier County, settling at St. Barbara. From 1999 to 2000, the community at St. Barbara built a large, multipurpose building to be used as a parish center where retreats and potlucks could be held. As the Latino community continued growing, Spanish Mass was moved to the parish center, while English Mass was held in the church. But the community continued to grow.
“Recently, we have had a great influx of people at the English Mass … and so we moved all Masses to the pastoral center,” Father Mendieta said. “We have about 1,200 people showing up between all three Masses that we have on Sundays.”
With the larger parish center serving as the worship space for all Masses, the community decided to permanently convert the parish center into a church and is now using the old church for adoration and weekday Masses. Parishioners hope to launch a project in the future to construct a new building with offices and classrooms to function as a parish center.
More than $150,000 was spent on renovations, including installing a new altar from Ecuador, replacing wooden platforms with concrete slabs to accommodate the heavier altar and a new back altar. The flooring was also replaced with marble, and the parish is in the process of launching a campaign for new seating for the congregation.
The church also purchased new sacred artwork and crucifix. Father Mendieta said converting the parish center into a “more sacred space” was more economically feasible than building a new church.
“The people have worked so hard through festivals and food sales,” Father Mendieta said. “In recent years we've been trying just to fix things here and there. … We try to take advantage of what we have and try to make it more beautiful, especially for our Masses. I think it's really neat that this is happening at the same time we're having a Eucharistic renewal.”
Parishioners said renovations presented an opportunity to strengthen the parish community. Maggi Sanchez, a lifelong parishioner and youth group leader, said she was excited for the changes.
“We’ve been working for many, many years on trying to get a bigger church because our community is growing,” Sanchez said.
She said the renovations are important for future generations.
“I took my youth group (to see the renovations). We saw the floors being put in, and I could see the excitement in their faces. It’s going to have a big impact on them, because they see how the community is pulling together to make it a better place to worship.”
Erika Hernandez, a catechist for confirmation candidates, said she is grateful that years of planning have finally paid off.
“It’s something that we’ve been looking forward to for many years,” Hernandez said. “It’s been talked over with different priests, but nothing ever really happened until Father Ramsés brought it up in one of our meetings. … He has motivated us. … I think it makes a difference when your priest is passionate about getting something done, and I think it gets everybody in the same mood.”
Hernandez said the renovations have brought the community together.
“We’ve had parishioners that have different talents,” such as carpentry and concrete work, Hernandez said. “It feels like every single person has made some kind of contribution, from moving the old altar to buying food to help us raise money.”
Parishioner Mario Maya said the renovation process hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Getting items shipped in has occasionally led to receiving the wrong materials, shipment delays or materials being incorrectly installed.
“It’s been difficult, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it,” Maya said with a laugh.
But parishioners like Maya have been bolstered by Father Mendieta’s patience throughout the process.
“It’s been hard, but it’s going to be beautiful,” he said. “Everything we’ve gotten so far has been amazing.”
For Maya, working to improve the church is personal.
“I grew up Catholic, and I think those roots ground me … We want to be here, and I want to take care of the building, because to me, it’s like my father’s house.”
Even when challenges arose, Maya’s faith kept him rooted. “When you’ve got roots like that, the tree shakes, but the roots don’t die.”
If renovations were a community effort, installing the altar would be no exception. As the altar made its way through customs, transportation services in Miami were uncertain that they had the equipment to transport the altar. On the Tuesday before the dedication ceremony, Father Mendieta and the Maya family found themselves traveling to Miami, heading straight toward Hurricane Idalia.
Father Mendieta recalled, “We never stopped smiling. We never lost the hope, the joy, that everything was coming together. (Getting the altar in time) was a complete miracle, and I think God was testing our faith in this. The next day … we had the hurricane almost right in front of us. But God protected us — and we formed so many strong bonds. We have a story behind our altar.”
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