Hampton parish builds new sanctuary stone by stone


HAMPTON — The sanctuary of St. Mary Church has undergone a dramatic transformation recently. A major component in the change, a “Mary and children of the world” sculpture, was dedicated by Bishop Robert J. Baker in a July 17 ceremony.

Prior to the renovation, the sanctuary of St. Mary’s was very simple. Green oilcloth covered the back wall which featured a crucifix bleached out by 40 years of sun beaming in through an overhead skylight. Recessed into the wall was a small tabernacle painted green to match the background.

Oblate Father Michael Hussey, pastor, felt the sanctuary lacked any particular theme or beauty. He vowed that before he left, he would make every effort to find a way to instill beauty and inspiration worthy of the parish and its people.

For three years Father Hussey searched books, shrines, magazines and catalogues, trying to find the right image of Mary. He examined tapestries, paintings, mosaics, and sculptures. Finally, in March 1999, Father Hussey came upon a sculpture entitled “Mary and the children of the world,” produced by Demetz study in Italy, which he hoped would be pleasing to all.

Thought then had to be given to what the final project would look like and what other materials would be needed. After several sketches, Father Hussey settled upon earth tones in natural materials. The sculpture, to be a relief over six feet high, would also be done in fiberglass rather than wood for reasons of durability, weight, and cost. The background would be in Georgia marble surrounded by individual pieces of Carolina river rock.

Father Hussey, who had done a considerable amount of tile setting in his seminary days, thought the job within his abilities. It would also help save several hundred dollars on the project. The main expense would be the sculpture  $4,750.

Armed with an estimate and preliminary drawings, Father Hussey presented his ideas to the St. Mary’s congregation. They accepted, and benefactors stepped forward. Parishioner Ruth O’Malley and her 13 children began a memorial fund in November 1998 after the death of their husband and father, John O’Malley, and they decided to fund the Marian project.

In July, the sculpture was ordered through Tonini Church Supply in Louisville, Ky., and the pastor began constructing the backdrop. Carolina river rock was sorted, washed, and set in a grout mixture of cement and epoxy. Each square foot section took about an hour to complete.

Stones were elicited from parishioners, and they brought them from home sites, farms, and other significant locations. The stones in the backdrop come from Assisi, Italy; the Holy Land; the Mediterranean Sea; and a stone from the beach during the Normandy invasion. These were put up in sections on plywood and bolted into the wall. The Georgia polished marble was set after the rock wall was in place. As the project neared the ceiling, electricians were called to install new Halogen lighting.

The crucifix, original to the church, was in need of refinishing. John Silva, a portrait artist in Tampa, Fla., agreed to refinish the corpus, and Bob DeLoach refinished the wood. Afterwards, the cross was suspended at an angle, giving the impression of looking down upon the altar and the sculpture of Mary and the children.

A new tabernacle was designed by Father Hussey for the renovated sanctuary. Once again, he chose natural regional materials. Carolina oak and Georgia marble were used with tempered glass in front and on top to allow light to enter and illuminate the ciborium. The tabernacle was fabricated by Jones Cabinet Shop in Ridgeland and is suspended on the right side of the sanctuary.

It was donated by Edward Prokup in memory of his wife, and the new ciborium and matching chalice was given by the Miglarese family and Owens family of St. Mary’s.

During the Hurricane Floyd evacuation, Bishop Baker was detoured by state police and ended up in Hampton. Seeing the scaffolding and work in progress, he asked if he could bless it when the dedication was scheduled, affirming the pride of the parish in their unique project.