A new era for St. Mary Help of Christians

AIKEN—A fresh era for the faithful in Aiken started with the dedication of the new St. Mary Help of Christians Church on Feb. 2.

IMG_2176-editThe larger church is much needed and a long-time dream come true. Parishioners at St. Mary Help of Christians have been attending Mass in the family life center at nearby St. Angela Hall for nearly 10 years, since they outgrew the old church built in 1905 and located nearby on Park Avenue. The parish currently has more than 1,800 households.

Hundreds of people, many of them bundled in heavy coats and scarves, braved gusting winds and frigid temperatures to stand outside for the beginning of the ceremony,which started with the rosary.A group of musicians and singers performed hymns in Spanish.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone and more than 30 visiting priests processed from St. Angela Hall across the street and up to the front of the church. The group included Father James LeBlanc, former pastor at St. Mary, and two priests who grew up in the Aiken parish, Father Andrew Trapp and Msgr. Richard D. Harris, vicar general for the diocese.

They were flanked by dozens of Knights of Columbus and men and women from the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

The bishop looked around, taking in the large crowd before making some brief remarks. He summed up the attitude of many in attendance with one simple sentence, “Brothers and sisters, this is a day of rejoicing!”

IMG_2285-editBishop Guglielmone accepted a copy of the building plans and the church key.

He and Father Gregory Wilson, St. Mary’s pastor, knocked on the door, unlocked it and a ribbon was cut.

To spiraling organ music and the voices of a choir, the crowd streamed down the aisle into their new place of worship, many looking up and smiling at the soaring ceilings, elegant gray walls, and dramatic marble altar.

The church holds about 970 people, but organizers estimated about 1,200 attended the ceremony. People stood along the sides of the aisles and were lined up in the back.

During the Rite of Dedication, Bishop Guglielmone deposited relics of saints within the altar, anointed the altar and walls with oil, incensed the altar and inaugurated the tabernacle.

In his homily, the bishop reflected on the fact that the dedication coincided with the feast of Christ’s presentation in the temple.

He said just as Jesus’ parents presented him to God on that day, it was fitting that St. Mary’s community was dedicating their new church to God.

IMG_2447-edit-CMYK“What a beautiful place this is, and it has been long awaited,” he said. “Mary presenting the Lord to God and God’s people on this day is a beautiful image of what is happening here. This ceremony is a sign of St. Mary Help of Christians’ presence in the community. Because of this church, people will come here to seek the very presence of God in their lives through the Mass, to repent from their sins, to pray. Those whose hearts and minds are open to Him will be transformed.”

At the end of the Mass, Father Wilson told the congregation how important gratitude was on this special occasion.

“Our parish first and foremost needs to be thankful to God, and also to our patroness the Blessed Mother, who continues to point the way toward her Son,” he said.

The new church cost $8.9 million to build and was designed by architect James McCrery of Washington, D.C., who wanted to reflect classic architecture as well as the historic nature of downtown Aiken in his design. Construction was done by RW Allen of Augusta.

McCrery’s dedication to classic influence is evident throughout the structure. One of the most dramatic elements is a baldacchino in front of the altar that reaches toward the ceiling. It is made of wood that is painted to resemble tricolor marble. A baldacchino is a canopy of state over an altar and is frequently seen in older European churches. Janet Morris, director of facilities at St. Mary Help of Christians, said the structure in the new church is also called a ciborium.

IMG_2436Work by local and regional artists is prominent throughout the space. The statues of Peter and Paul which flank the altar were made by Nick Ring, a sculptor who runs Ring Studio in Greenville. All of the metal work, including hanging lanterns and the gilded cross and two finials on the steeple, were created by David Cianni of Aiken. Painted rondels that show different symbols of the Blessed Mother that hang on the walls were crafted by Aiken artist Alice Judd. A bronze statue of St. Joseph commissioned for a shrine on the right side of the sanctuary is being made by Susie Chisholm of Savannah.

“We’re so blessed to have local artists, people here not just in Aiken but around the state whose talents and gifts have had such an impact on this project,” Morris said.

Ernie Chaput, a long-time parishioner who served as chairman for the building committee, said the new church is the result of many years of work and prayer.

“We all felt like we wanted to take the time and do this right, because you don’t get many opportunities to build a proper church,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it truly was a church that would last the parish for the ages, and that’s what we have. It was a privilege to be part of building this very beautiful edifice.”