Mother church of Midlands called ‘simply magnificent’



COLUMBIA — The mother church of the Midlands needed a face-lift, so her sons and daughters spared no expense. Sixteen months later, on Dec. 23, when the bishop of Charleston came to consecrate her new altar, he declared; “This church is so beautiful, I’m sure when the Holy Father hears about it he’ll want to come back for another visit.”

Pope John Paul II’s ecumenical prayer service at St. Peter’s Church in 1987 was but one item in the 180-year history of the parish. Parishioners call the church “A jewel to be treasured,” but the gem needed polishing.

“Four years ago, we (the parish) started to realize that the church itself needed major repairs. It’s a venerable kind of building and very dear to us,” said Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, pastor. “We spent a year ‘in conversation’ about what to do and arrived at a broad consensus. First of all, we wanted to make sure we put it in such shape that it would be appropriate for all the needs of the present liturgy. But we wanted to do that using the architectural forms and elements that are integral to the building itself.”

The gothic-styled Frank Milburn building was constructed in 1906-1908 for a total cost of $60,506, including organ and all furnishings; the 2000-2001 renovation cost $2 million. The parishioners of St. Peter’s Church ripped out the floor and replaced the oak, tore off the roof and replaced the slate; they put in new air conditioning and sound systems, replaced and rewired every light and electrical fixture; they plastered and painted and applied gold leaf; they sealed the exterior brick, replaced copper guttering and recased all the stained glass windows. Tyler Construction, the firm that did the massive renovation, shored up the heart pine beams below the floor and built a catwalk system above the 45-foot ceiling so that workmen can now reach every light from above, according to Steve Stewart, construction supervisor for Tyler. He said that the amount of work necessary to bring the old place up to code and the time constraints imposed by a faith community that was displaced to what is a essentially a cafeteria fashioned a potentially explosive mixture. The explosion never happened.

“The catwalk alone took a full truckload of lumber, but these people were so appreciative that it made our jobs easier. I felt less stress here than on most construction jobs,” Stewart said.

That appreciation was earned, Msgr. Lehocky said, and worked both ways: “They just poured their heart and soul into the work. They took this on as an act of love and devotion, really.”

While the repair work was underway, the parish commissioned marble work from Carrera, Italy, including a new tabernacle tower that incorporates life-sized angels from the old altar, an elegant pulpit and an altar that uses the church’s original Last Supper sculpture for its façade. But the sanctuary was moved forward and refurbished pews installed around it, and the three original altar apses were re-created as devotional shrines. The baptismal font was placed back at the rear of the church.

“When my daughter, who is 30, was baptized, the font was here. Now it’s back again,” said 35-year parishioner Gloria Washington. “There were some changes made, but I can accept change. The church looks beautiful.”

Washington’s opinion of the final product was common among the worshippers when the church interior finally reopened after being shuttered since Jan. 6, 2001. Sister Helen Chatterton, assistant administrator at St. Peter’s, said that parishioners are amazed at the way things turned out.

One reason for both the speechlessness and the words of awe is ceiling art and other decorative painting by Christian Thee and Associates. Walnut and maple inlays accent the oak flooring in the same floral styling as the Thee dome mural. The artist also repainted the original Stations of the Cross in a style that emphasizes a three-dimensional look. Bishop Robert J. Baker called the newly renovated church “a temple of grandeur and splendor.”

The bishop gave the homily before consecrating the altar on Dec. 23. He referred to the main charisms of the St. Peter community, outreach and ecumenism. Quoting the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s admonition to the parishes of his Rochester Diocese to “fulfill the double commandment of serving God and neighbor,” Bishop Baker praised the Columbia parish for its charitable efforts. Those efforts include an active St. Vincent de Paul Society, the famous Thanksgiving feast at the USC Coliseum, a Christmas day dinner for the poor and homeless, weekly contributions to the Oliver Gospel Mission across Assembly Street from the church and daily assistance to the homeless.

“The archbishop rightly wanted the church to look out for the poor in its midst, the way Christ did, the way St. Peter’s parish is doing today,” he said.

Bishop Baker finished by congratulating Msgr. Lehocky and his parishioners and thanking Tyler Construction, Thee, liturgical consultant John Buscemi, and the architectural firm The Boudreaux Group. A reception followed.