Cedar Rapids church's renovation 'raises your spirits'

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids holds open house

Parishioners and visitors celebrate the Mass in the sanctuary of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, December 2, 2017. It was the first time Mass was celebrated in the church sanctuary since it underwent massive renovations in May, which included restoring the original floors and repainting the ceilings and walls. (KC McGinnis / For The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — For the first time since May, parishioners at one of the city’s oldest Catholic churches celebrated Mass in the sanctuary this weekend instead of the church hall.

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 857 Third Ave. SE, held an open house, ice cream social and Mass on Saturday so parishioners could see the result of renovations that had relegated them to the hall deep in the building.

People turned out in droves, happy to be back in the sanctuary before Christmas. The opening coincides with the new liturgical — or religious calendar — year for Catholics.

“Everybody’s well ready to see what the church looks like and we’re tired of being in the hall,” said the Rev. Christopher Podhajsky.

Immaculate Conception was started in 1858, but the current building on Third Avenue SE was not built until 1915. Over the years, water leaks damaged the plaster arches and a mural on the ceiling, and the space was dim.

The church took on the renovation after parishioners decided in a survey, sent out in summer 2016, that new paint and plaster were musts for the sanctuary.

A fundraising committee raised about $1.6 million for the renovation.

Parishioner Beth Orth oversaw the project.

Attendees over the weekend were able to compare the changes to the sanctuary with a large print of a picture taken before renovation.

Columns were given a faux marble finish. The pews, original to the church, were given a new finish and 12 more were ordered for more seating. The plaster was redone and three murals near the front were repainted on the ceiling.

Orth said a painting crew created a scaffolding at the top of a ledge on the church walls, above the windows. The crew reached the top of the ceiling — still 23 feet from the scaffolding — to paint it a powder blue color. Another section was painted a dark blue with gold stars.

The color scheme of blue and beige — associated with Saint Mary — reflects the church’s mission as a Marian Catholic church, which holds a special devotion for the Virgin Mary.

Additionally, dark green carpeting was torn out to reveal an original terrazzo floor in shades of light and dark gray, green and red with minuscule marble tile trim that was laid by hand in 1915.

The wood trim on the German stained glass windows was painted a deep charcoal.

But the best feature may be the pendant lights, Orth said. They were original to the building, but were taken out in the 1970s and stored in the parish’s school basement. By the 1980s, the school was going to be torn down and the church auctioned off some items. A church member bought the lights and stored them until a few months ago when he brought them back to be used in the renovation.

The lights originally were gas lamps and had been converted to electric. They were again converted to LED lights and brighten the sanctuary more than ever, Orth said.

This winter, Orth said, the church hopes to add handicap-accessible bathrooms near the main room for many elderly members.

“A lot of our parishioners were born here, raised here,” Orth said. “It means a lot to people. They’ve really done what Father’s asked and taken this into their prayers and given financially.”

Podhajsky said the renovation is especially important to some who have had family attend the church since the 19th century, such as Pat Geraghty. Geraghty’s mother, Imelda Geraghty, was a member since she was born in 1909. The 75-year-old was also baptized in the church in 1942.

The renovation “is long past due,” he said. “Thank God, Father was willing to take on the task and raise the money. There was a real concern because it’s an old, old church, and a lot of parishioners are elderly here. It’s very exciting for them to have this done and get it back to the way it was years ago.”

The renovation helps to serve the sanctuary’s architecture better by drawing focus to the pulpit and to the ceiling, Podhajsky said.

“The church is trying to express two things: our love for God and in reverse, God’s love for us. This building takes you forward, and it takes you up, closer to God. The result of that is it raises your spirits,” he said.

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